Bloody October: Grabbers (2012)

Grabbers (2012)

After reading way too much about Harvey Weinstein, I decided that I needed to see a movie about a different kind of eldritch monster from the depths of the ocean. So I popped on Grabbers, about a little Irish town menaced by octopean monstrosities with a way better weakness than those water-hating aliens in Signs.

Grabbers introduces us to a sweet little village on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. It’s home to exactly two police officers: Ciaran O’Shea (Richard Coyle) and the newly arrived Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). He’s an alcoholic, she’s a workaholic, and so romance will of course be in the offing. When hundred of sea creatures wash up on the beach, the Garda get involved to figure out just what the hell is happening just in time for people to begin vanishing left and right. Meanwhile, one of the many local drunks Paddy (Lalor Roddy) traps an ugly sea monster and takes it home. Dubbing it a “grabber” after it tries to eat him, he carts the creature off to the local biologist, Dr. Smith (Russell Tovey), who proclaims that it’s not quite of this world. But Paddy has discovered the creature’s weakness: it lives on blood, and Paddy’s blood alcohol level was so high when it attacked him that he literally poisoned the thing. The only solution to surviving the creatures, then, is to get roaring drunk.

Grabbers is just an incredibly fun, incredibly Irish little monster movie, with some effective monstrosities to cut through the comedy, and a massive drink-up at the film’s center. The conceit is amusing, of course, and the film carries it off well, building to the revelations of the monsters and how to defeat them with deprecating humor and a charming self-awareness. There are a few plot holes, but that’s all right – I don’t really watch monster movies for the story structure. The romance angle is sweet as well, with a hilarious scene in which a very drunk Lisa explains O’Shea’s life story to him. Grabbers also posits the question of how roaring drunk people can possibly fight vicious aliens, and does so in some hilarious (and gruesome) ways.

I’ve seen very few humorous Halloween movies this year, which is always a mistake. Grabbers was a wonderful distraction from the occasional darkness of the holiday, a reminder that tales of terror need not be soul-crushing. Sit down, have a pint, and prepare to wrestle the tentacled nasties until final call.

Grabbers is available to stream on Shudder.

Bloody October: Inferno (1980)

Inferno (1980)

By now, at least some of you will be aware that I’m a nascent fan of Italian giallo. While my experience of it is not massive, my adoration at least for Bava and Argento is real and passionate. So of course I could not let an October pass by without getting at least one more Argento film under my belt. This time it’s Inferno, a quasi-sequel to Suspiria that takes that film’s nightmarish quality and tries to raise it by half.

Inferno involves musicologist Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a student in Rome who heads to New York City when his sister Rose (Irene Miracle) mysteriously vanishes from her haunted apartment building. Rose had recently grown obsessed with a book called The Three Mothers that she obtained from the antiques dealer next door – a book that supposedly reveals the locations of three forces of evil, who live in Rome, Freiburg, and New York, in houses built for them by the architect Varelli. Mark attempts to solve the riddle of the three, and find out what has become of his sister.

This being an Argento film, the plot is simple but the film itself is complex and full of plot holes – some of which the director doesn’t really care about filling. What he does care about, and what this film has in spades, is stylish murder, bizarre music, and freaky set-pieces that combine art house aesthetics with exploitation film structure. No one quite put these elements together like Argento did, and if Inferno doesn’t hit the high points of Suspiria, it comes dangerously close.

Murders there are a-plenty, though Inferno, like its sister film, does take its time in setting up the suspense and horror before actually getting down to the bright red blood and terrifying acts of violence. It aspires to the same fever dream aesthetics as Suspiria, featuring art deco apartments within Gothic settings, reds, blues, and yellows vibrant against inky blacks. Much can be written, and probably has been, about the juxtaposition of confusing plotting, art house aesthetics, and brutal murders within Argento’s oeuvre, and Inferno is an excellent example of the combination of the schlocky, the extreme, and the brilliantly artistic that so characterizes his films. The murders, when they come, are horrible artistic acts, with grasping hands, knives slicing through throats, and one epically disturbing death involving rats.

Inferno doesn’t quite live up to Suspiria, though, as it lacks the latter film’s malevolent energy and sense of claustrophobia. Inferno could have done with keeping its focus on that apartment building, constructing the suspense from that, rather than the somewhat haphazard jumping between locations. The movement between New York and Rome gets confusing – as do the reasons behind the killings – and the film only really gains momentum when it embeds our hero (and several heroines) in their apartments and labyrinthine corridors, stalked by an apparently supernatural killer. Yet some of its set-pieces – like an underwater sequence that leaves you breathless – are brilliant and audacious, even if they feel ultimately nonsensical.

