Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: 1BR (2019)

DIRECTED BY: David Marmor

FEATURING: Nicole Bloom, Taylor Nichols, Giles Matthey, Celeste Sully, Clayton Hoff

PLOT: Sarah’s a newcomer to LA with shaky job prospects and no friends; after being accepted into an apartment complex, she finds out too late just how close-knit the community there actually is.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological thriller/horror movie about the dangers of community, which is a unique angle. However, the creepy unease that ensues isn’t anything we haven’t seen before (though typically in less-worthy examples).

COMMENTS: There is a lot to be said for making a good “genre” picture: a familiar story told well with a novel twist is hard to find. I am not insulting David Marmor and his crew when I say that 1BR is a story I’ve seen before—I’ve made it my business and pleasure to watch countless movies—because Marmor’s take on this particular story was ceaselessly well presented and kept me hooked from start to finish as I wondered how Sarah (Nicole Bloom), an imperiled newcomer to LA, would play her hand. In fact, of the five movies I watched the day I sat at 1BR‘s press screening, it’s the only title that I can presently recall.

Sarah is a young costume designer who is adrift in life, literally and metaphorically. Having recently left home and gone to LA, she has no real job prospects, no friends, and no home. She finds a job, of sorts: temping at a law firm. She gets a friend, of sorts: a vibrant co-worker named Lisa (a sassy Celeste Sully). She finds a home. Her initial joy at being accepted into an exclusive apartment complex, stuffed to the gills with apparent-neighborliness, turns into undefined ill-ease. What are those strange thumping noises at night? Who is writing threatening notes about her forbidden pet (her cat named “Giles”)? And what is it that’s so disconcerting about the two bulges on her flat-room wall? We know something is about to go wrong—and things go very wrong for young Sarah.

Plenty of psychological horror explores the fear of darkness and the dangers of isolation. 1BR swaps those for an unsettling hyper-illumination as it explores the even greater dangers of community. This group of smiling, happy people she’s ended up with are close-knit to the point of annihilating their individuality. Of the tenets practiced by the tenants, one struck me firmly. Though based on some West Coast cult figures, I was reminded of nothing so much as Maoist-era “struggle sessions.” This criticism of the group’s certainty of its correctness running against the individual’s shouldering of blame was pitch-perfect: there are prices for cohesion that are far too high.

I’ve had an interesting time discussing 1BR with other reviewers and I think I’ve done a fair job dissuading them of their initial dismissiveness. It would be overwhelming and ultimately unsatisfying, as well as impossible, if every movie we saw was Completely New. 1BR captures the suffocation of the coercive integration of a fully free individual into a monolithic social unit. Would-be social messiahs like Charles D. Ellerby (who devised the community’s creed) would do well to realize two things: you are never “always right,” and it takes all sorts to make a world. Ending on a note of very cautious optimism, Marmor’s debut gives us just enough hope that we can escape the doom of INGSOC-esque terror. We’d just better be prepared to run like hell.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marmor’s feature debut, which takes a new arrival to Hollywood and puts her in an apartment complex whose residents have scary plans for her, is a cousin of Rosemary’s Baby in which the occult is replaced by mere brainwashing and the eerie glamour of Central Park luxury decomposes into the generic architecture of a Los Angeles starter apartment.” -John DeFore, The Hollywood Report (festival screening)

CAPSULE: DANIEL ISN’T REAL (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Chukwudi Iwuji, Mary Stuart Masterson

PLOT: Escaping an unpleasant encounter between his parents, young Luke instead witnesses the aftermath of a mass murder; immediately following, his friend Daniel manifests.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTDaniel Isn’t Real‘s beautiful visual style, that at times evokes techno-metal Suspiria, is put to the service of an engaging story about the connection between demonic possession and mental illness. Despite the advent of hundreds of Apocrypha slots, however, Daniel Isn’t Real hews much more closely to distorted horror than the insanity we’d prefer.

