Posts Tagged ‘horror films’

Also showing in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block is Blood Sisters, a humorous entry from director Caitlin Koller that entertains, even if it doesn’t completely stick the ending. Two young women spend an evening doing what all young women do: watching movies, drinking vodka, and performing blood rituals. The pair cut each other’s hands and chant incantations to become “blood sisters,” but soon find that things have gone wrong when they won’t stop bleeding.

The humor is strong here, as the two girls debate going to the doctor and attempt to fix things themselves. The punctuation of horror with laughs works well, for the most part, and undercuts the scares without totally relaxing the tension. The final few minutes, however, don’t really pay off, as the girls come up with an idea to stop the bleeding. It feels like the film needs to be five minutes longer to develop their reasoning, rather than jumping from one event to the next without a clear connection. At the same time, though, it’s a well-made short, with good performances from the two women, and a sharp script. It just needs to be a bit longer.

Blood Sisters will show in the “Dark Gatherings” shorts block of Final Girls Berlin on February 2.

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It’s that time of year again – time for a reminder that women are still pushing the boundaries of horror filmmaking. The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, which began yesterday, provides a showcase for both shorts and features, directed (and often written by) talented female filmmakers. If you ever wondered about my constant assertion that women are the future of horror, then check out some of these films and be educated.

First up for me is Black Coat, part of the festival’s “Mind Games” shorts block. Directed by Tatiana Vyshegorodseva, the film wends through a nightmarish fantasy as a young woman awakens by the side of the road, with no memory of who she is or why she’s wearing someone else’s black coat. Picked up by two strangers who insist on being paid for the lift, she finds herself plunged into a circuitous nightmare.

The film aspires to a fascinating if somewhat obscure kind of surrealism, weaving a dark narrative that only clarifies within the last few minutes. It’s visually reminiscent of the sparseness of Ducournau’s Raw, though in this case it’s decaying architecture and evocations of homelessness that drive the horror. Pursued by terrors, the protagonist has to find a way out of the nightmare’s spiral, repeating events and actions until she can finally open her eyes. There are some shorts that feel like they’re templates for features, but Black Coat functions best as a short, a quick, sharp piece of terror that confounds and finally resolves. While I almost hoped for clearer elucidation of the film’s imagery, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that any further exposition would have damaged the film’s final moments. It’s a short story (literally based on one), reliant on visual language, and can only be resolved through visuals. An example, in other words, of pure (horror) cinema. 

Black Coat shows as a part of the “Mind Games” block on February 2. 

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.

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.

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)

Following a stressful week and a weekend (accidentally) full of rather hard-to-take horror films (reviews coming for those), I decided to take a brief respite from the horror of both real and imaginary worlds and instead have myself a nice slice of musical mayhem. Hence: Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz’s gleefully malevolent musical version of Roger Corman’s 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors. Based on the Off-Broadway show by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Oz’s film serves up a delicious serving of terror with a story about a boy, a girl, and a man-eating plant.

Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) is a sad but sweet little schlub living down on Skid Row, where he works at his adoptive father Mr. Mushnik’s (Vincent Gardenia) run-down flower shop, alongside lovely colleague Audrey (Ellen Greene). Desperate for customers, Seymour suggests bringing in something a bit weird: an odd little plant he picked up from a Chinese flower shop during a total eclipse. The plant works its magic, and Mushnik’s Flower Shop is suddenly overrun with customers, while Seymour and the plant become local celebrities. Unfortunately, the little plant has some “odd” tastes – it will only consume human blood. Seymour appeases his pet’s bloodlust with his own stock for a while, but as the plant grows, so does its appetite.

The film is underscored by a number of rollicking songs, many of them introduced by a Greek chorus of doo-wop girls, who make commentary on the proceedings. Things really get going when Steve Martin appears as Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, gleefully indulging in a scene-chewing performance. But the whole film is just lots of solidly good fun – from Rick Moranis’s impassioned belting of “Skid Row” at the beginning, to Ellen Greene’s romantic vision of suburban life with “Somewhere That’s Green.” Moranis is predictably sweet as a decent man seduced by a, um, plant, but Greene is a standout, pushing away from the dumb blonde trope to craft a fully realized and deeply sympathetic character. She’s always been in love with Seymour, but doesn’t think that she deserves a good man.

But admittedly, the best songs are reserved for the man-eating plant Audrey II, voiced by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, who starts out as a cute little sucker and grows into a, ahem, mean green mother from outer space. Audrey II really is an engineering feat – a plant that’s not only massive, but has a massive personality, a deliciously nasty villain encouraging Seymour’s reluctant rampage. If you didn’t think a plant could look evil, think again.

Little Shop of Horrors really is the best of the 1980s, featuring some great comedians – including John Candy and Bill Murray in bit parts – and some even better practical effects, courtesy of Lyle Conway and Oz’s team of puppeteers and designers. Part sci-fi spoof and all-musical, Little Shop of Horrors now gets added to my pantheon of Halloween musicals to return to every year. I can’t believe that it has taken me this long.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