Of course, the point of an Argento film is never to make sense. In his best work, he achieves a dream logic that falls apart if interrogated too closely. He constructs art house nightmares, terrifying without quite putting a label on why. It’s always hard to find precise logic in an Argento film, and futile to try with Inferno. Just let the horrors wash over you.

Bloody October: Burn, Witch, Burn (1962)

Burn, Witch, Burn (1962)

In the pantheon of witch movies, I was surprised that I hadn’t ever heard of Burn, Witch, Burn, a sharp-edged little Gothic film from 1962, directed by Stanley Hayers from a script by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson (!). The film has plenty of B-grade bonafides, but it’s not a B-grade film – and features Peter Wyngarde in perhaps his least scene-chewing performance ever.

Wyngarde is Norman Taylor, a psychology professor at an unspecified British university who specializes in superstitions and belief systems. He’s recently returned from Jamaica with his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) and up for a major promotion at the university. Norman is intensely rationalistic, however, claiming that superstition is a matter of belief and not reality – in order for witchcraft to work, you have to believe it will work. This comes into conflict when he discovers that Tansy is a practitioner of “conjure magic,” which she learned in Jamaica. She’s been leaving talismans about the house with the hope of influencing events and protecting herself and her husband. Furious, Norman makes Tansy burn all of the talismans, and unsurprisingly, things start to go horribly wrong.

I went into Burn, Witch, Burn expecting a schlocky witch movie, and I got something far more interesting (though still schlocky). Yes, the usual questions of belief vs. rationality are still there, but the main focus of the film is actually the depth of Tansy’s love for Norman, and vice versa, which leads to her sacrificing her superstition and him, eventually, his rationality. Female intuition and superstition comes into conflict with male “logic,” and the logic begins to break down very quickly. Norman’s logic begins to pale in comparison to Tansy’s beliefs – and whether they are simply psychological games she plays or whether they are true spells begins not to matter. There’s a marvelous showdown nearing the end of the film where Norman’s own beliefs are challenged, one after the other, as he fights to preserve Tansy’s life.

But Burn, Witch, Burn is also gorgeously photographed, calling to mind the more polished Gothic horrors of the same period, such as The Innocents and The Haunting. Hayers has a good eye, making use of the canted angles and deep focus shots, combined with real locations, that make the Gothic real and physically disconcerting. The camera eye melds the concepts of reality and belief, as the viewer begins to see what Tansy and Norman see, drawing into question the existence of the supernatural and rendering it tangible. That notion is disconcerting and Burn, Witch, Burn makes excellent use of it not only through the overt thematics of plot and dialogue, but through the camera eye itself.

All of that being said, Burn, Witch, Burn, as its title suggests, isn’t exactly a nuanced work of horror. Wyngarde is known for his ham acting, and while he’s more subdued here than in practically anything else, there’s still a hefty serving of bacon. But he’s matched in madness by his co-stars – Janet Blair and Judith Scott, in a bit part, especially. Because the plot is just this side of campy, the overacting is easily forgiven, though the wild-eyed shrieking of some characters nearing the end becomes just a bit wearing.

While it never reaches the heights of similarly themed films from the same period, Burn, Witch, Burn does merit more than a cursory glance. The 1960s marked new interest in witchcraft not just as a force of evil, but as a multi-faceted form of magic and belief just as complex, in its own way, as any major religion. While the moralism isn’t lost here, it is beginning to wobble. Witches aren’t for burning any more.

Bloody October: Hellraiser (1987)

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.

Bloody October: A Bay Of Blood (1971)

A Bay Of Blood (1971)

How did I make it this far into October without watching a Bava film? And how have I managed to not see his most controversial, and probably most influential, work of complete bloody mayhem? For shame, Lauren. For shame.

A Bay of Blood is Mario Bava’s bloodsoaked entry into the slasher genre and, unlike some of his more polished films, jumps from one murder to another with reckless abandon. The plot, such as it is, encompasses the murder of an elderly countess by her husband, who is in turn murdered by an unknown killer. That starts the ball rolling, as a series of people show up at the bayside community where Countess Frederica (Isa Miranda) was killed, many of them with a vested interest in the deceased countess’s property. They’re systematically murdered by one or more killers, rising to a convoluted denouement that explains everything but isn’t nearly as fun as the carnage that has come before.

