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ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR

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Severin Films. 15 disc set.

“Folk Horror” is a buzzword that has blossomed over the past decade to become a marketing phrase. It brings to mind things British, pagan and ancient/medieval, usually in that order. This makes for a nice narrow niche to categorize and sell to the audience; if a film has certain elements that are on the checklist checked off, it’s officially Folk Horror®.  The genre even has its Unholy Trinity: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General. Of course, with some digging, we find that there’s a lot more to the subject to beyond those tentpoles.

It’s a massive subject tackle, and we’re fortunate that the person taking it on is Kier-la Janisse (film-programmer/editor; founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Stories; author of “House of Psychotic Women“) with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021), a 192 minute documentary serving as a primer/immersion into Folk Horror. It’s the foundation for “All The Haunts Be Ours,” a massive boxs et with 19 feature films (some making their debut on Blu-ray) and tons of bonus material. In short, this is a college semester course compressed into 15 discs; and although it’s pricey, it’s a lot less than what one would be paying for an actual college class. This is the most ambitious box set  that Severin Films has done to date—and they’ve done collections of Al Adamson, Christopher Lee’s European Films, and Andy Milligan in just the past three years!

Woodlands (the first disc in the set, also available as a standalone release) comprehensively examines Folk Horror, beginning with its roots in folklore and literature and moving into film, starting with that Unholy Trinity and other British films, plus television programs like “The Owl Service,” “Children of the Stones,” “Doctor Who,” and the work of Nigel Kneale. The documentary then shifts to North America, examining it by region: New England (Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King); the South (influences of folk music and Evangelicalism), and the West (Native American lore). After that, the film goes global, focusing on horror in Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, addressing a lot of films you’ve heard of (Viy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and the Coffin Joe movies, to name just a few), along with many more that you probably haven’t.

For a 3+ hour documentary, you don’t feel the time drag, and you’ll spend a lot of time afterwards Google-searching availability of titles. Even though it’s a deep dive into the subject, it also feels like it’s just scratching the surface and not even close to being the Last Word in Folk Horror. The subject is thoroughly examined, and even though you could walk away with some sort of definition, “Folk Horror” doesn’t seem “defined” in a way that traps it in a box. It’s a fluid term Continue reading ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR

CAPSULE: HANGER (2009)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Nicholson

FEATURING: Dan Ellis, Nathan Dashwood, Wade Gibb, Ronald Patrick Thompson, , Candice Lewald (as Candice Le), Alastair Gamble

PLOT: A deformed 18-year old who survived a coat hanger abortion teams up with a vigilante to hunt down the pimp who killed his hooker mom.

Still from Hanger (2009)

COMMENTS: Tastelessness is one of the very few weapons low-budget filmmakers have in their arsenal that their big-budget counterparts can’t match. That is, at least, an explanation for Ryan Nicholson’s Hanger, if not an excuse. There is not much a movie with this kind of budget and shooting schedule can do to set itself apart from the pack of cheap VOD horrors—which themselves have to compete for scarce viewing eyes against the huge glut of what most audiences consider “real movies”—except to try to show you what Hollywood doesn’t dare.

In simpler times, exploitation films could survive on nudity, sex and violence, but since the big studios now dominate these niches, too, the scum at the bottom of the entertainment bucket are nudged instead towards the scatological, the pornographic, and the nihilistic. Hanger exists as a string of shock scenes hung on a dull and talky narrative that leads nowhere. We get a graphic (if incredibly fake-looking) coat hanger abortion; penis grilling; grotesque prosthetic putty slathered on nearly every character; prostitutes murdered with car doors; misogyny and homophobia; yellowface and Asian stereotyping; fart torture; the N-word; an explicit female masturbation scene; a stoma rape with chocolate pudding prop; tampon tea; bad gore effects, bad sound, and bad attempts at comedy. And, because talk is cheap, lots of talking.

