Tag Archives: Horror

9*. GEMINI (1999)

Sôseiji

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Masahiro Motoki, Ryô

PLOT: Yukio is a successful doctor, decorated for his service in the war. His wife Rin is an amnesiac. Yukio discovers he has an identical twin from whom he was separated at birth—a resentful and savage twin, bent on revenge.

Still from Gemini (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tsukamoto adapted the story from a 1924 short story by Edogawa Rampo (“the Japanese Edgar Allan Poe”).
  • In an unusual move, fellow director assembled a 15-minute “making of” featurette to accompany the film on DVD.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first glimpse of the twin in the shadows. He looks just like Yukio, but wears ragged robes and a bizarre fur earmuff that covers half of his face. He shakes like he’s having a fit, then approaches the camera by doing cartwheels. It’s scary enough to give someone a heart attack.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyebrowless clan; somersaulting doppelganger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pulling back from the unbridled mania of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and similar body-horror experiments, Shinya Tsukamoto proves that he can generate cold sweats with a more subtle, purely psychological approach. With its deep shadows and determined pace, Gemini generates an uncanny horror that seeps into your bones.

The opening minutes of “The Making of Gemini

COMMENTS: Gemini begins with an abstract, ominous prologue. It Continue reading 9*. GEMINI (1999)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: TIME OF MOULTING (2020)

Fellwechselzeit

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Sabrina Mertens

FEATURING: Zelda Espenschied, Miriam Schiweck, Freya Kreutzkam

PLOT: Stephanie grows up with her eccentric, sickly mother and her “present-but-absent” father, becoming a troubled teenager.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Teutonic-degrees of mise-en-scène fastidious, tormentingly oblique dialogue, and an unflinching obsession with medium shots make Time of Moulting far too enigmatic and unnerving to fall into mere “arthouse”-levels of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The stifling warmth in this room and the ominous thunder and lightning outside is an appropriate environment for writing this review of Sabrina Mertens’ directorial debut. Time of Moulting is dark, oppressive, and ominous. It’s a slender movie, merely eighty minutes long, but every slice of it—dozens of fixed-camera, “photograph”-style cuts—drip a slow build of tension, like a viscous ooze that is gradually filling a dust-covered bottle. By the finish, I was torn between scratching my head in confusion and hugging myself in despair.

Stephanie (played by a charming Zelda Espenschied as a young child, and a surly Miriam Schiweck “tens years later”) is raised by two parents who have no business having children. The mother (Freya Kreutzkam, never far from despair-induced collapse) suffers from an unspecified medical condition—one both mental and physical, probably. The father makes it clear early on he has no patience for his daughter. Young Stephanie takes solace in exploring the mysteries hidden away in the increasingly untidy house, particularly the trunk full of her grandfather’s butcher’s equipment; older Stephanie takes far more sinister “comfort” in the tools found therein.

By IMDb’s count, there are 57 vignettes adding up to a cryptic whole. By my count, there are only two close-ups: one shot of false teeth creepily snapping shut, and one of liver curling while being fried upon a skillet. The recurrence of meat—always raw—is never a good sign in movies. In Time of Moulting it takes on a more abstract but equally sinister imagery. Young Stephanie arranges two slices of something almost origami-like on a plate; later in life she takes to drawing some truly grisly scenes of death, and even cannibalism.

But Time of Moulting’s horror elements take a back seat to the oppressive formalism of the whole affair, lingering in the many shadows with a quietly sadistic grin. I have never felt so unnerved by medium shots. You see everything going on in the scene, but that only makes the goings-on eerily detached. By this point in the review, I’ve realized that I am not communicating the movie’s aura as well as I would like; but that just reaffirms my position that Time of Moulting is a truly strange take on horror, art-house, and melodrama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is subtle to the point that we lose many of the narrative points that lead to the character feeling how she feels and doing what she does. It comes across as unqualified and strangely out of place as the film plods towards its underwhelming finale..” -Hunter Heilman, Elements of Madness (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER (2019)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Mickey Reece

FEATURING: Ginger Gilmartin, Mary Buss, Ben Hall

PLOT: Two sisters in their autumn years await the arrival of a childhood friend for whom they each have romantic ambitions.