COMMENTS: As rip-offs go, Daniel Isn’t Real is a mighty fine one. I use that phrase without its negative connotations; as the director himself explained after the movie, it is important for filmmakers to be able to rip off what’s come before. They can grow when what starts as an explicit homage becomes something new. Adam Mortimer is growing as a director, and there ‘s no shame in him acknowledging his influences. He began as a music video director, a background that served him well for the dreamlike nature of this movie.

At its core, Daniel Isn’t Real is the story of a troubled young artist on the cusp of schizophrenia. Luke (Miles Robbins) acquired the mysterious friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) during his childhood. Now Daniel, once locked in an otherworldly, fortress-like dollhouse for having pushed young Luke to try to kill his mother, appears again. He shows up at just the right time, it seems, helping Luke to navigate college life, giving him advice and support, and, in one amusing scene, even helping him to cheat on a math test. However, Daniel begins resenting Luke’s control and seeks to take control of Luke’s body. As for Luke, he experiences the cost of following the lead of a wholly uninhibited, and violent, part of of himself.

Mortimer described the visual aesthetic of the film—particularly Daniel’s world—as “ultraviolet.” It’s a handy term, despite the fact that that “color” is technically in the invisible part of the spectrum. Daniel’s unreal purple lighting cues reinforce the character’s underlying menace (which is established well by Patrick Schwarzenegger’s channeling ‘s American Psycho-yuppie). This contrast between the soft and gentle illumination of Luke’s world and Daniel’s underworld is the primary motif that helps the audience differentiate visually what they’re experiencing in the narrative. Luke’s real world goes drab and sickens into an amber palette as his grip on his own mind and body disintegrates.

The main joy I found in Daniel Isn’t Real comes from its early depiction of the relationship between the two sides of Luke. (Or, the movie suggests, the relationship between Luke and this mystical entity that has entered his psyche.) Their playful relationship as young boys is reminiscent of experiences of those who were outcasts growing up. Tying the dangers of mental trauma to the metaphor of demonic possession makes it clear that, as much as we may find comfort in the manifestation of our “stronger” side, our insecurities are the signposts of what keeps us anchored to those around us. By skating on the edge of psychological horror and supernatural horror, Adam Mortimer performs a neat hat trick that kept me gripped right through the final fantastical showdown.

You can also listen to our interview with director Aama Egypt Mortimer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mind-bendingly freaky psychological horrorshow that crawls disconcertingly into your head and stays in there, gnawing away, long after the credits fade… Echoes of the creeping, dissociative paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant-era Polanski run throughout the film, but Daniel Isn’t Real is very much its own distinct fever dream of chimerical unease. Highly recommended.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (festival screening)

 

CAPSULE: 8 (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Harold Holscher

FEATURING: Tshamano Sebe, Keita Luna, Inge Beckmann, Chris April

PLOT: A father’s desperation opens him to a demon, dooming him to gather souls; carrying the remnants of his departed daughter in a sack, he is compelled to collect one final payment.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST8 is a beautiful film that combines elements of South African folklore with Victorian-style scares. As an atypical example of of the horror genre, its only weirdness is how impressively accessible Holscher makes the exotic supernaturality feel onscreen.

COMMENTS: The creative mind has long held a fascination for me, and my experiences at Fantasia have allowed me to casually research this phenomenon. Mingling with dozens of filmmakers over the years, I am always pleased to see the energy they have and their defiance against the odds. This holds particularly true when it comes to new directors presenting their full-blown visions to the world for the first time. It was with this in mind that I approached Harold Hölscher’s debut feature, 8. I spoke with the writer/director before its international premiere, and felt his energy; I felt this same energy in the theater last night.

Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) bears his heavy spiritual burden in a very literal way in the form of a large leather sack that accompanies him wherever he travels. This weight pins him to the holy ground where he is forced to roam: a plantation on which the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. He is a shaman, formerly a healer, and has paid a terrible price for the privilege of carrying his load. When he befriends the new owners of the plantation, he shares his spiritual knowledge with Mary (Keita Luna), the plucky young niece of the previous owner’s descendants. As their bond strengthens, Lazarus’ bond with his own daughter frays—but the demon that possesses her and the father demands Mary’s soul.

