Posts Tagged ‘horror movies’

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. 

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. 

Dearest Sister (2016)

*Now streaming exclusively on Shudder.

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As women make ever greater strides into the horror genre, one to watch is certainly Lao director Mattie Do, Laos’s first female director and first horror director. Her second horror feature Dearest Sister showed at Cannes in 2014, at last year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, and now finally sees a streaming release on AMC’s Shudder.

Dearest Sister tells the story of village girl Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) who travels to Vientiane, the national capital, to attend to her cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) who lost her eyesight years before. Nok is treated as an indentured servant, paid by Ana’s Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) to act as a companion and guide to his partially blind wife. As such, Nok occupies a nebulous class space – she lives in the house with Ana and Jakob and is treated with suspicion and eventually outright hostility by the two servants who sleep outside. But she’s also not quite family, working as she does for payment, which she’s supposed to send home to her parents.

Nok soon discovers that Ana’s blindness enables her to see and communicate with the dead. In a fit, Ana sees a ghost and begins muttering numbers, which Nok proceeds to play in the national lottery. She wins, discovering a way to obtain money quickly and without the knowledge of her cousin or her family. As the film proceeds, the dangerous nature of Nok’s game, her relationship with Ana, and the low-key horrors of class and femininity are drawn to the fore, producing an increasingly dark narrative that can only end one way.

Do’s film is restrained by contemporary horror standards, relying far more on low-key anxiety and implication than on gory horror (though there’s that too). The camera becomes increasingly disjointed, at times taking Ana’s perspective in foggy POV shots. Do often films in extreme close up, or through gates, bushes, railings, and windows, forcing viewers to constantly realign themselves within the cinematic space and with different perspectives. The cinematography has an imbalancing effect that serves to unnerve viewers even when apparently innocuous things are happening.

Dearest Sister offers up a dark, critical vision of Laos, mixing in contemporary concerns about class, language, and poverty with mythology, folk tales, and traditional structures. Nok strives for what her cousin has in the way of material comfort and security. The simple acts of purchasing an iPhone or going to a nightclub become transgressive acts, digging Nok deeper into a series of half-truths as she uses money meant for her family in order to obtain possessions. Ana’s class position is likewise tenuous and built on theft – a secondary plot involves Jakob figuring out how to dupe an inspector coming to investigate his company, which has been cutting corners and skimming money off the top. Ana’s visions are treated as hallucinations or tricks of the eye by Jakob and Ana’s doctors, but taken far more seriously by Nok, who accepts them as ghosts or psychic images.

In the interplay between Nok and Ana’s traditional backgrounds with the (white) modernity presented by Jakob, Dearest Sister develops a disturbing vision of a country mined for its resources, the extreme poverty of some citizens exploited as a support for the ruling classes. Nok runs into constant conflict  with her cousin, who goes back and forth between insisting she act as a servant and insisting she act as a friend, and with the two servants in the house, who use their position to quietly torture their masters and lord it over Nok. Nok’s quiet subservience begins to give way to quiet domination, pushing the plot to its inexorable conclusion.

Dearest Sister gives unique insight into a country that has only recently begun developing a film industry of its own. And it bodes well for Laos to have directors like Mattie Do, pushing the envelope of the horror genre in a new direction that’s very much grounded in Lao culture and modernity.

Dearest Sister can be streamed on Shudder, starting today.

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.

Friday the 13th (1980)

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October may be over, but my reviews of horror films are not! Next up is one of the seminal slasher films of the 1980s: Friday the 13th, the movie that introduced the world to Camp Crystal Lake and Jason Voorhees (kinda). Along with its fellow creep-outs Halloween and Nightmare on Elm StreetFriday the 13th (and its sequels) are responsible for setting the standard of slashers.

