I decided to do something of a Middle Eastern theme for today’s double feature, consisting of two films I had heard a great deal of positive press about and had been wanting to see for ages. The first is a surreal torture-fest from Turkey, the second a more traditional metaphorical ghost story with an Iranian-born director and an international production team hailing from Qatar, Jordan, and the UK. So let’s get started.
Imagine, if you will, a bizarre, hyper-gory, Turkish-flavored version of Hellraiser, but filtered through the surrealist sensibilities of a hypothetical love child of Dario Argento and David Lynch, and you might come close to getting an idea of the vibe of the 2015 flick Baskin (whose title loosely translates to “raid” or “descent,” either of which fits in with the theme of the story, at least as I was able to puzzle it out).
While I admit I didn’t have much of an idea what in the hell was going on most of the time, there was something queasily alluring in its dreamlike narrative that just kind of sucked me in and kept me watching as the thing got weirder and weirder and sicker and sicker. Since I deliberately refrained from reading any reviews before I watched it, I really had no idea what it was about or where it was going, and I think that definitely made me intensely curious about what weird shit was gonna happen next.
Heavily symbolic and very deliberately paced, I can see this movie just pissing some people off for taking a while to get where it’s going and for “making no sense,” and while I do respect that as a valid complaint, I don’t think a pat, open and shut plot was really what first-time feature-film director Can Evrenol (who expanded Baskin from his own 2013 short film) was shooting for, which is a good thing, because this is one strange-ass movie, to put it mildly.
The film opens with a creepy, unexplained sequence in which a little boy is awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a woman (his mother?) in the next room having sex (or perhaps being brutalized; this isn’t clear). The noise stops, abruptly, after which the boy goes out to the living room and sees that the TV is on, showing nothing but static. He then looks back down the hall into his room, seeing that the light has turned red. He looks terrified, and starts banging at his mother’s bedroom door, but there is no answer, and in the next moment, an arm emerges from the darkness and snatches him.
After this intriguing setup, we are introduced to the movie’s main characters; they are five cops, sitting in a run-down old restaurant in the middle of the night and out in the middle of nowhere. They’re all shooting the shit, betting on soccer games and joking with each other about their sexual encounters with both animals and hookers. They are Boss Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu), Yavuz (Muharrem Bayrak), Apo (Fatih Dokgöz), young rookie cop Arda (Gorkem Kasal), who we later learn is the grown-up version of the boy at the beginning of the movie, and Seyfi (Sabahattin Yakut), who seems to be feeling unwell and refrains from participating in all the banter.
Throughout this entire scene, strange little details put the viewer on edge. An unidentified person in a hooded robe carries a bucket that appears to have some bits of bloody meat in it to the back of the diner, and the cook puts the (human?) meat on the grill. Seyfi runs to the bathroom to throw up, and sees a frog in the soap dish, after which the hooded figure is briefly seen behind him. He screams, but after a few minutes he’s fine, telling his fellow cops that he just thought he was losing his mind for a second. The loudmouthed and bravado-packed Yavuz tries to start a fight with the waiter for implying that he’s gay, even though moments before he told the story of going to a hotel with a prostitute who looked like a Victoria’s Secret model, finding out it was a dude, then having sex with him anyway.
Eventually, the cops, who are working the night shift and clearly bored as hell, pile into their cop van and start driving down the desolate rural road, singing along to a pop song on the stereo and generally having a grand old time. Then a garbled message comes over the radio, calling for backup at a place called Inceagac (the crime code is given as a 4455, but I don’t know what that signifies in Turkey, and Googling it gave me bupkis). Seyfi, who is driving, says he’s heard of the place and it isn’t far away, but he also makes some vague pronouncements that he’s heard a lot of bad shit about it, though he notes that there are three shrines there.
Even though Seyfi insists he knows where Inceagac is, they keep driving and he can’t find the turn-off, even though they should have passed it by now, and then he sees a naked man dart in front of the van and disappear into the woods. They stop the van and pile out to find the guy, but can’t, and then they notice all these weird scratches that kinda look like symbols etched into the side of the van. They also see a whole shit-ton of frogs on the side of the road, a rather unsettling sight. Eventually they get back on the road, but they haven’t gone very far before they actually hit what appears to be a bloody figure who looms in front of them, and the van crashes into a stream.
