Posts Tagged ‘Bloody Movies’

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.

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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.

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.

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.