COMMENTS: There is an elegance to the “Academy ratio” that has by and large been abandoned since the mass television market adopted “widescreen” (in particular, 16:9) as the standard ratio. The classic 4:3 ratio, found in older films and prevalent through much of television’s history, allows for an intimacy that is lost in typical widescreen extravaganzas. The extra frame space can be useful for many genres—from art-house films, with their precision framing and staging, to action films, with their need for as much visual noise as possible—but melodramas benefit greatly from the Academy ratio’s truncatedness: the focus is put right on to the characters as they interact.

This intimacy is among the many throwback elements found in Mickey Reece’s Climate of the Hunter. Another is stylized dialogue, as exemplified by the nebulous love interest, Wes (played with supreme suavité by Ben Hall). A writer by a profession, and a vampire by rumor, Wes’ fluorishes and bons mots might come across as stilted, but never quite sound unreal. This brings me to the third trick up Reece’s sleeve: he makes  Climate feel like a high-end soap opera that’s been cranked up–but just a little bit. It never feels like parody, but walks ever so precariously along that knife-edge.

Climate of the Hunter is little more than a stylish oddity, but I felt compelled to bring it to your attention because it not only bumps up just below the “Recommended” mark, but also the “Apocrypha Candidate” mark. The love triangle between Wes and the two sisters plays like riffing on , with each of their styles grounding the others’ particular excesses. The film’s few defects (an unpleasantly tone-jarring “mini-montage” when the crazier sister gears up for a vampire-hunting encounter is almost a body-blow to the movie) are forgivable given the otherwise flawless atmosphere of high melodrama and playful art-house. Such presentational precision, harnessed for such an unclear story, makes Climate of the Hunter worth a look for anyone who realizes that a vampire’s life must be a deft mixture of the ornate and the dishonest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not gonna lie, folks. Climate of the Hunter is weird. It’s so incredibly weird… And yet. I found it incredibly watchable and could not hit stop…”–Terry Mesnard, Gayly Dreadful (festival screening)

CAPSULE: LITTLE DEATHS (2011)

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DIRECTED BY: Sean Hogan, Andrew Parkinson,

FEATURING: Jodie Jameson, Luke de Lacey, Siubhan Harrison, Holly Lucas, Tom Sawyer, Kate Braithwaite

PLOT: Three anthologized shorts: a wealthy couple toys with a homeless girl, an ex-junkie and ex-prostitute joins a pharmaceutical trial, and a young couple’s sadomasochistic relationship turns sour.

Still from Little Deaths (2011)

COMMENTS: For weird purposes, we can dispose of two of the three sexually-charged horrors that make up Little Deaths quickly. The opener, “House & Home,” is a well-produced but obvious R-rated “Twilight Zone” thing where a couple who exploit homeless women find the tables turned. Even though you might not guess the exact details, the twist is something less than a surprise when it arrives. The closer, “Bitch,” is a bit more involving because of its depiction of unusual fetishes (canine roleplay among them) in the context of a very dysfunctional S&M relationship, and its exceptionally cruel ending. It’s essentially sleazy sex life portraiture, though with a climax that’s equal parts troubling and ridiculous.

That leaves the middle segment, “Mutant Tool,” which is indeed about as weird as its title suggests. The central character is Jen, a recovering junkie and ex-prostitute who’s finding it hard to go straight. Her drug-dealing boyfriend enrolls her in an experimental pharmaceutical treatment with a major side effect: she hallucinates about a strange man (or monster) hanging in a cage. The plot gradually brings an old Nazi experiments and a develops a cyclical pharmaceutical ecosystem somewhat reminiscent of the one in Upstream Color (2013) (if less rigorously developed). The film is visually murky, with only brief glimpses of the dingy mutant behind a face shield and a shower curtain, though the restrained imagery can be effective—and there is one WTF closeup that is both creepy and sort of funny.  The exposition can be a bit clumsy: Jen keeps taking calls from her escort agency, even though she claims to be no longer working for them, just so we can sense the pressure she’s under. And there’s a crusty old caretaker character who keeps coming up with excuses to volunteer mutant backstory to a trainee. Plus, it seems like an awfully bad idea for Frank to refer Jen to Dr. Reese, considering the ghoulish nature of his prior dealings with the physician. Still, if you can overlook those narrative shortcuts, “Mutant Tool” has a strong and weird conceit, and also has the only likeable characters in the triptych—Jen and Frank are lowlifes, sure, but they’re at least trying to escape from the horror rather than hurtling into it like the others.

Although perversity abounds throughout, and “Mutant Tool” perks some interest for seekers of the eerie, none of Little Deaths offerings are essential shock-horror. But at thirty minutes each, none of them outstay their welcome, either.

