Archive for October, 2017

The Invitation (2015)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the future of horror is female. And nothing proves that so perfectly as Karyn Kusama’s 2015 slow-burn horror masterpiece The Invitation (which, by the way, is available to stream on Netflix, for your Halloween fix).

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is heading to the Hollywood Hills with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to attend a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). When they arrive at the home that Will and Eden used to share, Will is immediately struck by the strange shifts in personality of Eden and David. He’s even more troubled at the absence of their good friend Choi, who was supposed to be there early, and the arrival of Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), a friend of David and Eden’s that they met at a retreat in New Mexico. The party gets underway among a small group of old pals, with seething tensions building ever higher as Will begins to suspect that all is not well in the Hills.

The Invitation builds ever-so-slowly to one of the most satisfying horror climaxes in recent years, ramping up the tension on each plot thread until they threaten to snap. This is one of those films that is made or broken by its ending, and thankfully The Invitation delivers, hitting the viewer very hard and suddenly and letting the terror just flow like wine. But it doesn’t go on for too long, providing just enough mayhem to justify its build-up, but not so much as to drag things out. I think that putting too much emphasis on the slow-burn nature of this film does it some disservice, as the dread is very real right from the start, when Will hits a coyote with his car and has to finish it off with a tire iron. Will’s paranoia pushes the film into the territory of questionable perception, which allows for a brilliant shifting of viewer sympathies. Something is certainly wrong, but is it Will, his friends, or something else altogether?

Much of The Invitation‘s power lies in the focalizing through Will and the use of the camera eye that just barely captures things going on at the peripheries of the scene – a car pulling away just out of sight and then stopping, a red lantern being hung in a tree. As Will flashes back to the traumatic event that caused his break-up with Eden, his trauma informs what happens around him, keeping the viewer off kilter. The horror, when it hits, is believable and shocking, but the entire film has prepared us for this moment, drawing out a weird kind of fear in the act of simply eating dinner, or pouring a glass of wine. Kusama has a deft hand and eye, giving us just enough to keep us interested, but not so much that we can figure out all the angles before things go horribly wrong.

Of all the scary movies I’ve seen this Halloween season, The Invitation is by far the most unnerving, because it is also the most believable. It’s that terror of the mundane, the little things that seem just slightly off, the stories that remain half told, that give it its power.

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Grabbers (2012)

After reading way too much about Harvey Weinstein, I decided that I needed to see a movie about a different kind of eldritch monster from the depths of the ocean. So I popped on Grabbers, about a little Irish town menaced by octopean monstrosities with a way better weakness than those water-hating aliens in Signs.

Grabbers introduces us to a sweet little village on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. It’s home to exactly two police officers: Ciaran O’Shea (Richard Coyle) and the newly arrived Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). He’s an alcoholic, she’s a workaholic, and so romance will of course be in the offing. When hundred of sea creatures wash up on the beach, the Garda get involved to figure out just what the hell is happening just in time for people to begin vanishing left and right. Meanwhile, one of the many local drunks Paddy (Lalor Roddy) traps an ugly sea monster and takes it home. Dubbing it a “grabber” after it tries to eat him, he carts the creature off to the local biologist, Dr. Smith (Russell Tovey), who proclaims that it’s not quite of this world. But Paddy has discovered the creature’s weakness: it lives on blood, and Paddy’s blood alcohol level was so high when it attacked him that he literally poisoned the thing. The only solution to surviving the creatures, then, is to get roaring drunk.

Grabbers is just an incredibly fun, incredibly Irish little monster movie, with some effective monstrosities to cut through the comedy, and a massive drink-up at the film’s center. The conceit is amusing, of course, and the film carries it off well, building to the revelations of the monsters and how to defeat them with deprecating humor and a charming self-awareness. There are a few plot holes, but that’s all right – I don’t really watch monster movies for the story structure. The romance angle is sweet as well, with a hilarious scene in which a very drunk Lisa explains O’Shea’s life story to him. Grabbers also posits the question of how roaring drunk people can possibly fight vicious aliens, and does so in some hilarious (and gruesome) ways.

I’ve seen very few humorous Halloween movies this year, which is always a mistake. Grabbers was a wonderful distraction from the occasional darkness of the holiday, a reminder that tales of terror need not be soul-crushing. Sit down, have a pint, and prepare to wrestle the tentacled nasties until final call.

Grabbers is available to stream on Shudder.

Inferno (1980)

By now, at least some of you will be aware that I’m a nascent fan of Italian giallo. While my experience of it is not massive, my adoration at least for Bava and Argento is real and passionate. So of course I could not let an October pass by without getting at least one more Argento film under my belt. This time it’s Inferno, a quasi-sequel to Suspiria that takes that film’s nightmarish quality and tries to raise it by half.

