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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.

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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.

Rift (BHFF 2017)

This year, the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival marks the showing of Rift, an Icelandic horror film that may or may not be a, um, horror film. The story centers around Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) and Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson), whose recent breakup has caused serious emotional fallout for both. Einar calls up Gunnar in the middle of the night, telling him that he’s “not alone” at his parents’ isolated cabin Rokkur – a statement that bothers Gunnar enough for him to go out to the middle of nowhere to check on his ex. When someone knocks on the door late that night, Gunnar begins to suspect that there’s someone out there who wishes Einar harm. As the film proceeds, the pair explore the death of their relationship, past traumas, and what, exactly, is going on at Rokkur.

What indeed. I wish I could say that Rift is a mysterious and atmospheric ghost story dealing with the destruction of a relationship and the potential threats lurking out on the wasteland. But while the film has a strong start and two interesting central performances, it can’t seem to discover any coherency in its narrative. As Gunnar wanders about, concerned for his ex, it’s never clear why he’s chosen to hang around, or what he expects to find at Rokkur. The external threats are never solidified, and the film relies on glacial cinematography and shots of the Icelandic tundra to create a sense of atmospheric dread that never comes to any sort of head. Rift is a build up without a payoff, ending on a note that appears to be meaningful to a film that never attempts to create any but the obscurest meaning.

Small elements, like Einar’s story of his “invisible friend” abandoning him to the tundra when he was a child, or Gunnar’s revelations about his early sexuality, feel like they should be of more moment than they are. The characters are so inaccessible that the moments of emotion, which should be cathartic, just seem out of place. The same goes for the consistent unanswered questions and unsolved elements dotted throughout Rift‘s icy vistas. Why does the red car bother Gunnar so much? What does this have to do with the weird old farmer and the ghostly little boy? And why did Einar call him in the first place? These questions are not only left unanswered, but the film also appears to believe that they’re important without bothering to give any revelations about them. I can be comfortable with obscurity and leaving some elements unexplained, but this film introduces multiple plot threads that go nowhere and relies solely on the production of atmosphere to establish structure. A film cannot exist on style alone, and it cannot insist that something is important without proving its importance to the viewer.

The two leads of Rift are strong, as far they go. But their endless conversations circumventing the central issue of their breakup become boring after a while, just like everything else in this film. There’s no immediacy to their relationship, or to them coming to understand why it fell apart. They are both so emotionally distant and their motives so difficult to penetrate that whenever they talk, it feels like just endless periods of silence punctuated by important statements that just don’t mean anything. What is happening? Why am I supposed to care?

I think this comes down to the fact that Rift simply does not work. It builds up an atmosphere of dread that, after a while, just becomes dull. The first act promises much, introducing all those mysterious little elements, but the second and third acts meander around until the denouement, in which something definitely happens, but I’ll be damned if I know what. The elision of time, as flashbacks seem to take place at the same time as the “current” narrative, might be interesting if the film had any degree of clarity to what its project is. As an exploration of a dead relationship, it fails to summon emotional resonance. As a horror film, it is not scary. As both, it’s simply incoherent.

A Bay Of Blood (1971)

How did I make it this far into October without watching a Bava film? And how have I managed to not see his most controversial, and probably most influential, work of complete bloody mayhem? For shame, Lauren. For shame.

A Bay of Blood is Mario Bava’s bloodsoaked entry into the slasher genre and, unlike some of his more polished films, jumps from one murder to another with reckless abandon. The plot, such as it is, encompasses the murder of an elderly countess by her husband, who is in turn murdered by an unknown killer. That starts the ball rolling, as a series of people show up at the bayside community where Countess Frederica (Isa Miranda) was killed, many of them with a vested interest in the deceased countess’s property. They’re systematically murdered by one or more killers, rising to a convoluted denouement that explains everything but isn’t nearly as fun as the carnage that has come before.

A Bay of Blood contains all of the set pieces we’ve come to associate with the slasher genre, each of them increasing in brutality to the point of absurdism, featuring a smorgasbord of character types introduced just so they can be mercilessly slaughtered. There’s the relatively innocent hippies who come to the bay for a sex/dance party, and are subjected to the film’s best murders. There are the less innocent real estate developers, the countess’s apparent heirs, and the weird couple who live on the bay and get caught up in the proceedings. Whether intentional or not, there’s a delightful absurdity to the plotting of A Bay of Blood, with motivations both convoluted and mundane. Something that I continue to enjoy about Bava is that his films have a self-evident sense of humor, a nasty enjoyment of their own violence, and acknowledgment that, yeah, we’re all here to see unpleasant people being disemboweled. And A Bay of Blood provides all of those, without apology and without remorse.

It’s quite obvious how influential A Bay of Blood was on the horror genre in general, and on slasher films in particular. The blood explodes off the screen in a shower of lurid red, totally unbelievable and marvelously entertaining. The seventies decor of the bayside cottages only contribute to a sense of the ludicrous and the grotesque, as the camera weaves among shag carpets and art deco lamps to zero in on someone brandishing an ax, and someone else losing their head in extreme close-up. Bava’s aesthetics define giallo and pop up in more polished genre films like Argento’s Deep Red, but unlike many influential films, A Bay of Blood is not unpleasant in its gleeful enjoyment of murder. This is Grande Guignol, this is opera, this is Jacobean revenge tragedy. This is bloody melodrama. It’s all a bit silly, but that’s the fun of it.

