A Tricky Treat (2015) and Shortcut (2016)

Playing in Final Girls’s Dying of Laughter shorts program is the comic A Tricky Treat, from director Patricia Chica, about one family’s worrying Halloween tradition. Less predictable than one might expect, this film takes a twist that I recall coming up in the anthology film Trick R’ Treat and gives it another little turn, resulting in a horror short that’s essentially a visual joke. It does remind the viewer that horror and comedy are closely aligned, and that we both laugh and cringe in equal measure at some of the more horrific things we come up with. While not exactly groundbreaking, this is a fun little film.

Prano Bailey-Bond’s Shortcut strikes a similar comedic note, this time as a horrific pun. While his girlfriend sleeps, a man drives home, finally opting to turn off the GPS and take a short cut. While it’s not clear what the film is leading up to, when the joke finally comes, it’s both hilarious and, yes, a little cringe-worthy. There’s a slight edge of revenge beneath the final shots, which the camera has set up for us without entirely telegraphing its intent. The lad-ish lead does increasingly unpleasant things as his girlfriend naps, making one feel that he sort of deserves his comeuppance. Sort of.

Both shorts highlight the close relationship between horror and comedy, and even find humor in suffering (as long as we know it’s not real). A Tricky Treat subverts expectations, while Shortcut plays on a verbal and visual pun. Both films take recognizable tropes and bend them, just slightly, altering perspective just enough to make us question our eyes and the assumptions we make. Both are clever and actually quite straightforward, if you pay close enough attention, but it’s to the directors’ credits that you might not know what’s going on until it actually pays off.

A Tricky Treat and Shortcut are currently playing at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. 

The Betrayal (2015) and Earworm (2016)

The Betrayal and Earworm, included in the Phantasmagoria program of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival this year, are among the shortest and most effective horror shorts I’ve come across yet.

Susan Young’s The Betrayal comes in at only five minutes, telling a rapid-fire story of medical violence and control through quick, almost single frame flashes of court case files and doctor’s notes. A woman comes to her doctor after being assaulted by her husband, only to come under the doctor’s control as he prescribes a series of drugs that she becomes increasingly dependent on. The flashing images and eerie, overlapping voiceover ramps up a sense of dread while creating character with minimal interference. It’s a sharp and nasty story, told brilliantly.

Earworm, meanwhile, is a tight and humorous little thriller, also coming at just about five minutes, and directed by Tara Price. A man awakens suddenly in the middle of the night with music blaring in his ear. He becomes increasingly distressed as he’s unable to sleep when the music suddenly blasts on at random intervals. What happens next is both disgusting and, in the end, quite funny.

Both films push the viewer into close proximity with the lead characters, focalizing through their experiences to create horrific experiences of the strange and even the mundane. The Betrayal doesn’t even feature on-screen actors, relying instead on pure cinematic renderings of images and sounds that shove the viewer into the position of the beleagured, assaulted woman. Earworm is the more linear of the two, but the sudden blasts of music and the man’s anguished screams lends terror to the narrative, focalizing through the lead. This is what horror cinema is all about – torturing your audience.

Both The Betrayal and Earworm are showing at Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. 

Rites of Vengeance (2017)

Izzy Lee’s other film at the Final Girl Berlin Film Festival is Rites of Vengeancea sharp and sad short about three nuns who seek revenge on a priest after he commits a terrible sin.

As with Lee’s Innsmouth, this film focuses on the combination of monstrosity and the terrible beauty in female relationships, in this case with a far clearer moral universe. There’s no dialogue, just image and sound, resulting in a lyrical ballet that is shocking, satisfying, and just a little bit sad. The determination of the nuns (one of them is named “Sister Mercy”) to punish their priest’s sins is shocking at first, but the film adds a small twist at the end that cements the viewer’s sympathies. While the subject might be a bit pat nowadays, it’s nonetheless powerful.

As I’ve gone through these screeners from the Final Girls festival, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that female writers and directors are among the most interesting voices in horror, expanding an always unique genre’s viewpoint and developing new ways of telling stories (and new stories to tell). Horror has gone through many different permutations, but it has too often been male-dominated, with masculine perspectives and prerogatives prized while relegating women to the role either of monster or victim (or both). Here, women are the heroes, the victims, the manipulators, the psychos, the monsters, and the misunderstood villains. Simply putting a woman behind the camera alters the perspective, and certainly these directors all have something to say. Final girls no more – they’re the Final Women.

Rites of Vengeance (2017) is playing at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. 

Innsmouth (2015)

The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, celebrating women in horror, began yesterday, launching a program that includes some past and present horror shorts by female directors. Today, its Body Horror slate premieres, which includes the Lovecraft riff Innsmouth, from director Izzy Lee.

