Horror Double Feature: Baskin and Under the Shadow

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 BeyondCarnival of SoulsLost 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Hulu Horror Double Feature: The Inhabitants and Wax

It’s another lazy Saturday afternoon, my horror honchos, and that means it’s time for another random double feature to while away the weekend hours. Today’s mix was a pretty strange juxtaposition, I gotta say, but it ended up a generally better viewing experience than last time, so let’s jump right in. Oh, and I know I usually forget to say this, but there will probably be some spoilers ahead, though I’ll try not to ruin anything completely.

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First up, The Inhabitants from 2015, directed by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. Hot damn, this was a good one. It had pretty much everything I like: a spooky old house in New England, an atmosphere of increasing dread that never showed too much or went too far over the top, and best of all, Salem witches, you guys! Yay, I love witches!

The setup of the story is simple in the extreme. Jessica (Elise Couture) and Dan (Michael Reed) are a young married couple who decide to purchase the March Carriage Bed and Breakfast when the elderly folks who previously owned it died (in the husband’s case) or got sent to a nursing home (in the wife’s case). One thing I should point out that gave this movie an added bonus of historical eerieness is that the house where it was filmed actually once belonged to the Reverend Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece kicked off that whole Salem Witch Trial thing with their crazy accusations. Nice job, girls. 😦

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So, pretty standard creepy shit starts to go down once the couple get moved in; floorboards creak like someone’s walking around, some kinda menacing teenagers hang out in the woods like they’re watching the place, and so on. Jessica begins to research the history of the house so she’ll be able to tell their potential guests some interesting anecdotes, and it turns out that the house was once the home of a 17th-century midwife who was accused of and eventually hanged for witchcraft. The couple find a “gently used” birthing chair in the basement, to boot. Eeeewwwwwww.

The festivities don’t really begin in earnest until Dan is conveniently called away for a few days on a business trip, leaving Jessica in the house alone. I won’t spoil too much, but when he returns, he finds that Jessica has…changed, and not necessarily for the better.

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The thing I loved most about this movie was its consistently tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. The house itself is so eerie and so effectively filmed that the whole movie just drips spookiness during its entire running time. I also liked the measured pacing of the film; steady, not in any hurry to get anywhere, but subtly ratcheting up the dread as it went along. Another thing I really liked was that everything was done through suggestion; there was no splashy gore, not many jump scares, and a lot of plot aspects were left ambiguous for the viewer to puzzle over. For instance, who installed those video cameras in all the rooms? What were those teenagers doing out in the woods, and exactly what were they planning to do when they broke in? What ultimately happened to Dan and Jessica’s dog Wylie? Where did the “children” originally come from, and why did they need to be “fed?” These questions are not answered outright, but it doesn’t matter; it all just adds to the overall ambience. I would recommend this film unreservedly to anyone who enjoys slow-burn haunted house flicks as much as I do; I thought it was really fantastic and effective.

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Next up was a film that was a whole different kettle of fish, and while I didn’t dislike it, it gave me a lot more mixed feelings than The Inhabitants did. Part found-footage, part torture porn, part self-referential homage, the 2014 Spanish movie Wax was directed by Victor Matellano and featured a bunch of genre-specific cameos, including Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie), Jack Taylor (who starred in some of Jess Franco’s films), and the voice of Paul Naschy. It was a fairly enjoyable movie on the whole, but I feel like it was a little unfocused and too long and drawn out to really ring my bell, if you know what I’m saying.

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The conceit is this: Muppet-haired smart-ass and horror geek Mike (Jimmy Shaw) is hired by a TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin) to be locked into a supposedly haunted Barcelona wax museum overnight, and film a documentary-cum-reality-show while he’s in there. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the subject of the museum’s newest exhibit—a notorious and cannibalistic serial killer named Dr. Knox, who had a thing for gadding about dressed like Vincent Price’s character in House of Wax and eating his victims’ internal organs while they were still alive.

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So Mike is wandering around the dimmed museum, filming his reality show, and every now and then there’s an intercut of footage of Dr. Knox addressing the camera and describing whatever indignities he is visiting upon his current unfortunate victim. These interstitials are described in-film as being videos that were found in one of Dr. Knox’s hideouts after his arrest, and the museum has them playing on a loop near his wax figure. Fun for the whole family! These bits of the movie are actually fairly gruesome, but nothing to really put you off your lunch or anything, unless you’re super squeamish.

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At about the halfway point of the movie, some paranormal-type stuff starts happening around the museum, like figures seemingly moving, props falling over, mysterious lights, and a red ball that is significant to the plot turning up in the darnedest places. Then, during one of Mike’s scheduled phone calls with the TV producer, it comes to light that Dr. Knox has escaped from prison, and wouldn’t you know it, Mike soon starts seeing him lurking around the museum and understandably begins to freak the fuck out.

One thing I will say about the found footage aspects of the film, is that I thought the trope was pretty effectively utilized here, especially near the end, when Mike is being pursued around the museum by Dr. Knox and only has that creepy green night-vision mode to see by. The museum itself, which I’m guessing is probably a real one, also looks terrific and suitably unsettling, especially in Mike’s POV shots, because you can really get the palpable sense that you’re walking through this spooky-ass place in the dark yourself.

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But overall, I felt like the movie just didn’t hang together all that well, like it was trying to be too many things at once. And I was also left pretty confused by what was actually going on at the end of the thing. AHOY! SPOILERS AHEAD! Okay, so at the end, we’re led to believe that the TV producers had actually set the whole thing up, that Dr. Knox was not actually in the museum, and that they were deliberately trying to drive Mike crazy (or crazier) to make a good TV show. Were they actually planning for him to die of fright, or was that just a lucky side effect? Also, Mike’s wife and kid were killed by Dr. Knox? And he didn’t know it? I mean, he must not have known, because he didn’t seem any more squicked out by the Dr. Knox murder footage than a normal person would be. It wasn’t really made clear whether he even knew his wife and kid were dead, honestly. I mean, there was that one scene where he was kinda getting weirdly friendly with a wax figure of a prostitute and saying how much he missed his wife, but I thought that was because she had left him, like she said she was going to in that one flashback he had. If that’s not what happened, then what was the point of that brief flashback where she said she was gonna leave him? And when he showed the picture of his son Rob to the museum curator at the beginning, he referred to the kid in the present tense and didn’t act all sad or like the kid was dead or anything. So like, in light of the ending, were we supposed to interpret that as a symptom of his mental illness, or what? I just feel like that whole situation wasn’t conveyed effectively, and neither was the line between what was really in the museum, what was set up by the producers, and what was only in Mike’s imagination. It didn’t really ruin the movie or anything, but it was sort of frustrating nonetheless.

This one…eh, I could have taken it or left it. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you think it’s the kind of thing you’d be into, but keep in mind that it’s kinda meandering and goes on way longer than it needs to. Not bad, but not great.

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