Innsmouth (Short) (Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2017)

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 (Short) (Final Girls Berlin Film Festival)

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)

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)

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.

A Knock At The Door (Short) (2017)

A Knock at the Door (2017)

I am rapidly becoming more convinced that female writers, directors, and female-driven subjects will end up being a major force in the development of the horror genre. This has become increasingly apparent with a spate of fairly recent releases, as women carve out their niche is what has been a male-centric and dominated genre. At the NewFilmakers LA festival this month, female directors have taken a front seat with a showcase of films. One of these is the short A Knock at the Door, written and directed by Katrina Rennells and Wendie Weldon, and produced by Kelley Mack.

A Knock at the Door is an unsolved mystery of sorts, telling in its scant eight minutes the story of Nick (Drew Jenkins), who comes home one evening and hears a terrifying scream from next door. The next instant, Sara (Mack) knocks on his door with an explanation that Nick (and the viewer) doesn’t exactly buy.

A Knock at the Door has a twisted spirit that would serve it well as a full-length feature – in fact, its one major flaw is its length, which limits its story to the barest details and offers little exposition in what we see. Still, for its shortness, it manages to ramp up the tension very quickly, via quick cuts and disturbing sound cues played over otherwise innocuous moments. Like many contemporary horror films, A Knock at the Door creates a cyclical story based in a suburban setting, the threat being the people that surround you every day. Just what is happening to Nick – and why – is never fully elucidated, but the film doesn’t burden itself with attempting to offer explanations for the inexplicable. Nor does it rely on jump scares or gore to make its point; flashes of horror and subtle, unfinished moments are all it needs.

Nevertheless, I found myself wishing that this was a full length feature rather than a short. One would hope that Rennells, Weldon, et al will make further forays into full length horror films. What the film certainly reinforces is that female writers and directors are damn good at horror.

So, watch out for A Knock at the Door. There’s something very interesting going on here.

The Woman In The Woods: The Witch (2016) and Horror Narrative

The Witch (2016)

*originally published on The News Hub

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Whatever you do, don’t go into the woods – there are witches there. That’s the basic moral of The Witch, one of the odder and more provocative works of cinematic horror to appear in the past few years. Directed by first timer Robert Eggers and without a single star to its name, it has received a wide theater release on the strength of critical praise from Sundance and beyond. It won the Directing Award at Sundance and has been critically touted as the “scariest film of the year,” a slow-burning folktale that reaches back to the roots of Puritanism and our ancestors’ terror of Satanic possession. Critics have dubbed it a milestone in horror, a game changer, a new world order.

There is no doubt that The Witch is a remarkable film. At a basic cinematic level, it’s a brilliant use of atmosphere: the central family occupy a cabin on the fringes of a haunted wood (Canada, standing in for New England), replete with fog and winding, uncertain paths that lead farther from civilization. The film’s well-placed moments of violence and slow-building tension found themselves within the hysterical underpinnings of Puritan religion, making the entire film as much a rumination on sin and salvation as it is a fairly straightforward haunting narrative, the fear of the witch in the woods. It is an effective, intelligent, and somewhat inaccessible art-house film – a film that deals more with the vagaries of belief and superstition than it does with actual scares. There are long sections of silence punctuated by dialogue that has characters speaking in a dialect steeped in religious tradition – a tradition that is never fully elucidated, with Biblically founded terrors that are never fully explained. The Witch is practically a slice of life, with little explanation for much of its horror. It is many things, and all of them interesting, but it is not the horror film we have come to expect.

The Witch both is and is not a horror film. It hits on specific tropes, but does not spend much time in examining their cause within the world of the film. The family is ejected from their colony, forced to eke out their existence in isolation, yet we never learn why they were removed in the first place. Nor is it terribly clear how isolated they really are – we know that they still trade to a degree, and that the colony is still accessible, if a day’s ride away. The film introduces concepts of the demonic possession of women and children, communion with Satan, blood sacrifice, and witches’ Sabbaths, yet the religious underpinnings of these beliefs are developed only through cryptic dialogue and never outright exposition. These are not modern people haunted by an age-old evil at odds with contemporary belief structures, as in films like Paranormal Activity, but a family steeped in a cultural tradition where these things are very real. The Witch advertises itself as a “New England folktale,” and it is something like listening to a folktale from an antecedent culture we no longer live in. The Witch does indeed hit generic horror markers, but from the perspective of foundational horror myths themselves. It looks back in time to treat of terror from the source.

The horror genre has gone through numerous permutations in its long, complex history. Even if one passes by horror’s literary and folktale antecedents, the changes in genre from the advent of film to the contemporary period mean that some traditional horror is almost unrecognizable as scary to us now. Horror is steeped in the bending of tradition – it possesses its own rules, which it subsequently breaks, and then enforces new rules based on the breaking of the old ones. In the most simplistic terms, horror brings up the fears of the culture from which it stems, often altered or manipulated so that our monsters are but amalgams of our collective terrors. Horror is the collective cultural nightmare and even if we don’t always find it particularly scary, we always see something of ourselves within both the victims and the monsters. In this context, what are we to make of The Witch?

