Ghost Light (2019)

Ghost Light (2019)

There’s a cliché that Shakespeare is the most adapted playwright in the world and, like many clichés, it’s probably true. His work has been transposed in multiple languages and across multiple platforms, inspiring new interpretations on stage, in art, in print, and on the screen. He’s also a remarkably meta-narrational playwright: his plays invite commentary on theater as theater (or cinema), integrating plays within plays, actors playing multiple roles (and referencing the roles they’re playing), and self-referentiality. Ghost Light, from director John Stimpson, plays further with Shakespearean meta, as he brings in traditions and superstitions to interact with the story of an acting troupe putting on the most ill-fated of the Bard’s plays.

Ghost Light utilizes the curse surrounding performances of Macbeth – excuse me, The Scottish Play – as a Shakespearean troupe arrive to perform the play in a charming Massachusetts village and find themselves in the midst of ghostly, horrific happenings. The troupe is complete with character types: a former soap actor and all-around ham leading man Alex (Cary Elwes, having the time of his life), his wife and Lady Macbeth Liz (Shannyn Sossamon), Thomas (Tom Riley) a jealous second-lead/understudy playing Banquo, the long-suffering director Henry (Roger Bart), and a deliriously extreme fading dame of the theater Madeline (Carol Kane). Thomas and Liz tempt fate and the theater gods when they invoke the play’s curse by shouting “Macbeth!” in the empty theater. With some very Shakespearean theatrics from nature, the curse begins to take hold and transform the relationships of the members of the troupe into the play itself.

Ghost Light takes a little while to find its feet, summoning a sense of menace from the start but with little initial payoff. The characters are certainly types—they’re meant to be, especially as they begin to morph into their own versions of their Shakespearean roles. The film draws together elements of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and not just surrounding Macbeth: the presence of the stage’s “ghost light,” the use of the phrase “break a leg” rather than “good luck,” the various contortions that one has to go through to break the curse of the Scottish Play. Ghost Light occasionally veers too far into the silliness of its premise and undercuts the elements of menace that both the play and its own plot conjure. At the same time, the film does pay off its premise, and the final act is a fantastically entertaining, horror-laden farce that brings all the elements of the narrative together.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most humorless tragedies, so it’s interesting that it has also been the one most often adapted into a black comedy. Ghost Light shares the stage with Scotland, PA, another story about Macbeth in the North American countryside. But where Scotland, PA adapted the story, Ghost Light adds another layer, making the superstitions that surround Macbeth are as important as the play itself. This means that the characters are fully aware they’re beginning to embody their parts—there are lines in which characters acknowledge that they’re acting like their on-stage roles and seem incapable of breaking out of the cycle. As a result, though, some of the minor parts unfortunately get left by the side in favor of the central narrative of Tom and Liz. But all the actors are game for their roles, enjoying the Shakespeare, both good and bad, that they get to perform.

The film does occasionally slip into the hokey and predictable, particularly at the beginning and before the final act transition to the night of the performance. Luckily, the final show is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget some of the hokeyness and simply indulge in the slightly blood and very clever fun. After all, Shakespeare himself wasn’t above some amateur theatrics.

Ghost Light will drop on VOD on June 18.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

Giallo horror tends to run the gamut from artistic to exploitative, and often just combines the two into an unholy union that is at once profoundly uncomfortable and deeply enjoyable. One of the stranger works in the wide range of giallo films is The Perfume of the Lady in Black (the greatest title ever), from director Francisco Barilli, starring Mimsy Farmer as a perfumier in Rome who begins to hallucinate (or does she?) images from her childhood that center around a lady in black.

Farmer is Silvia, a talented chemist who enjoys making perfume, going out with her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglio), and hanging out with his friends, including a professor (Jho Jenkins) with an interest in black magic and the occult. But things begin to get weird when she smells a new perfume and begins to hallucinate a woman, all dressed in black. As the hallucinations get more intense, recalling Silvia’s childhood, her deceased father, and her mother’s old lover, she also begins to believe that she’s being stalked by men in dark trench coats. At the behest of her friend Francesca (Donna Jordan), Silvia goes to a blind psychic, who brings up even more past memories, inspiring another flood of hallucinations. What’s real and what’s Silvia’s psychosis become more and more intertwined, exacerbated by the machinations of her strange neighbor, and the mysterious people who may or may not be following her.

