Tag Archives: Horror

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE VOURDALAK (2023)

Le Vourdalak

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DIRECTED BY: Adrien Beau

FEATURING: , , Grégoire Colin, the voice of Adrien Beau

PLOT: Somewhere in the Balkans, a French nobleman finds himself enduring the hospitality of an isolated peasant family whose patriarch has gone missing.

Still from The Vourdalak (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: There are too few fish-out-of-water “Horror of manners” films featuring eloquent and sickening man-eating marionette monsters. The Vourdalak does its bit to fill this regrettable gap.

COMMENTS: Pity the poor Marquis Jacques Antoine Saturnin d’Urfé, an emissary de-horsed by roaming Turkish bandits. Pity, also, Jegor and Anya, a poverty-stricken couple forced to provide for Jegor’s ailing father Gorcha, outré sister Sdenka, troubled brother Piotr, and young son Vlad. Pity all of the rest of them, too, while you’re at it—except, perhaps, Gorcha. Or, perhaps you should. After all, he did clearly write in a parting note that if he were to return after the stroke of six o’clock, six days hence, he should immediately be murdered, as it would not actually be his self, but his body as corrupted by an evil, slobbering vourdalak. It may well have been a good, if superannuated, patriarch who went off to fight the bandits, but whatever returned is creepy, creepy, creepy.

The first act of The Vourdalak plays much like a period comedy piece, as the hapless Marquis skates between chagrin at his unlucky circumstances, awkward gratitude toward his lowly hosts, and a growing affection for the fay—and disgraced—Sdenka. He flirts, poorly, recounts go-nowhere anecdotes, and at one point, unprovoked, demonstrates his sarabande steps. (This last item turns out to be something of an important plot point, as the Marquis’ dancing chops end up, perhaps, saving his life later in the film.) The awkward whimsy turns dark at the spontaneous arrival, after six o’clock on the sixth day of absence, of a heavily bound, gaunt form: Gorcha, bearing with him the head of a troublesome Turkish bandit to be “hung above the door to send a message.”

The second and third acts chronicle the family’s downfall, as witnessed by the well-meaning, but regrettably inept, Marquis d’Urfé. Familial drama travels alongside familial dread, and the experience is increasingly peppered by Gorcha, now quite obviously—to everyone but his son Jegor—a sinister vourdalak. I couldn’t hope to do much justice in describing this fiend of legend (or, at least, of Tolstoian devisement), but the monster’s effects on the narrative and cinematic experience are alternately jarring and poetical—though, even when poetical, also rather jarring. A human-sized marionette, the creature is voiced and performed, so to speak, by the director, who has given his creation a personality situated somewhere between a mindless blood-sucker and the charming Uncle Irvin from The City of Lost Children.

Much of The Vourdalak‘s strangeness stems from this puppet creature, but the surrounding family add their own little bits of the bizarre. Piotr, the younger brother, is in the habit of dressing as a woman, something never explained and which, refreshingly, never elicits judgment from his siblings. Anja, the wife, maintains a subdued mania until the surrounding tragedies pile on too strongly. And of course, there’s the mysterious Sdenka, who nurses the most life-positive suicidal ambitions I’ve ever heard. Indeed, with its tight cast and ghoulish flourishes, The Vourdalak feels like a hit-and-run by the weird wagon: briefly dazing the viewer whilst doffing its cap with a “Pardon. Excuse me. Sorry!” as it lurches into the distance.

The Vourdalak is currently in limited release in theaters. We will update once at-home viewing options become available.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an intimate, though always dreamlike piece of world-building… what’s key is the strangeness of the setting… the film’s real triumph is in its use of a marionette: it’s absolutely horrible. It makes you recoil, and it’s full of ghastly otherworldliness, just what you need for a Gothic tale like this one.” — Keri O’Shea, Warped Perspective (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF SCREAMING GLASS (2024)

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DIRECTED BY: David R. Williams

FEATURING: Lani Call

PLOT: After her mother’s death, Elizabeth inherits her grandmother’s school building and moves in.