Half-assed is the aesthetic choice here. Like its title character, Hanger is an ugly, angry outsider, fated to be a loser and pissed off about it. Unlike its title character (but like its comic relief character), it believes itself to be funny. I think. I didn’t laugh once, but it does appear that parts were intended to be humorous: specifically, scenes of the intensely annoying Wade Gibb, in a prosthetic mask narrowing his eyes to slits, talking in a high-pitched sing-songy “Chinaman” squeal straight out of a WWII-era propaganda film about how he loves tampons and other unfunny topics that are difficult to discern due to a combination of fake buck teeth, a badly crafted accent, and abysmal sound. These scenes double as painful comic relief and interminable padding. The movie’s highlight is Lloyd Kaufman’s appearance as a “tranny” prostitute who gets his penis burned off; Lloyd flew in, learned his lines when he arrived, shot his scene, and (wisely) got the hell out of there. If you’re unfortunate enough to see Hanger, you’ll spend more time watching it than Kaufman spent filming it.

The DVD and (2 disc!) Blu-ray are filled with an unusually high number of extras. Kaufman’s 11-minute behind-the-scenes home video is more entertaining than the entirety of the feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you like this sort of stuff, have a good sense of humor, a strong stomach, and a pad on your floor, (you’ll need it for the number of times your jaw drops) you’ll come away from this singular experience with a new red badge of courage.”–Kurt Dahlke, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by jef t-scale, who advised “think street trash but more trash and more weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STANLEYVILLE (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

FEATURING: Susanne Wuest, , Cara Ricketts, Christian Serritiello, George Tchortov, Adam Brown

PLOT: Maria is selected for a contest that promises to “probe the very essence of your mind-body articulation”—and to present the winner with a brand new SUV.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHAStanleyville‘s DIY-feel is paralleled within the narrative as candidates partake in a series of increasingly unhinged, but always ramshackle, challenges (two favorites: “Lobe of Ear” and “Diogenes Nose-Peg”). Trapping five bizarre specimens of humanity in a pavilion, McCabe-Lokos lets his unwieldy absurdist-reality-chamber-drama creak and crash as it lurches toward a gracefully symbolic climax.

COMMENTS: Until watching Stanleyville, I had never heard a ravenously pro-capitalistic screed in folk song form. This was among a number of “firsts” for me, as a pentad of archetypes squared off against one-another over the course of two days. This group is gathered together by an out-of-sync master of ceremonies named Homonculus, and “the heat heats up” as irregular time intervals count down, minds get stretched to snapping point, and bodies pile up in the food pantry.

Stanleyville‘s framework is not ground-breaking: apply pressure to some weirdos in a confined space and see what happens. Marat/Sade did it way back in the 1960s. (In fact, Stanleyville‘s setup makes me wonder if this was a stage play; and if not, when can I expect it to be?) The ingredients are fresh, however, particularly the mysteriously European (and Europeanly mysterious) Homonculus, who finds our heroine Maria sitting in a shopping mall massage chair and promises to change her life. She’s recently finished a shift at her dead-end job, left her dead-end home life, and discarded her purse, along with its contents, in a trash can. An earlier encounter at the office, witnessing a majestic, soaring bird unceremoniously thwack into her window, has left her aware that something is missing in life. She eagerly accepts Homonculus’ offer; not for the brand new habañero-orange compact SUV (a prize description mentioned often, with quiet enthusiasm), but because she feels that fate may have finally gotten up off its ass to give her some purpose.

Her contest competitors are a hyper-affable beefcake who’s neck-deep in a protein-powder Ponzi scheme; a jaded nihilist who incongruously lusts after the SUV; a hedge fund fellow sitting atop a mountain of privilege and self-loathing; and an actor/junkie/musician who never found a failure he didn’t have an excuse for. The four ancillary stereotypes lack depth (as is their wont), but they are merely background distraction (ironic, being the loudest characters in the piece), pushing Maria and her pensive wonderment to the fore.

