Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: VEROTIKA (2019)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Glenn Danzig

FEATURING: Ashley Wisdom, Rachel Alig, Alice Haig, Scotch Hopkins

PLOT: Three tales of “violent eroti(k)a”: a woman’s albino spider kills when she sleeps, a stripper cuts off women’s faces, and a Countess bathes in blood.

Still from Veroitka (2019)

COMMENTS: I’ve got this crazy theory that heavy metal musicians should not be allowed to make horror movies as vanity projects. Sure, has directed a couple that weren’t totally embarrassing (and many more that were); after that, the field was slim… until Verotika comes along to (hopefully) put the final nail in the headbanger crossover coffin. You may have heard this film is bad. It’s worse than that. Watch it to the end and you’ll be begging for the sweet release of death.

Each of the three segments—adapted from Danzig’s horror comic series of the same name—is introduced by a nondescript goth chick, who’s comelier than the Cryptkeeper but has nowhere near the sense of humor (after gouging out a captive woman’s eyeballs in the opening, the best she can come up with is “Welcome, my darklings, this is Verotika.” Whatever happened to lines like “Welcome to our cornea-copia of horror, my pupils!”?)

The first story, “The Albino Spider of Dajette,” is the “best.” It features a French girl (Wisdom) with eyeballs on her nipples (a la Gothic). She also has an albino spider who turns anthropomorphic whenever she falls asleep and goes out and snaps hooker’s necks. Are these two freaky deformities related? No, it’s just an incredible coincidence that eye-nipple girl also owns a killer dream spider. The spider-man makeup is not bad, but he merely goes around killing random lingerie-clad women when his strawberry-shortcake-haired mistress dozes off at her S&M photoshoots or at the porn theater (where she goes to see a screening of Les Nue sans Visage to try to stay awake). By far, the funniest part is watching Wisdom try to express—well… any emotion—in a stereotypical Pepe le Pew accent. (Lines like “keeler… keeler… you… are a murderair!” are a lot funnier when delivered in a blasé French accent.)

Another plus is that “Albino Spider” is the only segment that has anything resembling a conclusion. If you wanted to stop watching after the first installment, you’d have my blessing. If you wanted to stop watching after the opening credits, even better. But if you soldier on, you’ll see that “Change of Face” is about a stripper who steals the faces of pretty girls with breast implants. It’s the kind of kink a serial killer might get up to in Psycho or Silence of the Lambs, but here, no reason is suggested for her actions. (Beat cop, standing over the bloody corpse of a face-stripped victim: “We’ve got nothing. Zero evidence, which means no leads or motive.” Detective: “There’s your motive. They wanted her face.”) The detective chases her, but she just moves to another gentlemen’s club and changes her stage name from “Mystery Girl” to “Mysteria.” Now, the heat will never catch up to her, and she will continue to de-face harlots for eternity.

After a while, we move on to the final story, “Drukija: Contessa of Blood.” Apparently threats of litigation from Elizabet Báthory’s estate made them change the protagonist’s name, but it’s the familiar old story of a decadent Eastern European noblewoman who buys up the local village virgins and bathes in their blood to keep up her youthful appearance (this was in the days before you could get two-day delivery on Pond’s Rejuveness Anti-Wrinkle cream from Amazon.hu). This Countess also indulges in jugular showers, enlists the help of a wolf, and pulls the beating heart out of a nude girl. She doesn’t, however, follow any kind of plot arc—she starts out bleeding virgins, continues to bleed virgins, and ends up bleeding virgins. None of the locals care, and neither will you.