Little Deaths has been accused of misogyny, and although there’s some basis for the charge (e.g. the uncomfortable verbal lingering over a rape scene), it’s overblown in general. In Little Deaths, people are simply cruel to one another, and males are victims as much as females. The one exception might be that final episode, Rumley’s provocatively-titled “Bitch,” which invites (though doesn’t demand) the misogyny-minded to identify with its emasculated antihero. To their credit, the directors do anticipate these charges and address them in a series of interviews included on the DVD—although Parkinson has nothing to answer for, and Rumley glibly dismisses the objection with a shrug.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…three tales of the strange, the weird, and the fantastic… ‘Mutant Tool’ is Andrew Parkinson’s way-strange contribution… [‘Mutant Tool’] is some pretty weird and (to use the word yet again) ‘dark’ stuff, made all the more so by being played as straight drama…  LITTLE DEATHS as a whole is pleasantly unsettling and worth watching for horror fans on the lookout for something different.”–Porfle Popnecker, “HK and Cult Film News” (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Donatien,” who qualified his recommendation: “i don’t think all three short films can be classified as weird, only the 3rd one.” Maybe he misremembered the order of the tales? Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DREAM DEMON (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Harley Cokeliss (as Harley Cokliss)

FEATURING: Jemma Redgrave, Kathleen Wilhoite, Mark Greenstreet, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail

PLOT: Diana is about to get married to a Falklands War hero, but starts suffering nightmares as the date of her nuptials approaches.

Still from Dream Demon (1988)

COMMENTS: Leading lady Jemma Redgrave is the niece of cinema’s heavy-hitting grand dame, Vanessa Redgrave. Nicolas Cage is the nephew of cinema’s heavy-hitting director Francis Ford Coppola. I bring up this semi-coincidence to allow me to raise the following point: a movie as overblown as Dream Demon would have done much better with an actor as overblown as Nicolas Cage. As it stands, Jemma Redgrave provides a capable performance as bride-to-be Diana, but her energy level is far too wan—perhaps I might say too “English”—for the blood-splattered, creepy-staircase-laden, hard-to-follow nightmare on screen. Redgrave hovers at a “proper” Four, when Dream Demon demands nothing short of a Cage-ian Eleven.

Had Harley Cokeliss (who co-wrote as well as directed) pursued the story he should have, that kind of quiet nuance might have been appropriate. He falls into the trap that ensnares horror writers and directors all too often, however: wanting to graft ill-thought-out scares onto dramas that could have been more interesting in their own right. Dream Demon, in its real world portions, touches on a lot of issues worth exploring: the bilious nature of the British press corps in the 1980s, the strange flag-waving jingoism of the Falklands War, the culture clash of Los Angeles and London society, the manifestations of childhood guilt, and the fears of human sexuality as expressed by the subconscious.

Instead, there are dreams within dreams (within dreams, and so on). These dreams, as the title suggests, are invariably nightmares—and Dream Demon opens with a real doozie. During a full-on, hyper-Anglican wedding—replete with far-flung family and officer chummies of the groom—Diana gets cold feet at the last possible moment and refuses to say “I do” at the vicar’s prompt. Furious with embarrassment, the groom (Mark Greenstreet, doing the best impression of David Bowie‘s ’80s hair-cut I’ve ever seen) slaps her; she slaps him back, and his head explodes. The blood-spattered bride walks back down the aisle and outside into the crowd of paparazzi. Alas, anyone who’s anyone knows that this opening is not to be–and we see the bride-to-be awakening in the arms of her fiancé who showers her with the standard “Everything’s all right!” platitudes.

So Dream Demon skirts around full-bore madness while also ignoring the many issues it raises with its colorful cast of characters. (I wish to take a moment for a special shout-out to Timothy Spall; not for his performance within Diana’s dreams, but as the tremendous skeezeball photojournalist who at one point inquires, “[Your fiancé] murdered a lot of Argentinians. Does that turn you on?”) But overall, Dream Demon is an untidy mess of missed opportunities. If the craziness had been laid on as thick as the spoooooky sound cues, it might have been something.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sort of a serious attempt to deliver a new twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street formula with a dose of Hellraiser-style surrealism in its second half, this is a film that requires a bit of work to fully embrace but delivers plenty of atmosphere and some quirky little chills that nicely evoke the subtle but unsettling nature of very bad dreams.” -Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo-Digital [Blu-ray]