Raw (2017)

I don’t like cannibals, cannibalism, or, y’know, movies where people eat other people. So it’s the least surprising thing ever that I put off watching Julia Ducournau’s Raw, despite it having received nearly universal critical and acclaim, as well as being film written and directed by a woman and featuring two women in the lead roles. But I finally buckled down, bought some ill-advised chicken nachos, and put on the feminist French cannibal movie.

Raw begins with strict vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) arriving at veterinary school, where her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already in her second year. The pair share a loving and often antagonistic relationship, made worse when Justine is forced to undergo hazing as a part of her initiation into school. Being tossed out of bed in the middle night or forced to go to parties is one thing, but Justine resists being doused in animal blood and then made to eat a rabbit kidney. Not wanting to embarrass her sister, she finally does it, but awakes a few mornings later covered in a raw rash. What follows is Justine’s slow awakening to her lust for flesh, as she consumes first raw chicken and then begins to crave, um, redder meat. When she accidentally cuts her sister’s finger off during an attempted bikini wax (yes, really), Justine cannot resist consuming Alexia’s severed digit.

Raw is about more than just a girl becoming a cannibal; it’s a lyrical, heavily symbolic story about desire in its darkest and sometimes cruelest forms. The veterinary school is a winding series of concrete buildings and empty parking lots, the hazing rituals come off as cultish initiations in a post-apocalyptic world, and the scenes of animal dissection and medical care give the movie a zombie-esque feeling. Raw borrows some of its aesthetic from George Romero’s films, putting a bit of a nastily humorous twist on them. The sisters’ relationship is the driving force, their bouts of near-violent antagonism mixed with their evident love for one another adds another complication on top of the notion of people literally consuming one another.

Sex is the other form of flesh that comes into Raw‘s narrative. Justine begins a strange relationship with her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), whom she watches playing soccer with undoubted hunger – sexual and gastrointestinal – in her eyes. Those layers of passion and need, of sexual appetite mixing with physical appetite mixing with the need to fit in mixing with the complications of familial love, fall one on top of the other, creating a confusion of want and necessity. Raw treats it all with dark absurdist humor and an unflinching look at its own horror. As Justine looks to consume others, she’s also trying to avoid being consumed by her own needs and the needs of the people around her.

Raw is such a sharp, intense horror film that it really should be seen even by those, like myself, who don’t like cannibalism. Bloody? Yes. Messy? Undoubtedly. I mean, it’s college.

A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)

I went into A Tale of Two Sisters with some trepidation, as I’d been warned that it was a dark and deeply tragic fairy tale that would haunt me. That’s certainly true, but I admit I didn’t expect it to be quite so moving as it was, or to feature gorgeous, lush photography that draws out the psychological intensity of its subject.

A Tale of Two Sisters opens with teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) being questioned in a mental institution about “what happened that day” when she went mad – questions she declines to answer. Not long after, she and her sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) return home with their father Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-soo) and their stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah). Su-mi is apparently cured, but soon her psychosis begins to manifest once again. She has a violent hatred for her stepmother, whom she accuses of abusing Su-yeon, and a deep resentment for her father. The only person she has any real connection to is Su-yeon, a quiet, introverted girl in contrast to her sister’s more out-going personality. What’s more, the house they live in appears to be haunted by the ghost of the deceased mother. The family conflicts intensify to a terrifying and, yes, tragic climax as the guilt of the past seeps into the present.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, with the dark secrets of the past manifesting themselves in acts of horrific violence and vague supernatural events. The cause of Su-mi’s madness haunts the family, but none of them speak of it, alluding to it only in whispers. The film creates tension out of those silences, the things that are not said, the fears that are never voiced. As with many ghost stories, the house itself becomes a receptacle for all the anger and resentment that the characters feel, the supernatural manifesting itself not as palpable, physical ghosts, but as fleeting shadows, flashes of memory, and dreams. The question swirls as to whether the ghosts are real or something projected from the tortured psyches of the individuals in the house.

The fairy tale elements are easily marked – Su-mi and Su-yeon as the put-upon children reveling in the memory of their mother, Eun-joo acting out the role of the nearly crazed, oppressive stepmother, and Moo-hyeon as the distant father. Because this is a fairy tale, I could see some of the twists coming, but that did nothing to lessen the impact of the tragedy itself. The snatches of memory, told from Su-mi’s perspective, begin to make sense as the natural and supernatural elements coalesce, hinting at and then finally revealing the source of her original madness. There’s a Grande Guignol element to the color palette here that contributes to the sense of the film existing in its own fairy tale world, with lush reds contrasting against stark blues and whites and gentler brown tones, all of them associated with different characters.

A Tale of Two Sisters has the distinction of being one of the highest grossing Korean horror films ever, and there’s no wonder: it not only produces a spectacle of intense horror, but underscores that horror with real, moving tragedy. It is not just violence, but the memory of violence, not just death, but the memory of death, that winds itself about the film’s psychological core.

A Tale of Two Sisters is available to stream on Shudder