Birth. Movies. Death. suggested crowd-watching this atrocity on Twitter. As far as I can see, the response was about as enthusiastic as Ashley Wisdom’s line-readings after discovering her best friend has just been killed by an anthropomorphic spider. This isn’t the metalhead horror movie version of The Room, folks. It’ s not even Sharknado. You’ve been warned. Avoid. Avoid. AVOID.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The inexplicable choices and illogical elements give the film a hypnotic vibe. Verotika is a thoroughly baffling work that has to be seen to be believed. And aficionados of movies that are crazy-town banana-pants absolutely should see it.”–Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat (festival screening)

CAPSULE: IN FABRIC (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leo Bill, , Hayley Squires, Julian Barratt

PLOT: Sheila, a divorcee in the market for a new man, purchases a new red dress for a series of dates; things do not turn out well for her. Separately, Reg Speaks is a washing machine repairman about to marry is longtime girlfriend; after wearing that same red dress on his stag night, things turn out poorly for him, as well.

Still from In Fabric (2018)

COMMENTS: For capsule reviews, we aim to describe the action in one sentence. However, among the number of odd things about In Fabric is the fact that this is really two films in one: a pretty good feature-length story about Sheila’s experiences with a cursed red dress, and a much weirder, shorter film about Reg’s experiences with that same dress. There are plenty of strange things going on in this movie, and in many ways it should qualify for apocryphally weird status. Unfortunately, while the graft is forgivable, it fails overall.

Peter Strickland, who wrote and directed, clearly has an obsession with 1970s exploitation—his two previous films both focus on that decade and that genre—and his penchant for shines through brightly. The red of the dress and the red lighting of the strange advertisements for “Dentley and Sopers Trusted Department Store” are the most obvious tributes, with the movie’s palette generally mimicking whatever evil form of technicolor was used by the original giallists. In Fabric could be viewed as a love letter to that arty vein of horror, albeit a letter with an incredibly long postscript.

I enjoyed watching this, despite a glaring flaw: it was difficult to commit to the characters. Sheila’s tale ultimately left me indifferent, but the story of “Reg Speaks” was more in the transcendent mold, almost literally. Reg’s last name is strange, but apt. Though a lowly washing machine mechanic, he has something of a super power: the ability to bring listeners to an orgasmic trance while speechifying on the finer details of the problems vexing broken machines. In the world of In Fabric his reputation is such that even the bank managers whom he sees about a loan know about it, and want him to do a “role-playing” exercise so they can enjoy his mesmeric talents. (Julian Barratt plays one of these bank managers, with a performance that expertly rides along the razor’s edge of hilarious and mundane. Describing a memo about having a “meaningful handshake”, he explains, “It’s written in a fun, easy language, with a cartoon at the end that summarizes key points.”)

Fatma Mohamed, as the chief store clerk, stands out among the madness. She makes one believe she could be an alien, a demon, or perhaps a mannequin brought to life by some eccentric paranormal force. Her lines (“The hesitation in your voice: soon to be an echo in the spheres of retail” or “dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements”) sound like ornately translated Italian as delivered by a supernatural facsimile of a sales woman.

Strickland will hopefully sort his visions out enough to make that truly weird, and truly worthwhile, movie in the future (under the guidance, perhaps, of Ben Wheatley, executive producer here). But, measuring In Fabric, we find all the pieces are there, but he’s crafted something altogether ill-fitting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s less engaging is the suspicion that neither of these stories was substantial enough for a feature film on their own, and so they were combined to make a justifiable whole. The film’s demented satire of consumer culture and weird diversions into psychosexual nightmare fuel are less reliant on a coherent narrative arc, however, and Strickland’s unique ability to convey the sense of touch in an audio-visual medium isn’t dependent on story at all.”–Katie Rife, The AV Club (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: John D. Hancock

FEATURING: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello

PLOT: Jessica is fresh out of the psych ward after a mental illness when her husband moves her out to the New England countryside, but the house they have purchased and the surrounding town have a Dark Secret™️.

