Posts Tagged ‘shudder’

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.

Prevenge (2016)

*soon to be streaming on Shudder

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There’s nothing weirder, or more terrifying, than taking the innocence of the child and imbuing it with a secret malevolence concealed behind an angelic face. Within the evil child subgenre of horror, the mother is typically the victim, the most obvious target for the child’s hatred. Alice Lowe’s bizarrely delightful horror comedy Prevenge takes those tropes and warps them even further to create a bloody, hilarious, and moving story that asks the question: what if your unborn baby was a serial murderer?

Writer/director Lowe is Ruth, a very pregnant young woman in Cardiff who becomes convinced that her unborn daughter is impelling her to commit murder. As Ruth and her massive belly cut a bloody swath through the night, the mystery of her vengeance is gradually revealed through flashbacks and personal discussions between Ruth and her daughter. The murders are suitably gruesome without being overkill, while Ruth’s motivation for the killings becomes complicated by the fact that none of her victims are particularly sympathetic people.

Lowe is an entertaining screen presence with a wry sense of humor, punctuating her horror film with comedic moments that cut through the violence. She likewise imbues the undeniably comedic aspects of the film with a very palpable sense of anger and loss. Like The Babadook (another film about sympathetic female monstrosity and motherhood), Prevenge treats grief as a physical presence that manifests itself through acts of horrific violence. But the film is further complicated by the questionable nature of Ruth’s sanity – is her unborn child really a monster, or is her pregnancy and its undercurrent of grief warping her mind?

The difference between Prevenge and a similar pregnancy horror film like Rosemary’s Baby is that the mother is herself not a victim – she finds outlet for her fury through her pregnancy, refusing to be subject to the assumptions and controls of the rest of society. It’s hard to feel sorry for most of those subjected to Ruth’s wrath, representative as they are of selfishness, misogyny, and complacency. Ruth’s pregnancy represents both her monstrosity and her strength; she possesses the social stigma and monstrosity that transforms a woman’s body into a vessel “controlled” by the unborn child. While Western society is accustomed to treating pregnant women as both the sublime form of human nature and the ultimate Other, Ruth takes over her Otherness, using it to enact revenge on those who (in her perception) have wronged her.

Prevenge has few weaknesses. It’s well-paced, building up the tension between Ruth’s acts of violence by interspersing visits to the doctor to monitor her pregnancy, and her conversations with the very angry child inside of her. Giving voice to the baby makes it more palpably real, deepening the question of whether Ruth is acting out her own revenge fantasy or the fury of the child that has been deprived even before it was born. That voice also contributes to the comedic nature of the film, refusing to plunge too deeply into elements of horror, grief, or anger, as Ruth argues with a tiny childish voice inside of her about the morality of cutting off a man’s balls.

The female body and female emotions have so typically been the site of monstrosity in horror films that women began to suppress the notion that our hormones and our physical presence in any way distinguished us from maleness. PMS, postpartum depression, the alterations in hormones that comes with pregnancy, the pain of having a period – all suppressed in the belief that to be female was, in essence, to be an Other, to be something unknown and frightening. In evil child films, to be a mother is to be a victim, and in some ways a deserving one – the mother is the conduit for unnatural evil, the one who brought the evil into the world and is thus destroyed by it. It is the role of the father, or of the masculine society, to control that evil, condemn it, and banish it, usually at the expense of mother and child alike. Femininity is uncontrollable emotions writ large, and as such must be suppressed and controlled by the more rational masculine forces.

Prevenge eliminates the father, the patriarchal, and embraces Otherness, the perceived monstrosity of women, and of pregnant women especially. What’s more, it does so from a sympathetic, feminine perspective, emphasizing the cohesion between mother and child, the reality of female anger and the need to express it, or to destroy the world in the attempt. In horror, women typically have a choice between being the victim or the monster. We’ve chosen the monster.

Prevenge will stream on Shudder on March 24.

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The Death Kiss (1932)

*available to stream on Shudder

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The horror streaming service Shudder has a few high-quality public domain films available for streaming which, if you’re a stickler for quality like me, is very welcome. The Death Kiss, a pre-Code thriller from 1932 and restored by Kino in this edition, is one of the most surprisingly entertaining little dramas that I’ve seen in a long while.

