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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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13 O’Clock Episode 34 – An Appreciation of the Giallo

A masked, black-gloved killer stalks the streets of Rome, hacking away at underdressed ladies with a flashing, phallic blade. A hapless tourist witnesses one of these murders, but is brushed off by the police, and is forced to try to reveal the killer on her own, before she becomes the next victim.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the most common story arc of the classic Italian thriller/horror genre, the giallo. This distinctive film style has many fascinating aesthetic and narrative flourishes, and is largely responsible for kicking off the American slasher film boom of the 1970s and 1980s. On this episode, Tom and Jenny discuss one of Jenny’s very favorite film styles, giving a history of the genre, a breakdown of the most commonly seen tropes, and opinions about the best giallo films. Sharpen your straight razor and shrug into your black trenchcoat as we take a deep red journey into the lurid, murderous world of the giallo. Bring in the perverts!

Download the audio file from Project Entertainment Network here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

Once We Used to Eat Our Enemies: An Appreciation of “The Bloodstained Shadow” and “The Perfume of the Lady In Black”

Holy shit, you guys, I just realized that the last time I posted one of my long-form horror movie breakdowns was back in goddamn NOVEMBER (it was an appreciation of the British made-for-TV classic Ghostwatch, if you’re interested), so I felt the need to remedy that situation with a quickness. The reason I haven’t posted as many is because I’ve been working on the weekly 13 O’Clock podcast as well as finishing up my new book, The Unseen Hand, which I’m happy to announce is now available in print and ebook formats, with the audio version coming very soon!

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Anyway, I’ve got a double dose of giallo goodness for you today, since I’ve been researching an upcoming podcast episode on giallo films and have been spending some time revisiting some old favorites as well as watching some lesser-known examples of the genre. First in the lineup is The Bloodstained Shadow from 1978, known in Italy as Solamente nero and also released under the title Only Blackness. Directed by Antonio Bido and featuring Stefania Casini (of Suspiria fame) in a prominent role, this one didn’t knock me out with awesomeness, but it was still an enjoyable, if fairly derivative, slice of bloody giallo fun.

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In many ways, The Bloodstained Shadow, with its focus on the church, its use of a strange painting as one of the key plot points, and the appearance of Lino Capolicchio playing a protagonist named Stefano recalls Pupi Avati’s fantastic House with the Laughing Windows (which I wrote about here). Its Venetian locations and the featuring of a creepy psychic also give it a passing whiff of Nicolas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now (which I wrote about here).

In brief, Stefano travels to the Venetian island of Murano to visit his brother, a Catholic priest named Don Paolo. Almost as soon as he arrives, he discovers that something odd is afoot; the aforementioned psychic seems to creep his brother out for some reason, a wealthy pedophile is molesting children left and right, and Stefano starts having flashbacks of a screaming little boy that seems to be somehow tied in with the murder of a schoolgirl that took place on the island years before.

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There is also the matter of a murder in the town square that Don Paolo witnesses; the victim turns out to be the psychic, whose séances were notorious for attracting all of the town’s most reviled residents and who Don Paolo had actively campaigned against. Don Paolo begins receiving threatening, typewritten messages, presumably from the killer, and Stefano teams up with his brother and his new lady-friend to try to get to the bottom of the mystery.

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As I said, this one wasn’t super memorable, but it was a satisfying, workmanlike giallo that hit all the correct beats. There were lots of plot twists, some gory murders, and several red herrings to lead viewers in the wrong direction (though I have to admit I figured out who the killer was before the end). Recommended for fans of the genre who haven‘t seen it, but for neophytes I’d suggest House with the Laughing Windows before this one.

Next up is the 1974 Francesco Barilli film, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, starring Mimsy Farmer. I hesitate to even call this movie a giallo; a couple of the elements are there, and it’s usually listed as one, but to be honest it’s more a straight-up psychological horror film, obviously very heavily influenced by Roman Polanski, particularly Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The movie as a whole is intensely dreamlike, and even after watching it, you’re really not sure how much of what you saw unfolding on screen actually took place and how much was the fantasy of the main character.

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In fact, if you come into Perfume expecting the requisite steady murder count of the standard giallo, then you’re going to be disappointed; there are almost no deaths and no gore until the end, and even the bizarre final scenes leave more questions than answers. This film is much more like the creepy slow burn of a good ghost story, or like the unsettling, atmospheric weirdness of Polanski’s The Tenant: nothing is as it seems, everyone seems shifty and sinister and out to get the protagonist for some reason, and the movie goes on quite a long time without really revealing what the hell is going on and why all these strange things are happening.

Mimsy Farmer plays Silvia, a chemist whose dedication to her work causes tension with her jackwad boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia), who doesn’t understand why Silvia can’t just blow off her job to go play tennis with him and who wiggles his ass in the most disturbing way when he has sex with her. After an argument, Silvia seeks to make amends by bringing Roberto a present of a mounted butterfly (which he collects), but when she gets to his house, it looks like he isn’t there, and she sees what seems to be the ghost of a woman in a black and white dress in a mirror in Roberto’s bedroom.

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From here on out, the viewer is taken on a strange ride, as weird shit starts happening all around Silvia: people on the street eye her suspiciously, she sleeps through an entire day without knowing why, a tennis racket she grabs has a nail in the handle that slices her palm and her tennis partner drinks the blood from it with a bit too much enjoyment, a treasured photo she takes to have reframed mysteriously gets stolen, a bratty little girl in a white dress turns up in her apartment and refuses to leave.