Still from Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

COMMENTS: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is the directorial debut of John Hancock; nothing in his career would resemble anything like this movie ever again. Reportedly the script was originally written as a satire of horror movies, but Hancock wanted it reworked as a serious horror movie inspired by psychological thrillers like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. Horror veterans may groan at this point, because movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) taught us that converting a horror satire into straight horror is a precarious proposition. Amazingly, this movie outshines these modest expectations as well as its low budget—though not by much. It’s a dubious mix of giallo and Gothic set in a Connecticut location just south of Lovecraft country. True to Hancock’s aim, the tone does land somewhere between Shirley Jackson and Howie P. Right from the opening monologue, we have the title character adrift in a rowboat raving madly to herself while Atlantic seagulls fuss off-screen, followed by our opening theme in somber piano notes. You’ll be double-checking to see if Aaron Spelling produced this for TV.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is a bubbly gal recently released from the mental hospital, whose hobby is riding around in the back of a hearse touring cemeteries so she can do charcoal rubbings of headstones—but don’t worry, she’s going to be right as rain! Her concerned husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) has bought a home out in the country for her, based on the old “fresh air and simple living” cure for the mentally twitchy. Duncan’s buddy Woody (Kevin O’Connor), along to help them move in, ends up staying on. Despite the fact that Jessica hears voices in her head every two seconds and sees phantoms that disappear in the space of a jump cut, she’s optimistic for her recovery. The strawberry blonde vagrant they discover squatting at this home when they move in (you better believe she’s revealed with a jump scare) isn’t helping matters any. Emily (Mariclare Costello) offers to pack her things and hit the road, but Jessica begs her to stay for dinner, then indefinitely. No sooner does Emily play her guitar over after-dinner wine (Duncan is a retired Philaharmonic orchestra player, so he brings out his double-bass for accompaniment) than Woody puts the moves on her. You see, this clan is set up to be hippies, or at least part of the counterculture, although the usual Hollywood portrayal of Flower Children is muted Continue reading CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

CAPSULE: GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Osgood Perkins

FEATURING: Sophia Lillis, , Samuel Leakey

PLOT: Cast out by their poor mother, Gretel takes her brother Hansel into the woods, where they come upon a house inhabited by a witch.

Still from Gretel & Hansel (2020)

COMMENTS:There’s no gingerbread house in Gretel & Hansel, but there is an unnatural abundance of food that appears on the old woman’s table day after day, despite the absence of livestock or a garden. Near starvation, Gretel and her younger brother Hansel aren’t picky about where this abundance is coming from—at first.

Oz Perkins’ spin on the ancient fairy tale focuses on the relationship between Gretel and the witch, who is both an antagonist and a perverse sort of mentor for a girl without a female role model. To expand the slim folklore to feature length, the screenplay provides a rich backstory for the witch.  Wickedly played by a creaky Alice Krieg, she’s not just a boogey-woman, but a full-fledged herbalist and pagan practitioner. After a prologue describing her origins—a fairy tale inside the fairy tale—the story begins in earnest with Gretel discovering her prospects are limited in a famine-plagued village. With mom providing no help, she takes Hansel as a ward and sets off in search of a better life. An out-of-place episode involving what appears to be a mutant zombie, and a bout with hallucinogenic toadstools, provide a couple of bumps in the road before the pair arrive at the mysterious cottage. Once there, the eldritch atmosphere takes over as Gretel settles into a routine: days sparring with the witch, nights filled with nightmares. All the while, Hansel is getting fatter, and sees no reason to flee a good thing…

This gently spooky middle part of the film is the strongest. Gretel ends on a too-short climax that, while true to both the folklore and to the narrative the script builds, disappoints a bit in its obviousness. There’s not much budget for elaborate effects, but the dark cinematography is dreamy and intoxicating. Shots are filled with occult symbolism: not just the pentagram Hansel finds scratched on the tree, Gretel’s eye caught in a triangle like an Eye of Providence, and the pointy roof of the witch’s house framed alongside an eternally crescent moon.

Thematically, Gretel is a bit muddled. It’s a coming-of-age story, sure. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to menstruation. Gretel herself changes during the course of the story, growing from an unsure virginal girl to a confident virginal young woman; Sophia Lillis captures the transformation capably. More interesting, though, is the focus on fairy tales as warnings, and particularly a bit of play on the ideas of poison and gifts. The witch explains to Gretel that, although poison tastes bitter, imbibing a bit is salutary because it builds immunity. By contrast, the pastries on the witch’s table taste sweet, but hide bitter realities.