The Death Kiss opens on the making of the film The Death Kiss, as actor Miles Brent (Edmund Burns) walks onscreen for his cinematic death scene…and winds up actually being shot. Almost everyone on set is pretty sanguine about Brent’s death: his ex-wife and leading lady Marcia (Adrienne Ames) can’t stand him, his director Tom Avery (Edward Sloan) and studio manager Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi) are more worried about finishing the film than the loss of their leading man, and the head of studio Leon A. Grossmith (Alexander Carr) is counting the money that he’s going to lose by delaying production for such a small thing as a murder. The police arrive, and so does a young scenario writer and would-be detective Franklyn Drew (David Manners), who also happens to be Marcia’s lover. But while no one really cares who killed Brent, when the police set their sights on Marcia, Drew decides he has to act on his own. What follows is a snappy little whodunnit with some silly set-pieces, crackling dialogue, and lots of Hollywood self-effacement.

The Death Kiss is immediately notable for bringing back together three of the main actors from the 1931 Dracula in the persons of Manners, Sloan, and Lugosi. But each are also playing noticeably against type: Sloan is far from the grandfatherly Van Helsing, and Lugosi actually gets more than a few laughs in as the slightly diabolical studio manager. Most notable, however, is David Manners, who was wooden as Jonathan Harker and here actually proves he carry off comedy and dashing wit without creasing his necktie. Because the film is so short, coming in at just over an hour, the plot moves along at a good clip, getting in little digs at Hollywood and movie-making while managing to conjure up a decent plot that had me guessing right to the end. Director Edwin L. Marin would go on to make a series of whodunnits throughout the 1930s, including several Philo Vance detective films and a version of A Study in Scarlet.

An odd little sidenote to The Death Kiss is the use of tinting in several key scenes, which have been properly restored in this print. The little shocks of color are bizarre but quite effective, and it’s lovely to see them in a film this small and quirky. The film is plagued by some sound troubles, probably owing to a poor source print, but these do not disrupt the production as a whole. It’s actually quite an irreverent and energetic little movie, replete with quirky side characters and distractions enough to keep things moving.

While The Death Kiss wins no awards for innovation, it’s an enjoyable film, quick-witted and fast-paced and just a little racy (pre-Code films need to be appreciated more, my friends). Though I wouldn’t quite call it a horror film (despite Lugosi), it’s streaming on Shudder now, so you have no excuse.

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.

Beyond The Walls (2016)

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It’s always exciting to discover an interesting and evocative horror story that manages to do something new with a potentially tired sub-genre. The French miniseries Beyond the Walls, directed by Herve Hadmar and now airing on AMC’s Shudder, is exactly that.

Beyond the Walls is a three-part miniseries about a lonely young French woman named Lisa (Veerle Baetens) who suddenly inherits the strange house across the street from her apartment building. A man’s body was recently discovered in the house, which hasn’t been opened for thirty years – no one seems to know who he is, or where he came from, and Lisa has no idea why she was made his heir. Detached from her life and her friends, Lisa moves into the derelict house, throwing down most of her stuff in a single room and wandering the place in search of things to do. One night, she hears weird noises coming from beyond the walls, and promptly smashes a hole in the plaster to investigate. She wanders down winding corridors and through broken doorways until she realizes, all too late, that she doesn’t know her way back. Stumbling upon Julien (Francois Deblock), another lost soul in the walls, Lisa tries to find her way out and evade the weird Others who threaten to keep her in the house forever.

Beyond the Walls interweaves some standard horror narratives into a new, complex mythology that the series manages to keep mysterious without sacrificing coherency. The story begins like a twisted Alice in Wonderland, with Lisa plunging into the house within the house largely because she’s curious about what lies beyond. But as the film proceeds and the layers of the house deepen into something darker and more meaningful, an interesting – if occasionally confusing – philosophy begins to emerge. What opens as a straight haunted house horror story becomes a truly complex narrative, replete with tenderness, desire, and the need to accept both guilt and redemption.

Aesthetically, Beyond the Walls occasionally relies too much on what are becoming common horror tropes: a man with the head of a pig, zombie-like creatures twisting their way down corridors, men with blackened eyes. The house is in a constant state of decay and acts as a labyrinthine metaphor for the complex interaction of guilt and love. Julien inscribes a map of the house on the walls of a hidden cellar, and writes cryptic symbols all over his body, as though reminding himself who and what he is as the house threatens to take more of him.

There’s an episodic, video-game feel to some of the sequences, as Lisa collects more stories, rules, and information that will enable her to escape the house, but these are all brought together in the final act. The final episode is intense and lyrical, drawing together the strands that have been slowly revealed over the course of the previous two into a moving and terrifying conclusion (one that features Geraldine Chaplin, no less). Although I watched it as three separate episodes, it’s really an extended film and should be experienced as such.

Beyond the Walls contains much, but explains very little – the meaning behind the house and the connections of the characters are not fully elucidated by the conclusion. Yet, it still satisfies. It’s a surprising story, mixing common themes together in a haunting melody that echoes long after it has ended.

Beyond The Walls is available exclusively on Shudder.