A Bay of Blood contains all of the set pieces we’ve come to associate with the slasher genre, each of them increasing in brutality to the point of absurdism, featuring a smorgasbord of character types introduced just so they can be mercilessly slaughtered. There’s the relatively innocent hippies who come to the bay for a sex/dance party, and are subjected to the film’s best murders. There are the less innocent real estate developers, the countess’s apparent heirs, and the weird couple who live on the bay and get caught up in the proceedings. Whether intentional or not, there’s a delightful absurdity to the plotting of A Bay of Blood, with motivations both convoluted and mundane. Something that I continue to enjoy about Bava is that his films have a self-evident sense of humor, a nasty enjoyment of their own violence, and acknowledgment that, yeah, we’re all here to see unpleasant people being disemboweled. And A Bay of Blood provides all of those, without apology and without remorse.

It’s quite obvious how influential A Bay of Blood was on the horror genre in general, and on slasher films in particular. The blood explodes off the screen in a shower of lurid red, totally unbelievable and marvelously entertaining. The seventies decor of the bayside cottages only contribute to a sense of the ludicrous and the grotesque, as the camera weaves among shag carpets and art deco lamps to zero in on someone brandishing an ax, and someone else losing their head in extreme close-up. Bava’s aesthetics define giallo and pop up in more polished genre films like Argento’s Deep Red, but unlike many influential films, A Bay of Blood is not unpleasant in its gleeful enjoyment of murder. This is Grande Guignol, this is opera, this is Jacobean revenge tragedy. This is bloody melodrama. It’s all a bit silly, but that’s the fun of it.

Bloody October: Raw (2017)

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.

Bloody October: A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)

A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)

I went into A Tale of Two Sisters with some trepidation, as I’d been warned that it was a dark and deeply tragic fairy tale that would haunt me. That’s certainly true, but I admit I didn’t expect it to be quite so moving as it was, or to feature gorgeous, lush photography that draws out the psychological intensity of its subject.

A Tale of Two Sisters opens with teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) being questioned in a mental institution about “what happened that day” when she went mad – questions she declines to answer. Not long after, she and her sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) return home with their father Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-soo) and their stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah). Su-mi is apparently cured, but soon her psychosis begins to manifest once again. She has a violent hatred for her stepmother, whom she accuses of abusing Su-yeon, and a deep resentment for her father. The only person she has any real connection to is Su-yeon, a quiet, introverted girl in contrast to her sister’s more out-going personality. What’s more, the house they live in appears to be haunted by the ghost of the deceased mother. The family conflicts intensify to a terrifying and, yes, tragic climax as the guilt of the past seeps into the present.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, with the dark secrets of the past manifesting themselves in acts of horrific violence and vague supernatural events. The cause of Su-mi’s madness haunts the family, but none of them speak of it, alluding to it only in whispers. The film creates tension out of those silences, the things that are not said, the fears that are never voiced. As with many ghost stories, the house itself becomes a receptacle for all the anger and resentment that the characters feel, the supernatural manifesting itself not as palpable, physical ghosts, but as fleeting shadows, flashes of memory, and dreams. The question swirls as to whether the ghosts are real or something projected from the tortured psyches of the individuals in the house.

The fairy tale elements are easily marked – Su-mi and Su-yeon as the put-upon children reveling in the memory of their mother, Eun-joo acting out the role of the nearly crazed, oppressive stepmother, and Moo-hyeon as the distant father. Because this is a fairy tale, I could see some of the twists coming, but that did nothing to lessen the impact of the tragedy itself. The snatches of memory, told from Su-mi’s perspective, begin to make sense as the natural and supernatural elements coalesce, hinting at and then finally revealing the source of her original madness. There’s a Grande Guignol element to the color palette here that contributes to the sense of the film existing in its own fairy tale world, with lush reds contrasting against stark blues and whites and gentler brown tones, all of them associated with different characters.

A Tale of Two Sisters has the distinction of being one of the highest grossing Korean horror films ever, and there’s no wonder: it not only produces a spectacle of intense horror, but underscores that horror with real, moving tragedy. It is not just violence, but the memory of violence, not just death, but the memory of death, that winds itself about the film’s psychological core.

A Tale of Two Sisters is available to stream on Shudder