It’s here where the movie really begins to fuck with reality. Just after the wreck, we’re suddenly back in the restaurant again. Boss Remzi and Arda are at the table, while the other guys quietly watch TV across the room. It comes to light that Arda’s parents died when he was young, and that Boss Remzi essentially adopted Arda at the request of Arda’s uncle.
Arda then tells a story about a recurring nightmare he has, which relates back to the sequence at the beginning of the film. He says that when he was a child, he and his friend promised each other that whichever of them died first would appear to the other, but without scaring them. Arda then tells Boss Remzi about the dream at the beginning of the movie, and specifies that when he looked back into his room and saw the red light, he knew that his friend was in there and he didn’t want to see him. He then says he woke up, but was still in a dream, and then he says that the next day he found out that his friend really had died the night he first had the nightmare.
The restaurant then starts to fill up with some black fluid that comes out from beneath Arda’s hands and drips down from the ceiling. This was actually my favorite scene in the film; it reminded me strongly of the infamous Winkie’s Diner sequence from Mulholland Drive, and had the same sort of eerie, unmoored-from-reality quality. In parts, the whole film also reminded me a bit of Adobe James’s short story “The Road to Mictlantecutli,” which was in an anthology I wrote about here.
But then we’re back in the wrecked van, and everyone has gotten out of the crash just fine, but then they come across an encampment of gypsy-type folk who have a bucket of frogs (like you do) and are sitting around a fire kinda laughing at the cops, sarcastically taunting them about the accident. A little girl bangs a spoon on a pot and says something to them, but I don’t know what it was because there were, cleverly, no subtitles at that point. The cops ask if these people know where Inceagac is, and they say it’s just through the woods, so the cops set out on foot, with one of the guys from the encampment leading the way.
Once they reach their destination, which is a huge abandoned building that the gypsy guy says used to be a police station and then a stable, they see another police car with its lights flashing out front, though there is no sign of the cops who called for backup and the radio isn’t working. The five cops troop into the building, and end up walking straight into Hell; in other words, this is where the Hellraiser/torture-porn part of the movie begins, though it still retains its surrealist, dreamlike, overlapping timeline deal throughout.
In short, the building appears to be home to a sort of sadomasochistic and cannibalistic cult that seems to worship the man in the hooded robe from earlier. When this particular individual finally reveals himself, he is SUPER freaky looking. He’s essentially what it would look like if Michael Berryman and Rondo Hatton somehow had a baby who was also a roided-out little person doing partial Yoda cosplay. This person is known as Baba, is festooned with padlock jewelry, has a tattoo of a keyhole in the middle of his forehead, and proceeds to do all kinds of nasty things to our “heroes,” under the guise of shepherding them into Hell, or enlightenment, or something. Eyes are gouged out and then the empty sockets are tongue-kissed, intestines are yanked out, Yavuz is forced to have sex with a woman with a goat head, after which she squats and gives birth to what appears to be a stone fetus. It gets weird, and gross, and fairly WTF.
Throughout all this, Arda is somehow still going back and forth between the situation they’re in and the diner scene with him and Boss Remzi, and I’m not really sure if everything in this sequence is a collective hallucination, if they all died at some earlier point, if this is all happening in Arda’s dreams, or what. A whole “caught in a time loop” angle is suggested by what happens at the very end (when — very late spoiler alert — it’s revealed that Arda was actually the bloody person that the cop van hit before crashing into the stream), but it isn’t really explained why these particular men were singled out in this way, if they were being punished for something (and really only Yavuz was a mouthy, abusive asshole; the others were mostly inoffensive, and Arda and Boss Remzi were actually pretty nice guys), or if it was something they all imagined. I’m operating under the assumption that the restaurant at the beginning was supposed to be purgatory, and the choices the characters made along the way eventually led them into Hell, but I could be wrong about that.
There is also Arda’s character, who is obviously “special” in some way, as much is made of his psychic dreams, and Boss Remzi makes several references to him having known about all this stuff (i.e. Hell and the Devil) since he was a child. It’s also Arda who ultimately ends up defeating Baba, by inserting a key (which he pulls out of the slashed throat of the dying Boss Remzi) into the keyhole tattoo on Baba’s forehead.