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One of the through-lines of The Witch is fear not just of the Other, but of the female Other. Female monstrosity is as old as the horror genre, and The Witch seeks for some of the historical antecedents of the fear of the feminine. Early in the film, the audience learns that witches are real and that they do all of the things that old Puritan stories say they do: stealing unbaptized children, dancing naked at midnight, having sex with Satan, transforming their shapes, leading men (or boys) astray. From our cultural perspective, The Witch reinforces the continued contemporary fear of the feminine – the witch (one of them at least) is an ugly monstrosity, the very symbol of the monstrous feminine. The film does not treat of the viciousness of witch trials or accusations, nor does it account for the foundational fears of powerful (and sexual) women that made the Puritans so very hysterical. Witch lore is rich in manipulative misogyny and power dynamics, yet The Witch avoids this dialogue in favor of a family drama driven by externalized fear and internal strife. At the same time, the film provides a catharsis of a sort, as the teenage girl at the edge of womanhood chooses to reject her father’s repressive religion and ally herself to the (feminine) darkness. The film does not fall into the error of proclaiming itself as feminist or anti-feminist, but rather presents a complex, multi-layered narrative that presents itself as an examination into the foundations of contemporary horror.

The horror genre has been going through yet another shift in focus. A genre often – though not exclusively – dominated by patriarchal prerogative, it now has begun to focalize through the female experience. Women in horror have often been monsters and have often been victims, but rarely have they been the driving narrative force. Rarely have they possessed the camera, either behind it or in front of it, and so films like The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, It Follows, Teeth, and, now, The Witch are unique in their focus on the feminine experience, both from within the characters themselves and from their external participation patriarchal structure. Even the original version of Paranormal Activity, a film that arguably began the most recent low-budget, low maintenance horror craze, was directed through the experience of a woman faced with male disbelief and then fear. The Witch, though far from a feminist work, adds another piece to the puzzle.

In returning to the origins of American horror, the film places itself in a unique and problematic position vis-a-vis its audience. The audience with which I saw The Witch was not particularly receptive to what the film was trying to achieve. While they were relatively respectful during the first half of the film, the building of tension and atmosphere began to give way to boredom. The people beside, behind, and in front began to talk, and then to giggle during silences or periods with long stretches of dialogue. The lack of jump scares, of any real recognizable “horror” tropes, evidently got to them. By the time the film had ended, both my friend and myself were seething with anger because we had been robbed of our cinematic experience.

I think this experience was indicative of a failing not of The Witch, but of it’s marketing, and of the way that critics have treated it. The Witch is not a horror film in the contemporary sense – it is an introspective drama, a folktale with horror elements that nonetheless cannot and should not occupy the same space as Paranormal Activity. It is about a culture that you must have some background with going in, as well as a willingness to pay attention to the film’s structuring of religious superstition. To offer this film to audiences with the promise of “the scariest film ever made” is to set yourself up for exactly the problem I had: an audience that grows increasingly frustrated with the film failing to fulfill new genre conventions. And so the film suffers, along with those who wish to experience The Witch as it actually stands, and not as critics imply that it’s supposed to stand.

Even as critics tout the film, audience response has been overwhelmingly negative. The complaint, I think, is not so much that The Witch is a bad film, but that rather it does not appeal to the things that many audiences want it to appeal to. It is an art-house film, applicable to those who want to investigate terror in the silences, the power of Calvinist religion, the fear of sin, the origins of horror. This is a world in which witches are real, in which children can accuse their elders of communing with the devil, in which Lucifer can appear in the form of a black goat, in which freedom comes at the price of your soul. This is the world of the Puritans, a world of darkness and real terror, but a world that is full of silence, of struggle, of random death and rampant dedication to a very strict system of belief. It is not a world of things that go bump in the night.

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I believe that The Witch will ultimately receive its due and will be understood for the thing that it is and not the thing that it is not. At the very least its critically enforced popularity asks greater questions about what scares us as a culture, both where those fears came from and where they might be going. The future of the horror genre is bright, it seems, even as we wander in the darkness.

Black Sabbath (1963)

Black Sabbath (1963)

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Mario Bava, where have you been all my life? The Italian horror maestro really is just worming his way into my heart, especially after Black Sabbath, his 1963 horror anthology film. When you put Boris Karloff, vampires, and floating corpses in the same film, you’re guaranteed to get my attention.

Black Sabbath comprises three stories of about a half hour each, making up three different subgenres of horror. The first is “The Telephone,” about a young woman who keeps receiving threatening phone calls from a stalker late one night. The second, starring Karloff, is “The Wurdulak,” a vampire story about Gurca (Karloff), the patriarch of a family who has successfully killed a vampire that’s been terrorizing the countryside, only to become a victim of the creature himself. Finally, “The Drop of Water” is a ghost story about a woman who steals a ring from a corpse and is subsequently haunted in the weirdest and creepiest way.

All three stories take fairly standard horror narratives and give them a creepy spin. “The Wurdulak” in particular introduces some interesting elements to the vampire story, with the vampire longing for the blood of those he loved the most during life. Unfortunately, it’s also the dullest of the three episodes, drawing out the narrative to an unnatural length and introducing a mild love story into the mix that fails to summon any heat. “The Telephone” is a precursor to what would become the more prevalent giallo style – deeply stylized with perverse psycho-sexual undertones, it’s a delicious little aperitif before the meat of the other two episodes.

But the best of the three is undoubtedly “The Drop of Water,” a tight, intense piece of horror filmmaking that makes the most out of its short runtime. It’s actually quite a scary episode, showcasing a grotesque narrative quite similar to Corman’s Poe adaptations. And while the conclusion is extreme – even a bit silly by today’s standards – most of the episode is remarkably subdued, relying more on pulsing lights and eerie noises than on cheap jump scares. It’s an excellent piece of horror filmmaking, and could stand on its own as a short without the support of the other two.

Black Sabbath has forced me to appreciate Bava’s work, and to actively seek out more of it. And I’m a bit excited to indulge in the oeuvre of a new director.

Black Sabbath is available to stream via Shudder.