The fourth stage of the contest (after the balloon-blowing, item sequencing, and the “write a national anthem for everybody everywhere through all time” trials) is when Stanleyville slips from ominously silly into philosophical. If I asked you, “Who is Xiphosura?”, you might not guess an entity who transmits crypticisms through a conch shell —but that’s as much as we learn about him. This is the kind of mystery found in Stanleyville; just enough is explained to keep you going, right up through the (off-screen) final event. Like Homonculus, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos may seem like he’s just making it up as he’s going along. He isn’t; he’s deliberately constructed the pathway toward new modes of mind-body articulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The persistent failure, however, to conceive of connective tissue between the elements it engages with (either through some development of narrative or in formal playfulness) ensures that the thematically derivative interests and pedestrian existential angsts of Stanleyville on the whole amount to little more than nothing at all…”–Zachary Goldkind, In Review Online (festival screening)

 

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: TIN CAN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Seth A. Smith

FEATURING: Anna Hopkins, Simon Mutabazi, Michael Ironside

PLOT: A parasitologist is abducted after discovering a treatment for a spore-fueled pandemic and awakens inside a life-support canister.

COMMENTS: It was disorienting for me to endure so many of my personal phobias on parade while still remaining committed to finding out how this shuddersome chain of events concluded. Tin Can has plenty of its titular containers: a third of the action takes place inside an icky-liquid-filled cylinder inhabited by Fret, the film’s slime-expert heroine. As she could barely move, practically fused with her surroundings, a sympathetic jab of claustrophobia struck me . And then there’s the disease-y plot device, which on more than one occasion had me glancing away.

There’s a lot of terrible going on in the world now, what with some fungus-based communicable horrificness passing from person to person with greater ease than I would have thought likely just a year ago. So Tin Can feels topical, while still maintaining a futuristic edge. A suffused lighting scheme heightens the clinical spaces, working equally well with the sinister basements of some unnamed facility. Smith opts for a narrow aspect ratio, heightening the sense of constriction, trapping the viewer in its column just as the visuals push you to the edges.

The sound design is also impressive, with plenty of muffled conversations between occupants of the “tin cans”, and all manner of sinister clanks and squoodges as unknown unpleasantness happens beyond the scope of their air vents. Only one character seems remotely pleased at every juncture, a wiry old man named Wayne (Michael Ironside) who seems to have embraced the prospect of being a harbinger some decades prior. The other characters, well, they love, they lie, they… They have a lot of flashback encounters beneath (what I swear) is the same underpass over and over. Come to think of it, Smith not only overcame my personal discomforts with the themes, he also overcame the fact that he only had one interesting character…

Marred though it is by disorienting plot jumps and flat performances (except, of course, Ironside’s giddy eccentric), Tin Can works when viewed as a philosophical essay. Its sounds and visuals—the gold-toned future drones, the dungeon cylinder repository, and the squiggling gyrations of a fungal chrysalis just before it’s crushed—are strong enough to carry us past the ho-hum human element. And Tin Can‘s themes of transformation, deception, and hope are tried and true. The Waynes of the world, with their manic optimism in the face of doom, are as necessary as the hard-nosed, hard-science heroine Fret. Without Fret, we cannot achieve, and without Wayne, we cannot believe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Smith goes big on the visuals, both inside and outside the can… there is work that evokes Andrey Tarkovsky and Marek Piestrak. It’s splendidly realised and atmospheric, which is important because in later, slower scenes, Smith relies on it to maintain a sense of awe when the actors are compromised in their ability to hold our attention.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE MASK (1961)

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AKA Eyes of Hell; Face of Fire

DIRECTED BY: Julian Roffman

FEATURING: Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Martin Lavut

PLOT: A South American mask causes its wearers to have 3D hallucinations when they wear it, and then to strangle women afterwards.