After I watched the movie, I was intrigued enough to do a bit of research about it to see if I could figure out some of the symbolism, and I came across a theory that seemed pretty spot-on: that the entire thing was based on Zoroastrian myth about the crossing of the Bridge of Judgment into the realm of the dead, with the arm at the beginning belonging to a child-snatching nightmare demon named Taram Baba, the abandoned building being a type of Hell called the House of Lies, and Arda representing a savior figure who ultimately frees the souls of the other cops from the purgatorial loop they all found themselves caught in.
It was a nightmarish experience, to say the least, and while I’m not going to pretend I knew exactly what the meaning of it was, I got enough of the gist to enjoy the ride, and it’s definitely a movie that I think will get better with multiple viewings, since it’s so threaded with metaphor and significant imagery. Though it borrows generously from a bunch of other films, notably Hellraiser, Hostel, Suspiria and Inferno (particularly in the color palette), The Beyond, Carnival of Souls, Lost Highway, Martyrs, and A Serbian Film, it’s still a pretty original take on the genre, and it was really cool to see a horror film from a country that doesn’t make a lot of them (or at least doesn’t make many that get U.S. releases). Recommended if you like surrealistic gore flicks with something of an eerie, slow-burn vibe and if you can handle not having everything explained.
Next up is 2016’s Under the Shadow, the directorial debut of Iranian-born Brit Babak Anvari. It’s a far more low-key piece than Baskin, playing something like a Middle Eastern version of The Babadook cross-bred with The Devil’s Backbone and Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, but it’s a fantastic, spooky tale laden with subtext and peppered with unsettling images.
The film is set in Tehran in 1988 during the long-running Iran-Iraq War. Main protagonist Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a thoroughly modern, Westernized woman who, at the beginning of the movie, gets kicked out of medical school for her involvement in leftist politics during the Cultural Revolution. Her dreams of becoming a doctor dashed, she also has to deal with her physician husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) thinking that maybe it’s all for the best, telling her that maybe now she can focus more on caring for their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh bristles with resentment at being forced into a more traditional female role that she never wanted, and although she clearly loves her family, she begins to take her frustrations out on them, as well as pouring her energies into endless aerobics undertaken in front of an illegal, bootlegged Jane Fonda workout video.
As the war drags on, Iraj is forced to the front lines to tend to the wounded; if he doesn’t go, he will lose his license to practice. Shideh is doubly irritated that she is now obligated to care for Dorsa all on her own, but she stubbornly refuses to go to Iraj’s parents house for support and relative safety from air raids, insisting that she and Dorsa will be just fine staying in their own home.
But shortly after Iraj leaves, Dorsa begins to complain about hearing noises in the house, and she later tells her mother that a mute neighbor kid, Mehdi (Karam Rashayda) has told her that there is an evil djinn haunting the building. Shideh has no patience with fairy tales, and angrily tells Mehdi’s caretakers (who took him in after his parents were killed in the war) to have the child stop telling her daughter scary stories. The neighbors, though, are traditional Muslims, and believe that djinn are real.
The creep factor really begins to ramp up after their apartment building is hit by a missile, which fails to explode but causes some significant damage. Shideh is called to help one of the neighbors who has had a heart attack, but he dies anyway, and the guilt begins to get to her. During all the hubbub, Dorsa loses her beloved doll, Kimia, which was ostensibly protecting her from the djinn, and then Dorsa starts getting ill, contracting a fever that won’t go away, losing her appetite, and having trouble sleeping.
As the film goes on, the child becomes convinced that the djinn took Kimia and she needs to go up to the fourth floor to save her. The building begins to empty out, as neighbors flee the war-torn city for safer locales, until eventually only Shideh and Dorsa remain. Meanwhile, Shideh starts seeing glimpses of creepy shit too, but for a long time she refuses to believe that the haunting is really happening. The cracks in the walls and ceilings of the apartment, much like in Dark Water, reflect the cracks appearing in Shideh’s belief system as well as her relationship with her daughter.