Innsmouth takes “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” one of H.P. Lovecraft’s more notorious stories, and boils it down to a murder mystery, as Detective Olmstead (Diana Porter) heads to the town of Innsmouth after discovering a woman’s body, murdered and apparently the host to fish eggs. The only clue is a photograph of the dead woman with the name “Innsmouth” written across the back. Not long after Olmstead’s arrival in the sleepy little community, she’s accosted and brought to see Alice Marsh (Tristan Risk), the daughter of Captain Marsh, the founder of Innsmouth.

The film breezily riffs on Lovecraft’s story-and happily avoids the story’s more problematic issues-and seeks to express a new horror all its own. It draws out some of the psycho-sexual undertones of much of Lovecraft while simultaneously manipulating those concepts, placing women and female characters central to the plot and allowing them full scope to possess, and subvert, their own monstrosity. The lead actors are excellent – especially the delightfully bizarre Tristan Risk as Alice Marsh, who fully taps into the gleeful malevolence and sexual threat of her villain.

Coming in at a scant ten minutes, it’s hard not to want the film to be longer and more developed, engaging more profoundly with the weird mythos it plays with and seeks to alter. Innsmouth feels almost unfinished, as though it wanted to do more with the creepy concepts, but didn’t have the time or space. Frankly, I enjoyed what I saw, but I really wanted more.

Innsmouth is showing June 10 at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival as part of their Body Horror shorts program. 

Goblin Baby (2015)

The terrors of motherhood are ripe for horror films, but female directors have only just recently taken possession of them. While films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Brood seek to cast the experience of pregnant women and mothers as sources of the abject and terrifying, it’s only recently that those experiences have been truly focalized through female characters, from a female perspective. We can add Shoshana Rosenbaum’s short Goblin Baby to the list of freaky motherhood movies that finally – FINALLY – take things from a female perspective.

Goblin Baby tells the story of Claire (Oriana Oppice), a new mother pushed to her limits when her husband Jamie (Joe Brack) leaves for a few days and their son Charlie will not stop crying. After leaving Charlie alone for a few minutes, she returns to find the baby curiously calm. She soon becomes convinced that Charlie isn’t Charlie at all, but a goblin changeling exchanged for her real baby.

Goblin Baby is a tense, sharply edited film, packed tight with meaning in its fifteen minute run time. Claire runs the gamut of emotions–exhausted by her crying baby, angry at her detached husband and mother-in-law, and despairing and paranoid at the apparent shift in her son’s demeanor. The film walks the line between the supernatural and the psychological – are Claire’s fears to be taken seriously, or is her exhaustion and possible postpartum depression to blame as she begins to see shadowy figures running through the woods? Just how the film will resolve the conflicts is uncertain, and so the tension rises with each passing frame as we delve deeper into Claire’s psyche.

There’s so much to be enjoyed with Goblin Baby that I was quite sad when the film ended – I wanted more of what Rosenbaum has to offer. Would it be too much to hope that she might someday expand Goblin Baby to a full length feature? Man, I really hope so.

Goblin Baby showed June 9 at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, as part of their Mommy Issues shorts program. 

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is an odd entry into Mario Bava’s parade of insanity, not least because it suddenly shifts about halfway through to something far weirder and more supernatural than it initially appears. But that in itself lifts it above the better but messier movies of the giallo canon, giving it a humor and gleeful malevolence all its own.

The film begins with John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), a devilishly handsome young man who inherited his mother’s upscale bridal boutique. He divides his time between fashion shoots, fittings with brides, arguing with his wife Mildred (Laura Betti), and violently murdering young women on their honeymoons. Rather than concealing Harrington’s psychosis, the film puts it front and center, starting off with a vicious murder and then Harrington’s voiceover, in which he frankly admits that he’s a psychopath. The reason for his need to kill? With every murder, he experiences a flashback to his childhood and the death of his mother, and it is only through killing that the memories get clearer. As time goes on, we begin to understand that Harrington is impotent, and the murders of the brides take on even more psychosexual overtones (as if they needed any).

Bava injects this giallo plot with a hefty dose of humor (in my limited experience with giallo, Bava seems to be the director most aware of the inherent campiness of his work). That humor cuts through some of the more graphic depictions of murder, not to mention Harrington’s underlying misogyny and fear of sexuality. While the camera gleefully captures every lurid detail of the killer’s hatchet work, it also throws in some lovely ironic twists and tricks, focalizing through Harrington’s eyes as he handles his victims and his less victimized wife. Mildred, in fact, begins the film as a vicious harpie and ends it as the same, but her presence is also the saving grace–she despises her husband and plans to torture him for all of eternity, no matter what he does to escape her.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is far more style than substance, of course, but somehow that doesn’t condemn it. The lurid photography, constant voiceover, and somewhat predictable twists are all part of what makes giallo so very entertaining. Then, without apparent warning, it turns into a ghost story and seems to delight even more in the torture it wreaks on its protagonist than it did on his murder. Where 0ther giallos have a tendency to dwell for so long on the poetry of violence that the humor and sympathy ebb away, Bava instead pays greater attention to the actual psychosis going on beneath the surface. Harrington is searching for an answer to his madness by indulging it, and so is something of a victim himself, but he’s never figured into the hero–he’s the villain, and he’s going to be made to pay the price, in a most delightful and satisfying way.