House of Screaming Glass (2024)

COMMENTS: In a story such as this one, told in this particular style, a good deal is left up to the viewer to either figure out—sooner or later—or choose to overlook. It requires a certain ambience, and a compelling lead. She needn’t be a great actor so much as a curious presence (in both meanings of the modifier). Crafting a liminal space as much as a narrative film, in this dreamy wibbly-bit between sleep and waking, between story and mood, there can be a captivating pathway for the viewer to follow along. While Lani Call nails her task as protagonist—indeed, as the only human character—of House of Screaming Glass, at the half-way mark David R. Williams throws a Necronomicon-sized spanner into the work’s erstwhile smoothly-ticking gears, knocking the entire experience into a gooey netherworld of tedium.

What the film does right is feature Lani Call. Her narration is deadpan, sometimes bordering on comatose, lulling the listener into a sort of mental surrender. Her character, Elizabeth, seems done with life before the movie has even begun, and a great deal of the House of Screaming Glass experience is us watching her looking at things in the creepy building she has come to own. (Worry not, she’s as confounded at the turn of events as we are, so we’re in good company.) She tours the abandoned, semi-converted school building in fast-motion, with the camera locked on her face (à la Angst-cam). We enter a daze with her as she builds routines and gets a feel for the place, talking to it in her narration. She plays a bit of piano and a strange entity approaches over her right shoulder. She finds some photo albums, and a child’s book of doodles—which holds a set of nudie photos, quite probably of her grandmother.

So far, David Williams has done well. You probably know the type of thing going on here—something akin to Enys Men, or a less minimalist Skinamarink. It is a meditative and repetitious experience, but summons growing ill-ease. But (oh, but!) at the half-way point, Williams decides this is not what he wants to do any more. Improbably, Elizabeth finds a box full of occult props, tools, liquor, and reading material. The revelation scene, as she drinks the potion from the tentacle bottle and looks over a tome on loan from the Evil Dead museum, is pretty darn cool: colors sicken and glowing text cycles across the screen as she gains understanding.

But it comes at too high a cost, as far as I’m concerned. It is here that House of Screaming Glass stops being interesting and becomes just kind of gross. The thorough gear-shifting wrenched me from the reverie the film had worked so hard to put me under, and I spent the next forty-five minutes Hm-ing, Hrm-ing, and occasionally wishing there were fewer skin lesions. Better luck next time, maybe? I’m certainly interested to see what Lani Call ends up doing. She’s better than what Elizabeth is ultimately obliged to go through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In due course we will get to body horror… we enter a world in which hallucination is added to the litany of possible visual and psychological interpretations… The juxtaposition doesn’t quite work, and yet its very oddness signals that we have now crossed over into a different interior space… A lovingly made entry in the tradition of feminine psycho-horror, House Of Screaming Glass pits a stubbornly lifeless vérité against the allure of the Gothic.”—Jennie Kermode, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE OTHER DIMENSION (1992)

L’altra dimensione

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DIRECTED BY: Fabio Salerno

FEATURING: Francesco Rinaldi, Maddalena Vadacca; Luigi Sgroi, Nadia Rebeccato, Piero Belloto; Marco Monzani, Giorgia Chezzi

PLOT: In this horror anthology, a man plots abduction of the woman who’s left him, another plots possession of a woman who’s leaving him, and a third plots incorporation of a woman who’s no longer living.

COMMENTS: Three short films await us, projected in a dingy, dark room. Dust-covered sound equipment, cobwebbed film reels, and a menacing tinge of green fill the narrow screen, as an unseen entity inquires, “How many of you have found yourself the subject of incredible stories?” The Other Dimension spools out like miniature theater event: two shorts preceding a near-feature.

Salerno kicks off with “Delirium”, a fun variant of the “Bluebeard” folktale. Simply constructed, the segment features clever lighting, with the unearthly sparkles of the protagonist’s whiskey and glass capturing the titular condition, and giallo greens exuding organic menace. The film’s frame is put to compelling use as our angular stalker’s and victim’s fates collide. Most troublingly, Salerno manages an abstract, and impressively brief visual metaphor for rape, whose beauty left me quite unnerved. Closing with a shot of three heads by a bottle of Pepsi, Salerno wraps up the action and we are quickly brought to the squabbling exes of “Mortal Instinct.” The title is a bit heavy-handed, but the second short (the weakest of the three) goes by quickly enough. But not before it makes some remarks on machismo by way of Black Magic—with a bodily destruction sequence that may not appear realistic, but somehow manages to be ickily convincing nevertheless.