The great thing about Under the Shadow is that, like The Babadook, the story can be enjoyed simply as an eerie supernatural horror flick, or as a multilayered metaphor. Clearly, the character of Shideh is having a hard time accepting that the (traditional, fairy-tale) haunting is real in much the same way that she does not want to accept that the war and the creeping sharia law taking over her country is real, and as I said, she fights against the suffocating forces of traditionalism by lashing out at her husband and, particularly, her child, both of whom represent a female’s hated traditional role. Shideh is trying to hang on to all the rights and privileges of the normal life she previously enjoyed, even as they are slipping away from her. This is amply illustrated by a great scene near the end of the film where Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees from the apartment after seeing the djinn, only to be caught by police out in the street and arrested because she failed to cover her head. She is then berated by the morality police because, according to them, a woman should be more afraid of being exposed in public than anything else, even, the unspoken subtext implies, murderous djinn.
Thematically, it is also significant that the djinn in the story is portrayed as a ghostlike figure wearing a chador, which not only almost succeeds in convincing Dorsa that it would be a better mother than Shideh is, but ultimately tries to smother Shideh and Dorsa at the end before they finally escape, suggesting that not only will the pall of conservatism envelop Shideh, but also girls of the upcoming generation. And at the end of the film, when it is revealed that, although Shideh and Dorsa managed to drive out of Tehran, the doll Kimia’s head and one of Shideh’s medical books was left behind, it is implied that the oppressive forces of the djinn/sharia law will follow them wherever they go.
Despite all the heavy symbolism, as I mentioned earlier, this is still also a creepy ghost story and can be enjoyed simply on those terms. It’s more subtle and character-based, with only a couple of jump scares, but it does have some wonderfully uncanny imagery, including a chilling scene where Shideh is pulling a figure she thinks is Dorsa out from under the bed. Recommended for fans of interesting metaphorical ghost stories; if you liked The Babadook (or Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, which explores many of the same themes), this should be right up your alley. My only complaint about the movie is that the version currently on Netflix is dubbed (UGH), when subtitles would have obviously been much better. The dubbing is a bit wooden, which mars the experience somewhat, but I got used to it after a while and it didn’t bother me so much. Still, though, I hate dubbing; it’s too distracting knowing that I’m not hearing the actors’ real voices.
That’s all for this installment of Horror Double Feature, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
It’s dual movie reviewin’ time again, folks! Today’s double bill features two films that share something of a ponderous, more art-house aesthetic, and while both have their profoundly disturbing moments, their approach to their respective subjects is miles apart.
First up is Ti West’s 2014 faux documentary, The Sacrament. The conceit of the film is that a young photographer named Patrick (Kentucker Audley) has received a letter from his formerly drug-addicted sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) in which she sings the praises of a new commune she has joined (in some never-mentioned country) that has helped her get clean and get her life back together. Slightly concerned for her welfare, Patrick decides to go visit her, taking along a two-man team from Vice Media, Sam and Jake (played by AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg, respectively), to document this odd-sounding community and perhaps get a juicy story out of the deal.
The guys arrive at the secluded forest village, named Eden Parish, and while they are initially taken aback by the men with guns guarding the gates who seem reluctant to let them inside, once Caroline emerges, everything is sorted out, and the visitors are seemingly given every hospitality. Patrick separates from the others so he can spend some quality time with Caroline, and Sam and Jake are allowed to roam the grounds freely and interview the locals, who all seem quite content in this utopian commune and who have nothing but praise for the group’s leader, an enigmatic Southern preacher simply known as Father.
Sam and Jake are suspicious of all this hippie bullshit, but they do have to admit that everyone seems genuinely happy and well cared-for, and both men are impressed by the pleasant little village these people have carved out of the surrounding wilderness with nothing but their own hands. Nothing much, in fact, seems to be wrong with the place at all, except for a mute girl named Savannah (Talia Dobbins) who seems to be following them around and giving them meaningful glances. Hell, Father even agrees to be interviewed by the Vice guys on camera, provided the interview takes place in front of all the villagers at the small celebration they’re planning that evening to welcome the visitors.