Like many giallo horrors, the focus is more on the aesthetic than the actual plot, which telegraphs the solution to its mystery so clearly that it almost isn’t necessary. The garish seventies’ colors and weird character quirks – like a continuous emphasis on hippos that is just confounding – make for the entertainment value here. Rooms painted bright blue, yellow dresses that are just too yellow, pinks that conflict with purples, haunting music that dogs Silvia’s steps—these are the trappings of the weird. There are the usual elements of the occult and psychosis, as Silvia’s belief that she’s being bewitched co-mingles with her hallucinations, which are either repressed memories, are realities being perpetrated against her by some unknown assailant, or are the result of something more supernatural. What’s unnerving about the film is how difficult it is to completely understand what’s going on, or why. The ending is at once predictable and utterly shocking, and I doubt that a rewatch would be able to place it in proper context. It doesn’t make sense, which is half the fun.

In some ways, though, The Perfume of the Lady in Black needed to be more extreme, to indulge its tendencies to excess rather than attempt to tell a coherent story. What sets films by Bava, Argento, or Fulci off is the willingness to go all in on the aesthetics and overwhelm the viewer with imagery such that we almost forget there is a plot. This film doesn’t go far enough—there’s actually very little violence, and the most violent scene (of an attempted rape) comes off as too serious to be particularly enjoyable. The overlapping of reality and psychological horror is well done, but it could be emphasized more. I wanted more hallucinatory images in a film about hallucinations.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Child’s Play (1988)

Child’s Play (1988)

childs-play

Every year for my Halloween viewing, I attempt to fill some gaps in my horror knowledge. Is there a horror classic I have not seen? Is there an essential film I’ve avoided? I generally have a problem with horror franchises, often because the first film is often not the best and could easily be ignored, but I’m a completist and must watch it. Which is how I came so late to Child’s Play, Don Mancini and Tom Holland’s introduction to the Chucky franchise, about a doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer.

Child’s Play opens with the death of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), a serial killer and black magic aficionado working on the South Side of Chicago. After being shot by police officer Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), Ray survives just long enough to perform a ritual and commit his soul to a “Good Guy” doll. Not long after, Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), buys the doll as a birthday for her son Andy (Alex Vincent), who is obsessed with the Good Guy television show. Andy becomes convinced that “Chucky” is talking to him and, eventually, that Chucky is actually doing bad things, like committing pushing babysitters out windows. As the bodies pile up, Karen and Detective Norris must discover just what is going on, whether Andy has lost his mind or if Chucky really is responsible for the mayhem.

Like many slashers of the same type, Chucky the character has become better known than the film that spawned him, thanks to the development of the tongue-in-cheek humor only nascent in the original. But Child’s Play is good fun for what it is, thanks largely to the malevolent humor of Brad Dourif (vocally, at least) in the lead. The audience knows that Chucky is evil, but there’s a degree of glee to be had in watching what’s basically a Cabbage Patch doll run amok with a butcher knife, scrambling in and out of windows, threatening small children, attacking and biting grown men. There’s less blood here than one might expect, and the film does better with its tension up to Chucky’s attacks, which become overly comedic once they happen.

Child’s Play exploits a number of quintessential 80s horror tropes, setting itself in the slums and upper middle class neighborhoods of Chicago, playing with Western configurations of voodoo and Satanism, and wrapping it all up in a different kind of villain to undercut the whole idea of an “evil child” so popular in the 70s and 80s. Andy is an initially annoying little boy who becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on – he knows that Chucky is bad, but no one will believe that his doll is a walking, talking monster. Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon are likable as the adult leads facing a very bizarre and inherently funny situation. The scene where Chucky finally convinces Detective Norris that Andy’s not making it up is a combination of terrifying and hilarious, not least because it’s a grown man fighting off a child’s toy who keeps trying to stab him.

If Child’s Play is still very much a product of its time – this was the era when people were literally stomping each other to get Cabbage Patch Kids – it’s an enjoyable product of its time. Chucky will return again and again, most recently in Cult of Chucky, to wreak havoc on unsuspecting victims who would never believe that a little doll could be so nasty. And for that, we have Child’s Play to thank.

The House of the Devil (2009)

The House of the Devil (2009)

The 80s are a favorite period for many horror fans, producing as they did films as diverse and disturbing as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, and a whole range of brutal slasher films that indulged backlash male fears and, occasionally, a few feminist ones as well. The contemporary horror fan’s obsession with the 80s has some darkness to it as well, given the obsession with weaponized maniacs murdering bare-breasted women and prizing the Final Girl as the ultimate virginal fantasy. But there are times when 80s nostalgia produces something really unique, as is the case with Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a deliberate throwback to the decade that immerses its viewer in the chills and thrills of slow-burn violence.

Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, a sophomore at an upstate college who longs to move into a proper apartment. When she spots a flyer asking for a babysitter, she answers it, and heads out to a lonely house far from campus on the night of a full lunar eclipse. There she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov), and learns that there are no children to look after – the couple just want someone to stay in the house for the evening in order to keep an eye on Mr. Ulman’s mother, a bed-bound old woman asleep upstairs. The whole setup is a bit creepy, but Samantha needs the money and agrees.

We all know where this is going, but The House of the Devil takes its sweet time in getting there. The opening act leading up to the arrival at the house takes up a good bit of runtime, but somehow the slow burn isn’t boring. This is a leisurely film that knows how to develop the tension, rather than getting straight to the violence. And that’s the film’s strength – rather than rushing into what’s ultimately a sparse and somewhat predictable narrative, there’s an inherent enjoyment of the development of the fear, as the audience waits for the killer, the cult, the ghost, or goblin to come into frame. Some viewers who demand more gore and less tension might find it dull, but the time that West takes to develop his story is time well-spent. There are momentary bursts of violence separated by long sections of Samantha ordering pizza, turning on the TV, investigating weird noises coming from the upstairs. As the narrative unfolds at its own pace, the viewer can only sit back and watch, secure in the knowledge that something is going to happen, held in thrall by not knowing when.

Donahue is a big part of what makes The House of the Devil work. She’s a throwback to the Final Girls of the 1980s, recalling Jamie Lee Curtis or Dee Wallace (who has a bit part as a landlady at the beginning of the film), innocent without being weak or even particularly naïve. Although the situation is creepy, the film takes care to develop reasons for staying at the house that are believable and that therefore don’t prompt the audience to dismiss her as stupid, or the film for concocting excuses to get to the scary bits. Given that Donahue has to spend most of her onscreen time alone, it’s a testament to her presence that The House of the Devil never bores, and that the audience can care about her character fairly quickly.

The House of the Devil won’t be for everyone. It’s very much an 80s film, even if made in 2009, with a self-seriousness that avoids any hint of the campy. As such, as it’s incredibly loving film, a movie that feels like an homage without attempting to be more knowing than the films it references, that tries and largely succeeds in approximating one of horror’s most famous periods. But it’s still slow, more interested in the creation of tension than in giving the viewer blood and guts. It works, thanks in no small measure to West’s use of old-school aesthetics in the creation of the house itself, and the occasional hints of what is actually going on just enough to the audience on their toes.

The House of the Devil is available to stream on Shudder.

The Devils (1971)

The Devils (1971)

Ken Russell’s The Devils is almost more notorious for its release history than it is for the film itself. It was rated X due to its violence and sexual content, banned in several countries, and never has seen a totally uncut release in any format. The rumors of its violence and sexuality seem to be more intense than the actual violence and sexuality contained in the film, especially exacerbated by the fact that it mostly involves priests and nuns and is photographed in the grotesque style that Russell became so well-known for. But beneath the controversy is a sharp, vicious commentary on religious and political fervor, a challenge to censorship and to the controls placed on sexuality by the powers that be, and an impassioned, introspective, and occasionally satirical investigation of the religious philosophy of the time period.

The film opens in Loudon, France, during the reign of Louis XIII, where Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) has more or less taken over political control of the town following the death of its governor. Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) have agreed to begin destroying the fortifications of cities across France, ostensibly in an effort to prevent Protestant uprisings. Loudon is one of the last cities still standing with its fortifications, upheld by the power and popularity of Grandier. But Grandier has already fallen afoul of the local magistrate after impregnating Phillippe (Georgina Hale), the magistrate’s daughter, then abandoning her for the love of Madeleine (Gemma Jones). Meanwhile, in a nearby convent of Ursuline nuns, the abbess Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave) develops such lust for Grandier that she falls into jealousy when she learns he’s having a relationship with Madeleine. After Grandier declines to become the convent’s confessor, Sister Jeanne accuses the priest of demoniacally possessing her. When the rest of the nuns begin to fall prey to possession, the political and religious authorities unite to destroy Grandier.

