Posts Tagged ‘Bloody Movies’

Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Thanks to Shudder, I’ve had the opportunity to watch some really excellent horror films that I’d probably never have even heard of, and many that I’d have never had the stomach to rent. And while I admit that my J-horror education has been sorely lacking, at least I have experienced the power of both Ju-on and Ringu, as well as their American counterparts. But Noroi: The Curse is an animal all its own, and in some ways a better film than either Ju-on or Ringu – a sharply made, very frightening found footage feature.

The Curse opens with several titles explaining that the film was put together from footage shot by documentary filmmaker Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), who vanished after his home burned to the ground with his wife Keiko inside.  Kobayashi investigated paranormal activity around Japan, this time focusing on the story of Junko Ishii (Tomono Kuga) and her son, whom Kobayashi meets after a neighbor claims to hear strange noises coming from their house. The film builds slowly as Kobayashi investigates Ishii, who suddenly vanishes, and intercuts this footage with the experience of actress Marika Matsumoto (playing herself), who comes into contact with a malevolent spirit while appearing on a “ghost hunters” TV show. Meanwhile, a young girl named Kana Yano (Rio Kanno) appears on a psychic program and then disappears after being visited by a man in a tinfoil hat, whom Kobayashi eventually tracks down. As the narratives intersect in Kobayashi’s film, the horrible story of the curse begins to come to light.

Noroi: The Curse is a slow-burner of a horror film, far less dependent on visual scares than similar J-horror films. The effect is more psychological, allowing glimpses out of the corner of the eye, shadows across walls, and weird occurrences in the middle of the night. It plays like a documentary, a very precisely constructed narrative meant to elucidate the investigation of the paranormal, rather than a horror movie. As the narrative begins to take shape, with repetition of events and the slow reveal of what the curse even is, the film increases the tension. It blurs the line between documentary reality and fiction in casting an actress playing herself, and showcasing Japanese tabloid shows as part of the revelation of old evil. In that, it significantly predates films like Paranormal Activity, which rely on the same blurring of lines and slow-burn myth-making, rather than grotesque images, to strike fear into the heart.

The slow pacing of The Curse and the complex storyline that has to bring together several apparently disparate strands of narrative might turn off some horror viewers, who prefer their terror more straightforward. But I must admit that this is exactly the kind of horror movie that I love. The tension is there, but it builds slowly, the frames packed with meaning and little clues to the interconnectedness of the stories. Japanese horror films in general take a very different view of ghosts from many Western films, emphasizing the carrying over of demons and ghosts across generations and among people apparently unrelated. There’s a sense of inevitability, of a horror that cannot be put down or escaped but that must simply be accepted, because it’s going to get you eventually. What’s more, it will keep going, through the generations, a testament to the hubris of human beings.

The Curse surprised me in how thoughtful it was, and how dedicated to really creating the illusion of a documentary film put together after the death of its filmmaker. As the pieces of The Curse begin to fit together, the horror comes fully home, but it’s the build-up that’s really delightful, the slow and measured construction of real terror.

Noroi: The Curse is available to watch on Shudder. 

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. 

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. 

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.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

Horror filmmaking continues into its renaissance, thanks in large part to a burgeoning indie scene that has dragged the genre back from the mainstream and given voice to writers, directors, and productions that would otherwise have none (read: it ain’t just straight white dudes running the show any more). Today, A24 adds to their formidable indie cred with the release of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a fascinating little horror movie from the mind of Osgood Perkins.

Set in a Catholic girls’ boarding school somewhere in Bramford, NY, The Blackcoat’s Daughter focuses on classmates Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), whose parents fail to show up to pick them up for a week’s vacation. While Kat is convinced that her parents are dead, Rose attempts to reassure her, but has problems of her own. Left alone in the school, with the sole exception of two nuns, bizarre things begin to happen, and it becomes apparent that the girls are not totally alone, the hallways stalked by something not quite human. Their story is intercut with Joan (Emma Roberts), a girl who arrives at a bus station in the dead of winter and is given a ride by Bill (James Remar) and his wife Linda (Lauren Holly) to Bramford.

The film cannily avoids revealing too much of its hand at once by constructing a three-pronged tale from varying perspectives, intercutting the experiences of Rose, Kat, and Joan without offering too much introduction or explanation. Just what is happening, and why, only becomes apparent with the piecing together of narratives and minor, apparently throwaway lines. Because of this, the initial half hour of the film might feel disjointed and directionless, but as it all begins to come together, you realize that there was indeed a method at work.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has much in common with other films that involve devilish hauntings – and bears more than a passing resemblance, visually and thematically, to The Exorcist and The Witch. Yet it is also, fundamentally, about loneliness, and about the lengths to which people will go to escape from the isolation of their lives. The girls are isolated, physically and metaphorically. The inherent loneliness of their situation is rendered palpable by their surroundings, and the horrors that they face become almost inevitable in their enforced isolation – even the blankets on their beds look cold and inappropriate for the weather. The only source of real heat, and color, on the screen is the furnace in the school’s basement – a chilling symbol, in fact, as the significance of the furnace becomes clearer. The storytelling technique here meshes brilliantly with the stark, almost black and white cinematography (and, having lived through numerous Central NY winters, I can safely say that the depiction is pretty much spot-on).

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a fascinating film, another excellent indie horror that frightens without relying on major jump scares or buckets of blood (there is blood, but it’s late in the day and it’s very effective). While it doesn’t quite live up to the multiple layers of A24’s similar production The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter does bring an oblique terror all its own.