Now, you know and I know that something is deeply fucked up about the place, despite how idyllic it appears, and after the interview goes down at nightfall, things start falling to shit fairly quickly. Savannah slips the Vice reporters a note asking them to help her, and from there it transpires that the village contains several defectors who are desperate for Sam and Jake to help them escape, but are terrified their treachery will be found out. Caroline is seen wandering around the commune, clearly high as balls, and it’s implied that she’s sleeping with Father, which would seem rather counter to the village’s supposed Christian virtues. The armed guards from out front are a menacing presence in the village as well, and Savannah’s mother Sarah (Kate Lyn Sheil) insists that Savannah and the other children there have been abused, and that any deviance from Father’s agenda could get them killed.
I will say that as a stand-alone film, this was quite an effective and chilling tale. The found-footage aspect works well with the material, and provides an immediacy to the events that helps to build suspense. The actors are all great and very believable in their roles, the tension builds up at a nicely measured pace before a genuinely frightening and nail-biting climax, and Gene Jones as Father is pitch-perfect as the affably charming and hypnotic cult leader whose aw-shucks personality masks a deep psychosis fueled by intense paranoia.
That said…I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning the J word, but now it’s time to address that gorilla in the room. The only thing about The Sacrament that I found disappointing is that for viewers who know the details of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, this will all seem way too familiar. Some reviews of the film I read claim that The Sacrament is “loosely based” on the events at Jonestown. Loosely, my ass. This is basically a straight-up retelling, just slightly modernized and with a few aspects changed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I will admit that it’s not the movie’s fault that I have seen several documentaries about the real event (which was far more horrific than anything dramatized here), and so wasn’t surprised at all by any plot development taking place in the movie.
While I enjoyed the film a lot, and really appreciated its steady ratcheting up of horror, I found myself hoping more than once that it would deviate somewhat from the Jonestown narrative and show me something new. I even for a second thought that maybe Ti West would build the story up to be just like Jonestown, and then totally subvert the audience’s expectations by, I dunno, making the cult people turn out to be the sympathetic victims of the Vice dudes’ exploitative filmmaking? Something like that. But no such thing occurred. If you know how Jonestown played out, you’ll know how the movie plays out, Kool-Aid (well, technically Flavor-Aid) and all. Spoiler alert? Sorta, but not really.
I was also kinda let down by the fact that there wasn’t a lot of insight given into why the people in Eden Parish wanted to be there, how much they knew about what was really going on behind the scenes, and why they turned a blind eye to the fucked up things that were happening in the commune. A few mentions were made of them being “brainwashed,” but this wasn’t explored as deeply as I felt like it should have been, which made the turnabout from kumbaya to killing fields feel a little too sudden.
So while I would recommend this unreservedly to fans of Ti West’s other films (which I loved, particularly The House of the Devil), I feel like viewers who are not at all familiar with what happened at Jonestown will probably enjoy it a lot more, since the subject matter will seem fresh. And even for those people, I would recommend that if you want to see some real horror based on real footage of this shit, watch the 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which has extensive archival footage of the actual cult, interviews with Jim Jones, interviews with people who escaped the massacre, and really unsettling video and audio of everything that went on there. Chilling and grim as fuck, and way scarier than any fictionalization could ever be.
Next up on the double bill is a movie that has pretty much polarized critics at one extreme or the other, which to me generally suggests something that’s definitely worth seeing at least once. 2016’s The Eyes of My Mother was the directorial debut of Nicolas Pesce, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, and while I can see why some reviewers really hated it, I found it mesmerizing, intense, and nightmarish.
Filmed in gorgeous black and white, The Eyes of My Mother tells a tale in three chapters about a girl named Francisca (played as a child by Olivia Bond and as a young woman by Kika Magalhães), who lives on a remote farm with her mother (Diana Agostini) and father (Paul Nazak). Francisca’s mother, a surgeon originally from Portugal, apparently instilled in the child a love of dissection and anatomy; this is a household, after all, where Dad coming home to find Mom and daughter cutting the eyes out of a cow head on the kitchen table ain’t no thing.
Shortly into the film, a creepy traveling salesman named Charlie (Will Brill) drops by the house and asks to use the bathroom. Mother is reluctant, but he insists, and she finally relents. Unfortunately, this salesman is actually a wandering psychopath, and proceeds to murder Mother in the bathtub while Francisca sits in the kitchen. Father, upon arriving home, discovers Charlie hacking away at his wife, and without much fanfare, knocks Charlie out and chains him up in the barn. He and Francisca then bury Mother in the yard.