Inferno involves musicologist Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a student in Rome who heads to New York City when his sister Rose (Irene Miracle) mysteriously vanishes from her haunted apartment building. Rose had recently grown obsessed with a book called The Three Mothers that she obtained from the antiques dealer next door – a book that supposedly reveals the locations of three forces of evil, who live in Rome, Freiburg, and New York, in houses built for them by the architect Varelli. Mark attempts to solve the riddle of the three, and find out what has become of his sister.

This being an Argento film, the plot is simple but the film itself is complex and full of plot holes – some of which the director doesn’t really care about filling. What he does care about, and what this film has in spades, is stylish murder, bizarre music, and freaky set-pieces that combine art house aesthetics with exploitation film structure. No one quite put these elements together like Argento did, and if Inferno doesn’t hit the high points of Suspiria, it comes dangerously close.

Murders there are a-plenty, though Inferno, like its sister film, does take its time in setting up the suspense and horror before actually getting down to the bright red blood and terrifying acts of violence. It aspires to the same fever dream aesthetics as Suspiria, featuring art deco apartments within Gothic settings, reds, blues, and yellows vibrant against inky blacks. Much can be written, and probably has been, about the juxtaposition of confusing plotting, art house aesthetics, and brutal murders within Argento’s oeuvre, and Inferno is an excellent example of the combination of the schlocky, the extreme, and the brilliantly artistic that so characterizes his films. The murders, when they come, are horrible artistic acts, with grasping hands, knives slicing through throats, and one epically disturbing death involving rats.

Inferno doesn’t quite live up to Suspiria, though, as it lacks the latter film’s malevolent energy and sense of claustrophobia. Inferno could have done with keeping its focus on that apartment building, constructing the suspense from that, rather than the somewhat haphazard jumping between locations. The movement between New York and Rome gets confusing – as do the reasons behind the killings – and the film only really gains momentum when it embeds our hero (and several heroines) in their apartments and labyrinthine corridors, stalked by an apparently supernatural killer. Yet some of its set-pieces – like an underwater sequence that leaves you breathless – are brilliant and audacious, even if they feel ultimately nonsensical.

Of course, the point of an Argento film is never to make sense. In his best work, he achieves a dream logic that falls apart if interrogated too closely. He constructs art house nightmares, terrifying without quite putting a label on why. It’s always hard to find precise logic in an Argento film, and futile to try with Inferno. Just let the horrors wash over you.

Burn, Witch, Burn (1962)

In the pantheon of witch movies, I was surprised that I hadn’t ever heard of Burn, Witch, Burn, a sharp-edged little Gothic film from 1962, directed by Stanley Hayers from a script by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson (!). The film has plenty of B-grade bonafides, but it’s not a B-grade film – and features Peter Wyngarde in perhaps his least scene-chewing performance ever.

Wyngarde is Norman Taylor, a psychology professor at an unspecified British university who specializes in superstitions and belief systems. He’s recently returned from Jamaica with his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) and up for a major promotion at the university. Norman is intensely rationalistic, however, claiming that superstition is a matter of belief and not reality – in order for witchcraft to work, you have to believe it will work. This comes into conflict when he discovers that Tansy is a practitioner of “conjure magic,” which she learned in Jamaica. She’s been leaving talismans about the house with the hope of influencing events and protecting herself and her husband. Furious, Norman makes Tansy burn all of the talismans, and unsurprisingly, things start to go horribly wrong.

I went into Burn, Witch, Burn expecting a schlocky witch movie, and I got something far more interesting (though still schlocky). Yes, the usual questions of belief vs. rationality are still there, but the main focus of the film is actually the depth of Tansy’s love for Norman, and vice versa, which leads to her sacrificing her superstition and him, eventually, his rationality. Female intuition and superstition comes into conflict with male “logic,” and the logic begins to break down very quickly. Norman’s logic begins to pale in comparison to Tansy’s beliefs – and whether they are simply psychological games she plays or whether they are true spells begins not to matter. There’s a marvelous showdown nearing the end of the film where Norman’s own beliefs are challenged, one after the other, as he fights to preserve Tansy’s life.

But Burn, Witch, Burn is also gorgeously photographed, calling to mind the more polished Gothic horrors of the same period, such as The Innocents and The Haunting. Hayers has a good eye, making use of the canted angles and deep focus shots, combined with real locations, that make the Gothic real and physically disconcerting. The camera eye melds the concepts of reality and belief, as the viewer begins to see what Tansy and Norman see, drawing into question the existence of the supernatural and rendering it tangible. That notion is disconcerting and Burn, Witch, Burn makes excellent use of it not only through the overt thematics of plot and dialogue, but through the camera eye itself.