As the movie goes on, the strange events escalate, and we’re led to believe that Silvia has become the target of a vast, black magic conspiracy that seemingly includes everyone she knows, including her boyfriend, her best friend Francesca, and everyone in her building, and appears to be engineered by a mysterious African professor who is friends with Roberto. Are all these people trying to drive Silvia mad? If so, why? Or is she simply losing her mind of her own accord? Flashbacks of her possible past may provide the solution, but it’s still far from straightforward how much of the plot takes place in Silvia’s imagination; in this aspect, the many references in the film to Alice In Wonderland make total sense.

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I actually really dug this one, though as I said, don’t go into it expecting a textbook giallo, because it really doesn’t have many giallo elements at all, other than the mystery angle. It’s also pretty slow-moving, which I quite liked, but I can see how the pace might be too leisurely for some. I think it did a great job of building tension slowly, of unraveling Silvia’s sanity at a measured, surreal pace, and it had some really great, eerie moments and unsettling shots that were pleasingly disorienting. Recommended less for giallo fans and more for Polanski aficionados and those who like their horror with a sense of subtle unease.

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

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or It’s Not Kidnapping, It’s Borrowing

I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of the movie I’m featuring today, which is the phenomenal British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It was recommended to me by a friend on Facebook, and over the weekend I sat down and spent a chilling two hours with it, marveling at its atmospheric mood and incredible psychological depth. It’s not a horror movie per se, but it is an intensely disturbing, absorbing thriller that garnered gobs and gobs of accolades when it came out back in 1964, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination for lead Kim Stanley. She lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, which is a terrible shame, though not all that surprising, frankly. Don’t get me wrong, I love Julie Andrews, but I definitely think Kim Stanley got robbed in this case. Her portrayal of a mentally unstable spirit medium was so nuanced and eerie that I found myself completely enthralled by the way her character came across as so sweet and harmless on the surface, while a manipulative, dark insanity lurked just beneath. Incidentally, if you’d like to watch for yourself, here you go, and if you’d like to read further, be warned that there will be spoilers:

The plot basically details a completely batshit scheme that working-class medium Myra Savage concocts to get attention and notoriety for her supposed psychic abilities. The film remains ambiguous about whether her abilities are real, but she clearly believes that they are, and that her stillborn son Arthur is acting as her spirit guide at the weekly séances she holds in their home. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know how much I love this type of ambiguity in films, and it’s especially good here; while we become unshakably certain over the course of the film that Myra is quite insane, we’re never entirely sure whether her mediumship is a cause or an effect of her insanity.

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Using her cowed, milquetoast husband Billy (played by Richard Attenborough) to do her dirty work, Myra kidnaps (or “borrows,” as she insists on calling it) the daughter of a very wealthy, connected couple and ransoms the child for £25,000. Initially, Myra and Billy don’t plan to hurt the child or even keep the ransom money; their intentions are far more convoluted and insidious than that, and it’s implied that they’ve been refining the details for years. In a nutshell, they plan to keep the child and the ransom money hidden until Myra has made contact with the child’s parents and the police, whereupon she will claim that she has received messages from beyond that tell her where the child and the money can be found. She is sure that this will make a name for her throughout the land, and she hopes the news of her success will lead to fame and riches down the line.

As should be obvious from the type of film this is, the plan ultimately doesn’t go the way it was supposed to, and slowly sprouts ever more disturbing tendrils as Myra’s fragile hold on sanity begins to crumble away. Because the film doesn’t make clear from the beginning what the specifics of Myra’s plan are, and doesn’t explicitly lay out how she begins to subtly change the details as the story progresses, it’s a rather gripping watch; the tension keeps escalating as the viewer wonders what exactly the endgame is, and what exactly will go wrong.

The creepiest thing about this film, I thought, was the interplay between Myra and Billy, and the unspoken dynamic between them that made the presumably decent but weak-willed Billy go along with his wife’s obviously delusional ideas without too much complaint. Myra does not browbeat Billy into doing her will; she does not threaten him. Their relationship is such that she does not need to; she is able to convince him through the sheer force of her seemingly reasonable wheedling, and her slow escalation of requests that ultimately leave Billy in the same position as that fabled frog in boiling water. He obviously loves her dearly, and because he does, he has accepted that she sees him as nothing more than a tool to facilitate her own desires. In this way, Billy is quite a tragic character, subsuming his own identity and moral compass in deference to hers. At one point Myra tells him that the kidnapping of the child is simply a means to an end for them; no one is going to be hurt, she points out, and they won’t even be keeping the parents’ money, so what harm is there? “You agree with the end, don’t you?” she asks him in her soft, sweet voice, and when he assents, she follows with the seemingly logical conclusion, “Well, then you must agree with the means.” The great thing about this is that from their interactions, the viewer can really feel the weight of the years of their marriage behind them, of how her manipulation of Billy and his passive acceptance of it are simply par for the course. It is only at the very end of the film, when Myra has taken things one step too far, that Billy finally nuts up and blows the whistle on her, at which point she has lost her marbles to such a degree that she is no longer able to protest.

The scenes with Myra interacting with the kidnapped child are also pretty unsettling, as it’s clear that Myra views the girl in the exact same way she views Billy: As a thing that will get her the results she wants. She is never cruel to the child at all, but she is chillingly indifferent and detached, both when she speaks to her and when she speaks about her. That’s the great strength of Kim Stanley’s performance; the viewer is drawn in by her seemingly demure, motherly exterior and only slowly starts to realize that Myra is a sociopathic monster. It’s a fantastic study in the banality of evil.

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Aside from the stellar characterization and almost unbearable suspense, the film also looks gorgeous, with lovely, atmospheric shots of candlelit faces around a séance table, or spooky houses reflected in puddles of rainwater. As I said before, it’s not strictly a horror film, but its look and subject matter definitely put it in the same league with the great ghost stories and thrillers of the period, and I would recommend it for any fans of either genre; it’s just a shame it’s not better known.

Stay tuned for more good stuff later in the week, and until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.