To me, this seemed like the eeriest aspect of the film: not only the resolute refusal of the movie to really explain any of the characters’ motivations or reasoning, but also Father and Francisca’s bizarrely stoic acceptance of everything that happens. Neither of them get particularly upset, neither talks much to the other. They just go about their grim tasks in emotionless silence, which I thought was very effective in accentuating the horror that unfolds on screen. Even Charlie, when asked by Francisca why he chose her family to target, simply replies, “You let me in.”
In the second chapter, we see that Francisca has grown up, and her father has died. We also discover that Charlie is still chained up in the barn after all these years, and that Francisca has been feeding and caring for him, claiming he is her “only friend.” Of course, she has also cut out Charlie’s eyes and vocal cords, so y’know, with friends like those…
Oh, and Francisca is also keeping Dad’s body around, bathing with it, sitting next to it on the couch, crying about how much she misses him. It isn’t really clear how long Dad has been dead or how he died exactly. It’s also implied here that Francisca thinks she is in some kind of communication with her dead mother, who she often asks for advice about what to do next.
To assuage her loneliness, Francisca drives to a bar and picks up a girl, Kimiko (Clara Wong), who she brings home. Everything seems fine at first, if a little awkward, but then the wide-eyed and eerily detached Francisca begins talking about how someone killed her mother, and then goes on to say that she killed her father, though she doesn’t specify when or how. Kimiko is understandably weirded out, and tries to get out of Dodge, but Francisca becomes desperate to prevent her leaving, and presumably murders Kimiko off-screen, since in the following scene we see Francisca placing individually wrapped chunks of meat into the refrigerator.
Later, Francisca even unchains Charlie and brings him up to the house to have sex with him, though after she falls asleep, the weakened and eyeless murderer tries to escape from the house. He doesn’t get very far before Francisca catches up with him in the yard and stabs him repeatedly, obviously getting some kind of erotic charge out of the killing.
The third chapter relates how the lonely psychopath, upon perceived advice from her dead mother, walks to the side of the road and gets picked up in a car driven by a woman with a baby. Given Francisca’s proclivities, it will not be a surprise to anyone that she kidnaps the baby after stabbing the mother in the back, after which she chains the mother up in the barn just like the dear departed Charlie, and then proceeds to raise the child as her own, naming him Antonio.
The final portion of the film sees Antonio grown to about a six-year-old who eventually discovers the eyeless and voiceless woman chained in the barn. After Francisca will not tell him who the woman is, he decides to free her, after which the poor woman makes her way to the road, where she is helped by a passing trucker. The woman then evidently goes to the cops, because at the end all we see is a bunch of cars coming up the drive of Francisca’s house, and Francisca panicking and locking herself and Antonio in the bathroom. Francisca brandishes a knife, telling her “son” that she will not allow them to take him away from her. She is presumably then killed by the police, though this is not shown.
The Eyes of My Mother is definitely not a film for everyone. In its execution, it had hints of The Hour of the Wolf, Eraserhead, and Begotten, and not just because it was in black and white. The film is languidly paced, somewhat surreal, and feels quite long even though it’s only a spare 76 minutes. There are extended shots of people walking slowly across a yard, there are long stretches with no dialogue, and much of the violence, while disturbing when imagined, takes place off-screen and is mostly suggested by implication. Nothing is really explained to any great degree, everything is just laid out as it is, for the viewer to take or leave.
While I understand how some people found the film pretentious or slow, I thought it was very well done, and I found the matter-of-fact way its disturbing events were depicted to be quite unsettling. I admit I was quite hypnotized by the narrative, as I was left wondering what intensely messed up thing was going to take place next. The character of Francisca was especially eerie, as the viewer can sympathize with her forlorn isolation even as we are horrified by her actions. Recommended to fans of Ingmar Bergman or those who are into more arty horror; anyone else will probably just find it a frustrating slog.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
Hälsningar, minions! Today we’re delving into the surreal and arty waters of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre, and even though I’m gonna try REALLY hard to not make any Swedish Chef jokes, I’m not going to promise anything, because y’all know how I roll.