After the sad loss of Tobe Hooper this year, I realized that, much to my horror-watching shame, I had seen the mainstream film he’s best known for but not, alas, the film that cemented him in the pantheon of horror masters. I’ve avoided The Texas Chain Saw Massacre mostly because I am not a fan of chain saws or cannibalism or hillbilliesploitation. But could I truly call myself a horror fan if I didn’t at least make the attempt? So, out of respect for Mr. Hooper and his undoubted contribution to the genre, I finally filled this gap in my lexicon.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre deals with five hippie-esque youths taking a ride through Texas one hot summer day. They’re there to investigate the possible vandalism of the grave of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) Hardesty’s grandfather. Assured that their grandfather still dead and buried, the group decide to visit the old home of the Hardestys. On the way, they pick up a creepy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who tells them about how his family used to work for the local slaughterhouse (foreshadowing!), and pass the local gas station/barbecue joint, where the proprietor (Jim Siedow) tells them there’s no gas to be had. The group arrives at the homestead and then make their way (severally) across to the neighboring house, where they think they might be able to barter for some gas to fill up their van. And it’s there, in a deceptively attractive farmhouse, that all hell breaks loose.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is nothing short of a feverish nightmare, right from the start. It opens with shots of desiccated corpses and just gets more profane from there. The Texas heat melts the screen, the five leads are plenty weird even before being pursued by cannibalistic hillbillies, and there are ample moments in which to shout “Don’t go in there!” Of course, they do go in there, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a film. Leatherface’s (Gunnar Hansen) introduction is shocking and explains why he’s right up there with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. For its extremely low-budget, the film is incredibly effective in the first two acts, ramping up the tension before unleashing a surprisingly bloodless hellfire on the viewer.

At the same time, I found it difficult, at least on first viewing, to really get into The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s one of those films that was shocking in 1974, and has its own nightmarish brilliance even now. There are genuine scares, and several scenes that had me peeking through my fingers. But by the time we get to the final act, I was getting a little tired of hearing Sally scream and Leatherface squeal. There’s little explanation as to how this family of cannibals have managed to operate for as long as they evidently have, where the women are at, or why they, uh, began eating people in the first place. For once I wanted a little more exposition, or at least some dire warnings from townspeople that the hippies ignore. The brutality of the film is intense and effective, yes, but the deaths needed more build-up and, preferably, less screaming.

Yet I cannot discard The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s an admirable work of horror and incredibly influential. Hooper’s undoubted talent as a director elevates it from pure schlock – it’s exploitative on many levels, but it’s also so artistically shot and constructed that it’s impossible to dismiss. Did I like it? No, not really. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to. I certainly don’t ever want to eat sausages again.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Ah! ‘Tis the most wonderful time of the year, as numerous people have already quipped on Twitter. Here in New York, the leaves are (gradually) changing and the nights are (very slowly) getting colder. It’s definitely Pumpkin Spice season at Trader Joe’s, even more so at Starbucks, and so that means that it’s time for some good (and some not-so-good) scary movies. This year my intention is to watch some new (to me) horror films, filling in the gaps of my horror vocab and perhaps adding a few new favorites. First up is a film that I unfortunately missed in theaters: Mike Flanagan’s throwback horror Ouija: Origin of Evil.

As its title suggests, this is actually a prequel, though I went into it not having seen the original 2014 Ouija. And this one stands on its own pretty well, although my later researches indicate that there’s quite a bit that might have been spoiled here if I’d seen the original. Ouija: Origin of Evil opens in 1967 Los Angeles, in the home of the Zanders, where mother Alice (Elizabeth Rasser), teenage daughter Paulina (Annalise Basso), and child Doris (Lulu Wilson) make a difficult living performing séances for people seeking to connect to spirits of the dearly departed. They’re charlatans, of course, but well-meaning ones – Alice says that they’re not really lying, just giving closure and hope to people who need it. Lina and Doris’s father died several years before, and Alice is beginning to have difficulty making ends meet. Doris is bullied at school, Lina is tired of feeling unmoored, and Alice has a minor crush on the school principal Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas). Enter the cursed board game, to first save the day and then make life really terrible. After playing Ouija with her friends one evening, Lina suggests that her mother incorporate it into their séance routine. Alice takes it to heart and buys the game, but soon Doris becomes obsessed with it, claiming that she can actually talk to people, including her father, on the other side.

Ouija: Origin of Evil hits some delicious scares, especially during the first two acts. This is a jump-scare film, trading on things glimpsed just out of the corner of the eye, figures lurking in doorways, and sheets slowly sliding off beds, with long pauses right before something slams into the back of your head. As the film progresses, the haunting ramps up, with Doris eventually going full Damien as her interaction with the other side becomes more pronounced. Lulu Wilson, by the way, acquits herself admirably in the evil child role. There’s one memorable scene between her and Lina’s boyfriend Michael (Parker Mack) that is as wonderfully creepy as anything in The Omen. The entire film pays generous homage to haunted house films of the 1970s – The Amityville HorrorThe Changeling, and Burnt Offerings come immediately to mind – but without depending on referentiality. This feels like a 70s horror film, down to the use of soundtrack and the un-ironic 70s styles.

The denouement is where the film falters, showing far too much of its hand all at once with a rather complex and repulsive revelation that includes, um, Nazis. I never find this kind of horror particularly scary – just nauseating. Yes, there’s rusted medical devices, a creepy backstory, and ghosts a-plenty, but somehow the ending just doesn’t land. The final scenes set up for the sequel – or the original – but they feel a bit perfunctory. The film is working too hard to clearly link to the original and would have been better served to be something that stood steadily on its own.

But Ouija: Origin of Evil is still one of the most solid mainstream entries into the genre that I’ve recently seen. While indie horror is on the rise, it’s good to see that mainstream horror films – polished and focus grouped – can still bring the scares. Watch it for the first two acts, if nothing else.