Friday the 13th opens with the murder of two camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, in 1958. Shot from the POV of the killer, the two counselors get caught in flagrante, naturally resulting in their bloody deaths. Fast forward many years and Camp Crystal Lake is about to be re-opened for the summer, with a whole new crop of nubile young people to violently slaughter. The group of counselors show up to help get the camp into shape – despite the dire warnings from townsfolk of a horrible curse – and bodies begin to pile up, as the shadowy killer dispatches our young heroes one by one.

The problem with Friday the 13th is that it’s just not a very good slasher film. The set-up itself is strong enough, and the murders appropriately gruesome. But the characters are too sparsely drawn to be interesting – they’re interchangeable faces that could be ranked by degrees of annoyance. The Final Girl (whose role you can guess pretty quickly) is laughably inept at escaping once the killer’s identity has been revealed.

While mulling over why the murders just didn’t up the tension at all, I came to realize that none of them are discovered until the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film. The surviving counselors don’t know they’re in danger at all, and so calmly wander around in the rain and the dark, unaware of an insane killer lurking in the shadows. And because no one else in the film is scared, the audience has no reason to be scared. We know that pretty much everyone is going to die; it’s just a question of how.

The same goes for the killer, whose backstory is never even touched on until an extensive exposition scene nearing the end. The local legend about the camp being cursed is introduced and then rapidly discarded, with nothing to flesh it out. While killers like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers have fairly intricate backstories that draw out their monstrosity and give it life, the killer of Friday the 13th has no mystique at all. (And there’s little doubt that both Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween were directed by very talented horror maestros, while Friday the 13th…wasn’t).

I’ve been informed that the better Friday the 13th sequels wind up outweighing the original, but I admit I don’t much care. I’ve got this film under my belt, and I’m OK with letting it rest at that.

Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)

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OK, if you don’t adore Ernest P. Worrell, then you obviously have not allowed joy and magic into your life. The creation of Jim Varney, Ernest began life as a character in TV ads, only to become so popular that he got his own TV show and, eventually, his own movie series. Is Ernest stupid? Yes. Are the movies silly? Totally. And therein lies their magic.

Ernest Scared Stupid is a later entry into the Ernest series, but it’s also my favorite. It opens in the late 19th Century with the townsfolk of Briarville, Missouri capturing a troll that has been stealing the souls of the town’s children. As they bury him beneath a sapling tree, the troll curses the town and town elder Phineas Worrell in particular. The troll promises to return, brought back to life by a Worrell. Flash forward to the present day, and Phineas’s descendant Ernest is now the local garbage man, spending his off-hours inventing ever more stupid time-saving devices and hanging out with the local children Kenny, Elizabeth, and Joey (Austin Agler, Shay Astar, and Alec Klapper). When the kids decide to build a treehouse to hide out from the local bullies, Ernest lends them a hand – only to inadvertently awaken the troll that slumbers beneath. Comedy horror ensues as the troll attempts to capture enough souls to awaken his sleeping troll army, and Ernest tries to stop him (with the help of local crazy lady Francis Hackmore, played an epic Eartha Kitt).

Ernest Scared Stupid is a kid’s movie very much in the vein of The Worst WitchThe Witches, and Hocus Pocus. The troll legitimately terrified me as a kid, to the degree that I spent a Halloween season checking under my bed. The film is less scary now, but still pretty funny as long as you’re willing to indulge in Varney’s light, mugging comedy. Ernest is more childlike than really stupid, a companion character to Pee-wee Herman, whose great love in life is his dog Rimshot. Most enjoyable are his secondary “split-personality” characters that he falls into suddenly and often inexplicably (my family still uses the line “Hairspray will fix anything” from this film). The characters lend a burst of surrealism to the film as Ernest does battle with the troll by shifting into the roles of a British explorer, World War II fighter pilot, and elderly grand-dame without blinking an eye.

Every once in a while, it’s nice to get away from dark terror and just watch a silly Halloween movie about candy and pumpkins. Ernest Scared Stupid still reminds me of my childhood, in the best possible way.