Hour of the Wolf (or Vargtimmen in Swedish) was released in 1968, and is probably the closest thing to a straight horror movie that Bergman ever did. That said, it’s still miles away from a traditional horror flick of the era, being more like an intensely eerie, psychological mindfuck with some really, really disturbing imagery; essentially, it’s film as wide-awake nightmare. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of ambiguity and surrealism in horror, and here is one of the best examples I have yet seen; in execution and implication, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. It’s also fairly obvious that this film was a pretty big influence on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and in its themes of spiraling madness it also bears something of a resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
The story concerns an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who is vacationing at a remote island cottage with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman). At the beginning of the movie, Alma is talking directly to the camera about the disappearance of her husband, as if she is being interviewed for a documentary. The remainder of the film is told in flashback; we see the bizarre disintegration of Johan’s mental state, and wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.
What makes this film so unsettling is its resolute refusal to explain itself. Johan interacts with strange people as he walks around the island, and he seems to think that they are demons, even though Alma can see them too; and for most of the movie, they seem like real people, albeit really skeevy ones. Johan has drawn all of them in his sketchbook, though the viewer never sees the drawings, but only Alma’s horrified reactions to them. He also has names for them, like the Bird-Man, the Schoolmaster, and The Lady with a Hat (about whom Johan once tells Alma that you don’t want to be around when the lady takes the hat off, because the whole face comes off with it. NOPE).
At one stage, a man named Baron von Merkans invites Johan and Alma to his nearby castle for a party, and when they attend, it’s the trippiest get-together ever, as all the guests laugh bizarrely, yammer on about meaningless topics, and overpraise Johan’s art to a really uncomfortable degree. Everyone seems hostile and cruel, as though they’re mocking him, but no reason for this is apparent. One of the women at the party shows Johan and Alma her bedroom, in which hangs a huge portrait of a woman named Veronica Vogler, who was apparently Johan’s ex-lover, though it is never clarified if she was a real person, or another figment of Johan’s crumbling imagination.
Johan suffers terribly from insomnia, and Alma often stays awake with him in support. During the long nights, they have some extremely disturbing discussions. In one very eerie scene, Johan tells Alma about a trauma from his childhood in which he was locked up in a closet with what he thought was a small person who wanted to gnaw his toes off. He also confesses to a possibly fictitious incident some time before whereby he murdered a little boy while out fishing. During this conversation, he clarifies the meaning of the phrase “hour of the wolf,” which according to folklore is the hour in the middle of the night when most deaths and births take place. Much of the horror in the movie is conveyed in these weird conversations, though there are plenty of uncanny visuals to highlight the nightmarish narrative, like a man suddenly walking up a wall and across a ceiling, or a woman pulling off her face and popping her eyeballs into a wine glass.
If you’re getting the sense that this is a really bizarre, disjointed film, then you’re entirely correct, but its inexplicable strangeness is very, VERY effective in making this one of the most haunting and genuinely unnerving films I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot). The underlying themes of the film seem to tie in with the fine line between artistic genius and madness, with the power of deep-seated fears and shameful desires to unhinge the mind, and with the possibility that insanity may be contagious, as Alma wonders at the end whether her love for Johan caused her to share in his delusions. There is also a repeating motif of eating or biting—the demonic people that Johan sees are portrayed as something akin to vampires or birds of prey, and during the flashback scene where Johan is recounting his murder of the boy at the seashore, the boy bites him several times during the struggle. Indeed, the working title of the manuscript was “The Maneaters,” so perhaps there is some reference here to the way that fears and traumas, whether real or imagined, can eat away at one’s sanity.
All in all, not a film for everyone, obviously, but I found it an intense experience, so disquieting and ominous that it was sort of distressing to watch. Its slow pace and stark cinematography only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere. If you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of Bergman’s other films, or just like surrealistic horror in general, I would definitely recommend it, even though it legit creeped me the fuck out. In fact, I know I said I was gonna try not to, but I need a laugh after watching it, so here we go.
‘Sup, minions! I’m back once again for the third installment of my Hulu Horror Double Feature series, which if you haven’t been following it began here and continued here. This’ll probably be the last time I link to the older installments in the current installment, though, because you guys know how the internet works and can probably find previous installments on your own from now on. You don’t need me to hold your hand, now, do you? Thought not. Anyway, off we go.