As with pretty much any Ken Russell movie, the synopsis does not do justice to the combination of batshit insanity and vicious satire at the heart of this film. Russell’s imagery is mash of surrealism and anachronism, uniting a 1970s aesthetic of extremity with the undoubtedly bizarre nature of 17th Century France. But underneath it is a fascination with the forces, external and internal, centered on sexual expression and the repression of religion. The nuns are gripped by religious fervor and frustrated sexuality that erupts in mass hysteria after Sister Jeanne accuses Grandier of possessing them. The eruption feels less like women being crazy and more like a society that strictly controls sexual desire and expression finally breaking down under the weight of undirected sexual energy. The accusations of possession free the nuns from their repression and they are suddenly able to express all suppressed yearnings with the justification of demoniac possession. Orgies, nudity, perversion, fetishization, and the breakdown of the social order are the result of repressed needs, now deformed by strict religious and social requirements.

In the midst of the madness is an intelligent discussion about the nature of sex, desire, and religiosity. Grandier is far from innocent—he has impregnated one young woman and goes through a marriage ceremony with another—but he is no hypocrite. He claims that he is searching for God and meaning within his relationships to women, and there is a refreshing honesty in his behavior that bespeaks his kindness and his willingness to acknowledge himself as an imperfect sinner. But he also has that ability because he is a man and a priest allowed to exist in the outside world, not a cloistered nun or an aristocratic woman who must ultimately either deny sexuality, or pay the price for lust. Grandier’s tragedy is a fait accompli—he has come into conflict with Richelieu for standing up against the destruction of the walls of Loudon; he has defied both political and religious authority and shown himself to be too powerful for the powers that be. His destruction is necessary, and the Church uses the rapture of the nuns to justify it.

The Devils is often billed as a horror film, and there are certainly horrific elements to it, with a vague hint of the supernatural and more than a vague use of religious violence to achieve political ends. Russell’s style in itself gives the film a nightmarish quality, a sense that we are watching things that are larger, wilder than real life. All the actors are used brilliantly, but Reed and Redgrave display their considerable talents to the extreme. Redgrave finds sympathy and pathos in a nun warped by her society and her religion; Reed runs the gamut of emotions, but it is in Grandier’s quietest and most introspective moments that he finds the greatest depth and meaning. For all its notoriety, The Devils is an oddly serious and introspective film, grappling with deeper theological concepts than it is perhaps given credit for, in the midst of its apparent madness.

The Devils is available to stream on FilmStruck.

Hell House LLC (2015)

Hell House LLC (2015)

Found footage is a difficult subgenre to do right – at its best, it brings the viewer into a personal relationship with the horror, but when it’s bad, it becomes as boring and predictable as watching someone else’s home movies. Paranormal Activity, Ghostwatch, The Blair Witch Project, The Curse…these succeed in part because they establish a convincing framing narrative that (mostly) explains the constant presence of cameras, even past the point where most sane people would put them down. Contemporary filmmaking is even better suited to found footage horror than previous generations, given the ubiquity of smart phone cameras, CCTV, and automatic video uploads to YouTube and Facebook. But because viewers are more likely to question what a film shows them as “truth,” it’s a real pleasure to come across Hell House LLC, an entry into the found footage genre that does a great job at bringing the scares.

Hell House LLC tells the story of a group of New Yorkers who leave the city to head upstate (well, Rockland County) to create a haunted house venue at an abandoned hotel in Abaddon, New York. The framing narrative here involves a documentary film crew investigating what happened at the “Hell House” venue, when several tourists and workers were killed during the first tour of the Halloween season. The events are shrouded in mystery – the town, the police, and the officials won’t talk about what happened, and only one journalist actually got inside the hotel after the deaths. When Sara, one of the creators of Hell House, contacts the documentarians to tell her side of the story, she offers  footage taken by Hell House’s cameraman Paul, who documented the construction of Hell House for use on their website. This footage makes up the bulk of the narrative, only occasionally switching back to interviews with journalists, officials, and Sara herself.

The cleverness of the framing narrative goes beyond the documentary crew—early on, the viewer is shown a YouTube video uploaded by one of the tourists that documents the sudden breakdown of the Hell House tour. The later Hell House footage provides a lead up to the video, overlapping and then explaining, at least in part, what we see on the screen. The result constructs a visual mystery – how do we get from this abandoned hotel to the Hell House seen at the start? Who is going to survive? – that the film very gradually reveals. The film mostly avoids the use of the shaky camera as a mode of transferring horror or confusion to the viewer. While there are the usual tropes of heavy breathing, night-vision modes, and the camera being manipulated, dropped, and angled away from the horror, these are kept to a minimum prior to the denouement.