All of that being said, Burn, Witch, Burn, as its title suggests, isn’t exactly a nuanced work of horror. Wyngarde is known for his ham acting, and while he’s more subdued here than in practically anything else, there’s still a hefty serving of bacon. But he’s matched in madness by his co-stars – Janet Blair and Judith Scott, in a bit part, especially. Because the plot is just this side of campy, the overacting is easily forgiven, though the wild-eyed shrieking of some characters nearing the end becomes just a bit wearing.

While it never reaches the heights of similarly themed films from the same period, Burn, Witch, Burn does merit more than a cursory glance. The 1960s marked new interest in witchcraft not just as a force of evil, but as a multi-faceted form of magic and belief just as complex, in its own way, as any major religion. While the moralism isn’t lost here, it is beginning to wobble. Witches aren’t for burning any more.

The Craft (1996)

I was ten years old in 1996, which is the major reason I never experienced The Craft, the uber-nineties movie about a grunge coven in a Catholic school. And while the film has a, um, somewhat questionable moral, the first two acts more than make up for the ending’s lack of satisfaction by featuring loads of stylish mayhem as it posits the question: what happens when you give teenage girls occult powers?

Sarah (Robin Tunney) is the new girl at an L.A. Catholic school, where she becomes fast friends with Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk), and Rochelle (Rachel True), a group of oddball outcasts rumored to be witches. They recognize her power and court her friendship, believing her to be the fourth needed for their coven to truly amplify their powers. The rites are fun, and Sarah feels that she’s found real friendship within the coven as she discovers her nascent abilities as a witch. But, being teenage girls, the group begin to use their witchcraft to get petty revenge on those who have wronged them, trying to fix superficial problems or punish bad boyfriends and bullies. When Nancy gets drunk on power after they complete a black magic rite, the witches begin to turn on each other, becoming the very bullies that they were trying to escape.

The Craft is enjoyable as more than a slice of nineties nostalgia (though it has that in heavy doses) – it’s also about the complications of being a teenager, the seething anger, sexual confusion, and desire to break free of social constraints. The four leads play well off each other – their status as outcasts, the pain that they each suffer because they don’t quite fit the requirements of their society, makes them sympathetic even as things take a darker turn. Balk is the standout here, her goth-tinged sarcasm concealing a girl in a lot of pain, looking to control her environment however she can. Although her malevolence is ultimately destructive, there’s something satisfying about watching a derided young woman take epically violent revenge on a man who has wronged her and her friends. But the sympathy we feel is unfortunately undermined when the film takes a more moralistic turn in the final act, vilifying the witches and the manic, teenage energy they exude. Part of the point seems to be that teenage girls shouldn’t ever have any power – which might be true (I’ve been a teenage girl and having magical powers plus hormones would likely have been all kinds of nasty), but kind of undercuts the legitimate anger that these girls experience.

The Craft might have done well to include more complications around the performance of magic. The girls cobble together their own rites out of books and their underlying desires, but there are hints of other witches in the neighborhood who, for some reason, don’t think it worthwhile to maybe give these young women a guiding hand. Magic is treated as neither good nor bad – it takes its form based on the people who perform it. But because we only ever really see the four girls working their spells, this message is quickly lost.

Regardless, The Craft is a good, fairly light piece of fun, worth it just for the clothing, the music, and the four leads. It’s a cult classic for a reason.

Hagazussa (2017)

Hagazussa, which showed at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival this past weekend, aspires to be a sort of German version of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, a film that has marked a brilliant point in female-centric horror narratives. Hagazussa tells the story of Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), a woman living at the fringes of a 15th century village in the Alps, where she ekes out a difficult living farming goats. Years before, Albrun’s mother, a suspected witch, died a terrible death of the plague, leaving her young daughter to make her way on her own. Now Albrun has to face the superstition and paranoia of the villagers, who mock her and her baby daughter as heathens.

Hagazussa bears more than a passing resemblance to The Witch, and not just in terms of its subject matter. The film takes its time setting up its horrific paradigms, digging into the culture of the time period, the weird fears and superstitions surrounding Albrun and her mother, and later Albrun and her daughter. It moves slowly – almost glacially – in establishing these connections and belief systems, yet simultaneously manages to avoid any in-depth elucidation of the culture. It is alien, and it remains alien, a superficial image of a people mired in paranoia with zero clarity about where that paranoia originates or what it means.