Gretel & Hansel is relatively slow paced, with art house aspirations that will please critics more than its PG-horror audience. It’s no wonder that it was dumped in theaters in February with little promotion; the bigger mystery is how this mid-budget horror got a relatively large scale release. Even though the movie’s not quite as filling as it might have been, we should be grateful for its relative abundance in a time of cinematic famine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s got ‘cult movie’ written all over it in strawberry jam, which probably isn’t actually strawberry jam, and audiences who tune into its unusual wavelength will no doubt be grateful for such a beautiful, frightening, intelligent new venture into an age-old nightmare.”–William Bibbiani, The Wrap (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sebastian Murrilo, who thought it was “Panos Comsatos-esque” and was “shocked to see this in a multiplex theater.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight, , Joely Richardson,  Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliar

PLOT: A meteorite lands at a remote New England farm and spreads alien madness to a family.

Still from Color out of Space (2019)

COMMENTS:  The color out of space is actually lavender, or maybe it’s more of a fuchsia. At any rate, it’s in the pink/purple spectrum.  It’s possible that this choice is a nod to From Beyond, which is also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and which I once wrote was “the pinkest horror movie ever made.” (Besides Beyond, Color reminded me of a number of 80s horrors, with shadings from The Shining, Poltergeist, and even Society.) Director Richard Stanley is committed to this color palette, which is prefigured in the streak of purple dye in Lavinia Gardner’s otherwise golden hair. In Lovecraft’s original story, a color never before seen by man was a metaphor for the ineffable quality of the alien visitor. In the movie, that color necessarily must be represented literally, and Stanley takes the literalism so excessively—slathering the film with liquid lilacs and violets—that the effect becomes almost as strange as an indescribable extraterrestrial hue. In fact, you only know when the alien presence has departed because the scene becomes drained of all color.

Bookended by quotations from Lovecraft‘s text, Color follows a standard horror movie arc: character setup, arrival of an evil presence, and steadily escalating eerie incidents that come to a climax. There are a lot of unusual sights along the way, however, starting with the purple mutant grasshopper/dragonfly hybrid with tie-dye spider-eye vision and progressing to general madness among the entire cast and a ian mother/child re-assimilation. The utter inscrutability of the aliens’ nature and purpose is true to Lovecraft, though it may not be to some modern horror fans’ taste. Questions of whether the color arrives on the pink glowing meteor by accident or purposefully, and why it seems to suddenly depart—or perhaps just to go dormant—are left unanswered. “What touched this place cannot be understood or quantified by human science,” is the best those hoping for an explanation will get.

Despite being featured in the film’s promotion, Cage, as the family patriarch, doesn’t dominate the story. He doesn’t even start Cage-ing until halfway through, going all Jack Torrance after his kids forget to feed the alpaca, gesticulating wildly and switching accents mid-monologue. It’s the young stars Madeleine Arthur (as Lavinia) and Elliot Knight (as the surveyor) who are the main protagonists. I came into the experience looking forward to Cage bringing the crazy, but ended up happy that his peculiar lunacy merely seasoned the film a bit, rather than dominating it.

Due to its provenance— a weird fiction classic that’s been adapted many times, but never properly; a cult director come out of retirement to helm the project; Nic Freaking Cage— Color Out of Space is the hot ticket among cult film fans in early 2020. The movie doesn’t actually do anything truly unexpected, but nor does it disappoint. With Cage, a retro-80s horror pace and feel, and plenty of pretty swirling colors, it’s going to hit the sweet spot for a lot of viewers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Oh, Richard Stanley, how we have missed your intoxicating weirdness… there is no preparing you for this space oddity.”–Preston Barta, Fresh Fiction (festival screening)