Posts Tagged ‘horror movies’

The Invitation (2015)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the future of horror is female. And nothing proves that so perfectly as Karyn Kusama’s 2015 slow-burn horror masterpiece The Invitation (which, by the way, is available to stream on Netflix, for your Halloween fix).

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is heading to the Hollywood Hills with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to attend a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). When they arrive at the home that Will and Eden used to share, Will is immediately struck by the strange shifts in personality of Eden and David. He’s even more troubled at the absence of their good friend Choi, who was supposed to be there early, and the arrival of Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), a friend of David and Eden’s that they met at a retreat in New Mexico. The party gets underway among a small group of old pals, with seething tensions building ever higher as Will begins to suspect that all is not well in the Hills.

The Invitation builds ever-so-slowly to one of the most satisfying horror climaxes in recent years, ramping up the tension on each plot thread until they threaten to snap. This is one of those films that is made or broken by its ending, and thankfully The Invitation delivers, hitting the viewer very hard and suddenly and letting the terror just flow like wine. But it doesn’t go on for too long, providing just enough mayhem to justify its build-up, but not so much as to drag things out. I think that putting too much emphasis on the slow-burn nature of this film does it some disservice, as the dread is very real right from the start, when Will hits a coyote with his car and has to finish it off with a tire iron. Will’s paranoia pushes the film into the territory of questionable perception, which allows for a brilliant shifting of viewer sympathies. Something is certainly wrong, but is it Will, his friends, or something else altogether?

Much of The Invitation‘s power lies in the focalizing through Will and the use of the camera eye that just barely captures things going on at the peripheries of the scene – a car pulling away just out of sight and then stopping, a red lantern being hung in a tree. As Will flashes back to the traumatic event that caused his break-up with Eden, his trauma informs what happens around him, keeping the viewer off kilter. The horror, when it hits, is believable and shocking, but the entire film has prepared us for this moment, drawing out a weird kind of fear in the act of simply eating dinner, or pouring a glass of wine. Kusama has a deft hand and eye, giving us just enough to keep us interested, but not so much that we can figure out all the angles before things go horribly wrong.

Of all the scary movies I’ve seen this Halloween season, The Invitation is by far the most unnerving, because it is also the most believable. It’s that terror of the mundane, the little things that seem just slightly off, the stories that remain half told, that give it its power.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.