Albrun’s connection to and association with nature is, I suppose, meant to contrast with the bleakness of the local priest’s church, and the local people’s distrust. But we never really see what it is that Albrun has been cast out from, with the only connections to the village a few tangential characters with few (if any) lines. And because there is no contrast, it’s difficult to comprehend just what Albrun is up to, and why. There is an overlong scene in which she milks a goat that mines a weird eroticism from the act, yet this is never really followed through on. For much of the film there’s no one for her to actually talk to or have conflict with, and even when conflict arises, it’s never quite clear what is happening or why. And this is before the film truly indulges in horror during its final act, which depict a series of increasingly bizarre set pieces inspired (I think) by Albrun’s consumption of a hallucinogenic toadstool and apparent obsession with her mother.

Hagazussa does have a terrible beauty to it, capturing the richness of the Alpine scenery with a sense of isolation and bleakness that rivals The Witch’s New England wilderness. The scenery should become a near character, informing Albrun’s experience and contributing to her eventual indulgence in her mother’s legacy. But it never quite reaches the heights that it needs to. It produces images that are momentarily sublime, but dwells on them for so long that they begin to lose their power and lead the viewer to wonder when something is going to happen. And it’s not clear what does happen, as Albrun drifts from one weird and horrific experience to another without much deeper characterization to link the viewer in sympathy. A lack of clarity need not condemn a film – and this is certainly an arthouse horror, or at least aspires to be one – but there is a paucity of thematic meaning here that feels more obfuscating than tantalizing. Because writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld fails to really immerse his viewer in the culture he depicts, Albrun’s tragedy (or is it?) lacks underlying power. This is not a deeply embedded depiction of paranoia and persecution, but one which seems to mistake slowness for depth, and superficiality for fascinating obscurity.

I keep comparing Hagazussa to The Witch, mostly because there’s really no way around it. A woman cast out and isolated because of contemporary superstition, dwelling with goats and cavorting (kind of) with the supernatural? Yes, that sounds like The Witch all right. And Hagazussa need not have suffered from the comparison, if only it was able to stand on its own as a work of horrific art.But I couldn’t quite get what the whole point was, or what I was supposed to take away from the film, especially as it speeds to its vicious and pretty disgusting finale.

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser opens with a rather dirty and very 80s man purchasing a weird puzzle box in some Far Eastern bazaar. The location isn’t specified, and rather contributes to the aggressively sub-realistic tone of the film, especially when a minute later the man undergoes an arcane ritual surrounded by a circle of candles and opens the box, summoning forth a bunch of nasty interdimensional hooks that sink into his skin and drag him into an underworld where he’s ritualistically tortured by a group of grotesqueries in S&M-inspired body suits. And that’s just the first three minutes.

The man, we learn, is Frank (Sean Chapman), a pleasure-seeking hedonist who had a long-standing love affair with his brother Larry’s (Andrew Robinson) wife Julia (Claire Higgins). When Larry and Julia move back into the house where Frank died – they think he disappeared – they find it a run-down mess, and try to put it to rights. But Julia is still obsessed with Frank, and when a freak accident winds up summoning him back from whatever netherworld he’s dwelt in, she has no difficulty appeasing his bloodlust. Frank isn’t exactly the same – he’s a dripping skeleton, and he needs blood to make himself whole again. So Julia begins bringing men back to murder them and restore Frank to his former, smarmy glory. But the Cenobites – those nasty demons – want Frank back and will even make deals to get him, after Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) accidentally solves the puzzle box and opens up the same interdimensional portal.

Despite its grossness, Hellraiser is actually a pretty straightforward story, though it glosses over some of the heavier S&M qualities that writer/director Barker finds so fascinating in his novels. The film is a weird combination of sci-fi and horror, with interdimensional travel coinciding with necromancy and whatever the hell the puzzle box is supposed to be. But the film takes itself incredibly seriously in the midst of what’s a sort of silly story. Its very extremity means that it’s hard to be horrified by Hellraiser; there’s a giallo absurdism tinge to the violence that indicates either that Barker wasn’t a very experienced director, or had more of a sense of humor than his movie does. Or perhaps both.

The aesthetics of Hellraiser are certainly stuck in their time period, but also quite influential in their own way, and the special effects are truly spectacular (and gross). While there are times when Frank looks like he’s been slathered in undercooked ham, the look of the Cenobites – especially their leader Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – is beautifully grotesque. As are the series of murders that Julia commits to help out her decidedly juicy lover – one man gets his head stove in with a hammer, while Frank sucks the life out of several others.

Hellraiser means that I’ve now managed to watch at least the first of all the major horror franchises (no, I’m not counting Saw and you can’t make me). And it’s a solid piece of 80s entertainment, a bit of a departure in tone from the more tongue-in-cheek horror films being made in the late 80s and into the early 90s, with a very deliberate mythos underlying it. It can also be seen on Shudder, so now’s the time to experience it.