The main course of The Other Dimension, “Eros e Thanatos (Love & Death)”, shows off Salerno’s talents about as far as his means could allow. Some fifty minutes in length, its story of decayed love rotting into aberrant obsession left me, against considerable odds, wishing for a happy ending to fall upon the quiet protagonist. Judicious montage, narration, and, once again, a keen eye for lighting simultaneously showed how cleverly this was made—and how inexpensively. The lead actor, Marco Monzani, never plays a note wrong, whether he’s awkwardly paying the cabbie to get his ex-girlfriend moving on her way, or taking her by the hand as she emerges from the grave. “Eros e Thanatos” lies somewhere between Angst and After Hours, and its action, though scant, floats by on gusts of a sickly-sweet breeze.

Stumbling into this experience with no information beyond “low budget”, “Italian”, “horror”, and the IMDb filmmaker overview’s sole blurb, “Died 1993 · Milan, Italy (suicide)”, I really didn’t know what to expect from this, but it was certainly not that The Other Dimensions would have such impressive flashes of on-screen poetry. To the best of my knowledge, Fabio Salerno is a name known only to a small subsection of horror buffs. This final offering, completed not long before his death at the age of thirty-one, clearly shows that the world of cinema lost a promising voice far too soon.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[I]t’s a heck of a wild ride if you love scrappy homemade horror.” — Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KATERNICA (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: James Edward Newton

FEATURING: Fran St Clair, Paul Richards, Annabella Rich, Anna Fraser, Tony Mardon

PLOT: A theater student discovers a forgotten one-act play; its production triggers mysterious disturbances in the lives of both her sister, an aspiring actress, and a washed-up thespian attempting to resurrect his career.

Still from Katernica (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Alarming theatrics—both narrative and cinematic—couple with puzzling body horror, resulting in a baffling and unnerving foray into the improbably verité realm of stage-on-screen.

COMMENTS: Fill me in out-of-focus nougat, dip me in close-up chocolate syrup, and call me an Art House Bar. Katernica is a film about a play about madness, and it could only fall deeper into somber-sweet pretension if it were French instead of British. But mysteriously, this languidly jumpy beast keeps your interest. The characters are broadly relatable and interesting; the coat hanger plot frame holding up the story is quirky; and there’s an undercurrent (and over-current) of something strange—and even more so, it introduces one of the most bizarre characters I’ve ever seen on screen.

With a cast of five, everyone’s at least a little bit interesting. Esther shows an academic’s pluck in decrypting an obscure little play. Her sister Eve fascinates with a mysterious pregnancy and similarly mysterious emotional history. Jerry elicits both sympathy and disdain as a washed-up director. The doctor (named, I should tell you, “Katernica”) turns the knob from coldly unpleasant Eastern Eurotrash archetype to something neat to behold. These four are the main movers and shakers in the story, ticking events forward to a mid-film bit of nastiness and the final scene: a monologue delivered at Art House amped to eleven.

But then there’s Mister Case. This guy… the only (admittedly poor) comparison I can make is to the post-encounter Edgar from Men In Black. We first hear him, painfully expressing the importance of saving Eve’s baby, then see him in a blurry close-up. With every line of dialogue, with every movement, it looks as if he wants to rip out of this suit of human skin that so obviously pains him. He has a very shadowy ambition (which comprises the second of the two interesting and weird things about Katernica), and enlists the aid of the doctor—and the unwitting aid of the pregnant actress. As both a role and a performance, Mister Case is unfailingly, and fascinatingly, creepy.

Katernica has its shortcomings. From my modest encounters with theater, I know that Katernica is accurate—but I simultaneously feel that as a genre it’s best avoided on film. But, of course, sometimes a little rough-cut gem happens. James Edward Newton, the director and co-writer, puts before us something both flashily mundane and obscurely menacing—not unlike an unlabeled box of mixed confectionery.

Katernica [Blu-ray]
  • A mysterious play envelops the lives of an ambitious drama student, her actor sister, and a washed-up director in a surreal nightmare.