The most effective section of Hell House LLC is the simultaneous construction of the friendships among the crew, and the slow ramping up of tension that finally snaps during the final night. Alex, the founder of the Hell House concept, insists on carrying on in the haunted house construction, even when it becomes clear that there is something terribly wrong at the hotel. The film overlaps the “fake” scares of the haunted house with the “real” figures of the hotel, mixing together dummies, flashing lights, creepy noises, and the actual spirits that inhabit the hotel. It becomes difficult for either the viewer or the people within the film to decide what is a fake scare constructed for the haunted house and what is a “real” ghost. This also provides a meta-narrational commentary on the film itself – we are watching a fake documentary about the fake creation of a haunted house venue in a fake hotel, which asks the question about what the “real” scares are, and what are just the “fake” ones created by the characters. The effectiveness of the film depends on the viewer not always being certain what is really scary and what isn’t…or what’s supposed to be. It’s a smart little quirk thrown into the found footage concept, and for the most part works very well.

Hell House LLC also offers a very basic background on the haunting of the hotel and why the events of the evening have been concealed, giving just enough information to explain and tantalize, but not enough for the revelations of the hotel’s background to become silly. It’s an intelligent move—rather than attempting to offer clear explanations for the events, the film lets the footage do the exposition for itself, making excellent use of vague figures in the background, strange noises in the night, and one haunting piano riff that the viewer will hear in their nightmares.

Hell House LLC is part of a projected trilogy of films set in the Abaddon Hotel (more on that later in the month), and so sets itself up for a sequel while also rounding off the narrative within an hour and a half. While not all of its scares work perfectly, it’s a damn fine piece of found footage horror. It also has a creepy clown that puts Pennywise to shame

Hell House LLC is available to stream on Shudder.

Phenomena (1985)

Phenomena (1985)

Dario Argento’s Phenomena opens with the brutal murder of a schoolgirl, somewhere in Swiss Alps, by a…well, something chained in a room in a remote cabin. Things just get weirder from there. The film mostly follows Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor, who arrives in Switzerland to attend the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls (yes, really), where a bunch of violent murders have been taking place. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder, then stumbles onto the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a disabled etymologist with a chimpanzee helper, with whom she forms a close friendship (both the professor and the chimpanzee). McGregor discovers that Jennifer has a telepathic connection to insects and realizes that this connection might be the key to finding the killer.

Phenomena is a rare Argento film in the sense that it doesn’t spend all that much time dwelling on the visual poetry of murder. While there are the hallmarks of giallo, especially in the opening scene, the film is more interested in exploring the bizarre affinity between Jennifer and the insects than it is in focusing on the quest for the killer. And for that, it’s actually a refreshing experience. There are some excellent set pieces, including one scene where Jennifer summons the help of flies to defend her from bullies, as well as the usual giallo staples of sudden, violent deaths with bright red blood and rolling heads. But Phenomena is less soaked with atmosphere than some of Argento’s more popular works—there is the play of light and dark, but none of the flights of color and fantasy that come into movies like Tenebrae or Inferno. There’s also a heightened emphasis on characterization and dialogue, especially between McGregor, Jennifer and, um, the chimp. The music here is slightly less haunting than Suspiria, though it does emphasize Argento’s style, with bursts of head-banging rock and shrieking chords to underline apparently banal moments.

What is most surprising about Phenomena is how slow-moving and creepy it is, avoiding more explicit acts of violence in favor of building tension and character. Then the third act happens. For experienced Argento viewer, you know that his films tend to get very weird in the third act, with the build-up to the denouement usually more coherent than the actual climax. But Phenomena really does stand by itself, both for artistry and total, batshit insanity. The solution to the mystery is definitely there and it does make sense – kind of – but the sudden plunge into excess is jarring and, in its own way, curiously delightful. It should suffice to say that everything the film has introduced along the way does pay off – including an incongruous scene involving the chimp – and does so in maddest way possible.

Phenomena has been criticized for its rather limited performances and unclear resolution—and certainly Jennifer Connelly became a better actress as she grew up. Pleasence is delightful, however, and has great chemistry with the chimp, herself a very prominent player in the film. And Phenomena is no worse in terms of acting than any other Argento film—giallo is rarely known for great performances, after all.

While Suspiria and Deep Red are works of art, Phenomena feels more intensely personal, as though Argento has dropped any pretense of what’s expected of him and is simply doing what he wants. Phenomena is something like an amusement park ride that sails along pleasantly but uninterestingly, and then drops you fifty feet down. You know it’s coming, but it’s still quite a stomach-churning experience.

Phenomena is available to stream on Shudder