First up on this particular double bill is House of Last Things from 2013, which was written and directed by Michael Bartlett. I can see this movie being the kind of thing that inspires either adoration or contemptuous eye-rolling in the horror community, with fans of more traditional horror maybe thinking it’s too pretentious for its own good, or weird for weirdness’s sake, but I have to tell you, I thought it was dynamite. I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into it, but it honestly just sucked me in, and even though I’m not entirely certain what it all meant, I remained fascinated from start to finish.
The setup of the film is rather mundane: Classical music writer Alan Dunne and his wife Sarah—who has just been released from a mental hospital after an undisclosed tragedy—take off for Italy, ostensibly to try to put their lives back together. Alan has hired trailer-trash hottie Kelly to house-sit while they are gone, and predictably, no sooner have the Dunnes toddled off to the airport than Kelly has allowed her mentally challenged brother Tim and her dirtbag boyfriend Jesse to move into the urbane couple’s home to keep her company.
It’s here, though, where the movie begins to get interesting. The way it’s shot is very dreamlike, seemingly going back and forth in time and location, drawing parallels between the Dunnes’ marital breakdown in Italy and the bizarre dynamics of the three people occupying the home in their absence. Things get even weirder when Jesse impulsively kidnaps a boy he finds abandoned in front of a grocery store; although he initially tells Kelly he took the boy to get a ransom from his parents, it soon becomes clear that the boy doesn’t seem in any hurry to leave the house, and further, that no one appears to be looking for him. The mystery gets deeper and deeper, reality becomes murkier and murkier. Who is the boy? What happened to send Sarah to the mental hospital? Is the house haunted, and if so, by what? Why do the identities of the Dunnes and the house-sitters appear to be melding and switching? There are really no clear answers, and while some viewers may find this frustrating, I found myself utterly intrigued, since as most of my previous reviews on this blog have detailed, I do love unsettling, ambiguous films like this.
In fact, House of Last Things, with its off-kilter suburban surrealism, reminded me very strongly of a David Lynch film, with perhaps hints of Roman Polanski thrown in. The whole film is just so alluringly strange, with beautifully nightmarish imagery, overlapping identities and timelines, and copious symbolism, threaded through with Verdi’s Rigoletto and the Biblical Garden of Eden. As with a few other movies I’ve done in this series, I hesitate to call this a horror film; I suppose it’s a ghost story of a sort, but on the whole it’s rather hard to classify. Recommended if your tastes run to more surreal, mysterious, or art-house fare, this movie leaves an eerie impression that lingers long after the end credits roll.
Structured far more like a standard horror film, but also far less interesting, the second film in the lineup was a British one, Reverb, from 2009. It deals with a churlish musician named Alex who has lost his musical mojo after the breakup of his band and his relationship. His friend and co-worker Maddy pulls some strings and gets him a couple overnights at a nearby studio so he can work on a new track that he hopes will restart his flagging career. As the night wears on, Maddy begins hearing weird noises around the studio and on the recordings they’re making, and after doing some research into a mysterious song that Alex wants to sample, becomes convinced that some creepy occult shit happened in the studio back in the 1970s and that Alex is in danger. Things go fairly predictably from there.
Honestly, this one wasn’t terrible, but I can’t say there was much to it either, and my patience with it was tested several times. It seemed like a huge chunk of its running time consisted of Maddy creeping around the darkened studio listening to distorted screams and growls, or Alex staring at his reflection in the bathroom and getting flashes of blood and lyrics written on his skin, set to jarring musical stings. The movie was mediocre, and the plot paper thin, but the director was clearly trying to make it seem scarier and more “edgy” by doing these annoying flashing edits of disturbing imagery. There was so much of it that it really just got boring and silly after a while.
It wasn’t a total waste of time; the actors were fine, though there wasn’t really enough characterization or back story to really make me care about what happened to them. The use of sound was fairly effective, though it would have worked better if it had been reined in some. Even the premise of occult forces summoned through music could have been pretty cool if it had been given more substance and scope. But so much of the movie was set in one location with just a couple of characters, and it just got repetitive; on top of that, the ending brought absolutely no surprises. Like I said, not awful, but not that good either. Just a big ol’ meh. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.
And that’s all for this installment, folks. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.