Still from The Mask (1961)

COMMENTS: The Mask is short, weird, good movie covered up by a shoddy B-movie. The premise is simple: a bunch of Canadians wanted to rake a bundle of Canadian dollars by making a 3-D horror film, but the 3-D process itself was expensive, so they didn’t want to shell out cash to make the entire film pop. Therefore, we get three short (four to five minute) scenes set in the third dimension, with a flat, lame wraparound story about a cursed mask that causes its wearer to hallucinate. Whenever the 3-D segments are about to begin, a voice commands the mask’s victim (and the audience) to “put the mask on now!,” and the stereoscopic horror show begins.

Fortunately, the brief hallucination sequences are memorably bizarre and surreal—proto-psychedelic, truth be told. The mosaic Aztec mask appears floating in the air, and turns into a skull with two eyeballs popping out. Later, the eyeballs melt away and snakes crawl from the empty sockets, coming straight at the viewer. A zombie walks through a haunted forest. Hooded and cowled figures flank an altar over which the now-giant mask floats. Pillars spout claws. Charon takes us on a boat ride. The mask shoots fireballs. This dialogue-free stream-of-archetypes is accompanied by one of those noisy period horror/sci-fi scores, full of futury noises, shrieks, and heavy reverb. These scenes are straight-up coolness.

The problem comes with the majority of the movie, a formulaic horror scenario where nothing makes much sense (in a thoughtless way, not a surrealist way). The cursed mask is passed from a young archeologist to his psychiatrist. A contrived chase scene where the psychiatrist’s fiancee wrests the mask away from him and runs off with it, get into a cab, tip the cabbie enough so that he takes the forbidden artifact and hides it in the Natural History museum for her, only for the psychiatrist to walk in and find it in an office almost immediately, burns up about five minutes of screen time. The mask itself doesn’t seem to have given much thought to its end game: it possesses scientists, one at a time, makes them hallucinate and strangle, sure, but what’s it all leading to, really? There has to be more an evil entity could do with its incomparable supernatural powers than gaslight the occasional idiot. There’s a perfunctory attempt to portray the mask an allegory for drug addiction, but the story’s still a yawner.

The soapy acting is only slightly better than the script: the first victim is a poor excuse for a hand-wringing  , the lead cop is solicitous and ineffective, the psychiatrist breathlessly recites silly lines like “I must experience the greatest act of a human mind: to take another life,” and the fiancee leaves no impression whatsoever.

It’s not that the narrative section doesn’t show some directorial talent; the camera swings the angle where a trembling sapling blocks our view of a too-gruesome-for-the-day strangling. In a similar vein, the camera cuts away from a suicide to focus on a nodding  bobblehead. Touches like these imply that Roffman’s talents lay entirely with visual storytelling; he doesn’t have much of a way with actors, dialogue, pacing, or the other elements in a filmmaker’s toolkit. Or, maybe, Roffman (whose only other feature credit is the unremarkable juvenile delinquent B-movie The Bloody Brood) really was a complete hack, and the credit for the movie’s successes should go the art department and to one Slavko Vorkapich, who is credited with “script for the dream sequences.”

This unevenness—boring, senseless exposition wrapped around three relatively brilliant experimental shorts—puts The Mask in an odd category of movies that aren’t all that good, but which you should hunt down anyway. It’s a bucket list movie, but it’s at the bottom of the bucket.

The cardboard red-blue glasses that come with the Kino Blu-ray or DVD worked a treat. The disc even provide a sample image for you to calibrate them. The DVD also includes an audio commentary, twenty minute documentary on Roffman, and a twenty minute 3-D introduction to the film. The Blu-ray includes all the above plus the 2015 3-D animated short “One Night in Hell.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exercise in strangeness, but only in spurts… Surreal horror meets television procedural in the mediocre feature, which carries an abundance of eeriness, encountered through the display of some truly unsettling visuals.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who elaborated that it “incorporates really surreal nightmarish visions throughout the entire film when the ‘mask’ is put on; it’s very strange, especially when the year it was released is put into perspective.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)