Bava’s work here closely resembles Roger Corman’s, or the Hammer horror films being made in England around the same time – he even references his own films, when Harrington uses Black Sabbath for an alibi. If Hatchet for the Honeymoon becomes repetitious after a while, it’s worth sticking it out for that shift in the second half of the film, which twists ghosts and ghost stories into a simple but impressive shape. A brilliant film? Hardly. But man is it fun.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon is available to stream on Shudder.

13 Ghosts (1960)

It’s easy to get so caught up in the gimmickry of William Castle that one almost forgets that he made seriously enjoyable films. 13 Ghosts is one of his finest, and one that most clearly exploits the marrying of gimmickry and supernatural that Castle enjoyed so much.

The story opens with paleontologist Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) being willed a house by his uncle Plato, a scientist and master of the occult. The house is a godsend for the impoverished Cyrus and his family, including youngest boy Buck (Charles Herbert), daughter Medea (Jo Morrow), and wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp). They move in immediately, despite warnings from Zorba’s lawyer Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner) that the house is inhabited by 12 very nasty ghosts, captured by Zorba using a special set of goggles. Strange things begin happening straight away as the ghosts reveal themselves and plague the newly arrived family.

As with many of Castle’s films, 13 Ghosts mixes a carnival-esque atmosphere of jump-scares and gimmicks into its haunting tale. Despite the warnings about the house, and the subsequent hauntings, the Zorbas actually begin to get comfortable in their new abode. Buck, already obsessed with ghosts, enjoys experiencing the supernatural firsthand, and begins learning about the ghosts’ pasts from the housekeeper Elaine (Margaret Hamilton), Zorba’s housekeeper and occult assistant. The ghosts float in and out of view, appearing as faded apparitions that engage with the human world in weird and occasionally destructive ways. Castle’s gimmick, in this one, is Illusion-O, a sort of semi-3D type of viewing goggles that allowed viewers to “see” the ghosts more starkly through red-filtered goggles. The ghosts are still there even without the goggles, but Castle pushed the concept of Illusion-O for the people willing to brave the terror.

Even without the gimmick, 13 Ghosts holds up quite well as a half-comedic, quirky little horror film that embraces its personal campiness. The idea of being able to capture ghosts by seeing them is a fascinating one (and predates Ghostbusters by more than twenty years), but the film doesn’t dwell for too long on the unpleasantness of the ghosts’ pasts, nor on their reasons for continuing to be tied to earth. They’re apparitions, leave-overs from unfinished lives, not in need of being fully fleshed. But their backgrounds are still appropriately gruesome, from an Italian chef doomed to murder his wife and her lover over and over again, to a headless lion tamer (plus lion) constantly searching for his head.

It’s the human beings that live with them who are really interesting, and it’s here that the film lives up to Castle’s strange standards. The Zorba family are oddballs, handling their haunted home with tongues firmly in cheek–in fact, they more than once recall the family Oscar Wilde created in his comic ghost story The Canterville Ghost. Woods and DeCamp make for a great onscreen husband and wife, a sort of slightly kinky Ward and June Cleaver, but a lot of the focus goes to Charles Herbert as Buck, played with a combination of innocence and a small edge of childish ghoulishness. Margaret Hamilton’s small but effective role gives a little shot of metanarrative, as Buck occasionally asks her if she’s really a witch, a neat complement to Buck’s obsession with ghost stories that opens the film. There are further references to the gimmickry of the supernatural, including a devilishly enjoyable use of an Ouija board, which was once again gaining popularity as a game in the early 60s.

The practical effects used both in the appearances of the ghosts themselves, and on the moving candles, shattering milk jugs, and flying cleavers, hold up brilliantly even now. It’s hard to tell how effective (or not) Castle’s Illusion-O concept would have been, but the film happily works without the gimmick. There’s much that Castle is dealing with here, about turning spirits and the spirit world into things for entertainment or experimentation (or just the source of old-fashioned human greed) without fully understanding or respecting them. Under the carnival facade is a more serious treatment of the spirit world than appears on the surface–you just might need Illusion-O to find it.

13 Ghosts is available to stream on Shudder.