I anticipated that this movie would amaze me, so I mean it as no criticism that it “merely” met my expectations. Among the things it has going for it is that is features two character archetypes I always enjoy. The first is personified by Mary’s character. She’s an unflappable, inquisitive girl who always seeks knowledge and lets nothing frighten her if it’s new and amazing. Lazarus embodies the second archetype I cannot get enough of: the burdened wise man, tortured but calm. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Tshamano Sebe’s performance carries the film. While there would be no story without Lazarus, there could be no Lazarus without Sebe. He is alternately powerful and peaceful, often within the same scene. Lazarus’ ritual of extracting souls from the dying, despite its grim purpose, feels wholly natural, and strangely believable.

A lurking criticism I heard from others about the film was that it was perhaps “too mainstream.” There is merit to that sentiment, but I am disinclined to view it as a handicap. By framing something as exotic as the folklore and spiritualistic rites of pre-colonial South Africa in a familiar way, Harold Holscher can share its wondrousness with that many more people. At the same time, he has proven that, despite being a neophyte, he has the narrative and technical skills to succeed in the world of cinematic storytelling. I am certain that 8, his freshman piece, will open doors for him, and I look forward to following this storyteller’s career.

Also see our audio interview with director Harold Holshcer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mesmerizing film, one where everyone on screen works to steal the viewer away to a place filled with trauma.” -Brendan Frye, CGM (festival screening)

CAPSULE: LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY’S BABY (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Sam O’Steen

FEATURING: Stephen McHattie, , , Patty Duke, Broderick Crawford

PLOT: Picking up where the slightly more famous original left off, we join young Adrian/Andrew as his mother takes him from his Devil-cult overseers across the country; reaching manhood, the hour of reckoning approaches when the world may see the rebirth of Satan.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTLook What’s Happened… is utterly ridiculous, to be sure, but with nothing more than the inherent camp to be found in a ’70s made-for-TV movie (and one that’s a sequel to an established classic, at that), it is “merely” an amusing, benign curio for those lucky enough to find it.

COMMENTS: In case you were wondering, that pantomime fellow behind the hippie chicks in the still is the young man conceived and born in Roman Polanski‘s more famous Rosemary’s Baby. The actor on the stage strutting his stuff is none other than this Fantasia’s special guest, Stephen McHattie, in one of his earliest onscreen appearances. McHattie introduced the movie—still mostly unseen and unknown after all these years—at the 2019 special screening at the Fantasia Film Festival. Let me tell you the story.

Roman and Minnie Castevet make for somewhat inept guardians, as they allow Rosemary to escape with young Andrew (born Adrian, and now age eight) into the world. A violent storm picks up when they leave the Satanic cultist’s lair, and they take refuge in a small storefront used as a synagogue. Rosemary feels that the boy is being sought out, and demands that the assembled Jewish men “Pray! Pray! Pray!” in an attempt to block the probing psychic eye of Minnie Castevet (whose parallels with a stereotypical Jewish grandmother border on the “uncanny”). Rosemary gets dumped somewhere in Nevada after her boy nearly kills some kids for teasing him, and is shuffled off onto a bus… with no driver(!!!). Andrew/Adrian is raised by a hooker in a a gimmicky “Castle Casino.” And… my goodness, I’m feeling like an idiot relaying this plot. Some later highlights: a self-driving car, a big black cake with a pentagram of birthday candles, a hospital for the criminally insane, and much, much more.

The screening was made even more special by the inclusion of mid-’70s advertisements spliced into the feature (including one for the bitchin’ roadster that Adrian drives around pointlessly). It was also preceded by McHattie’s film debut, “Star Spangled Banner”, an antiwar short that won a prize at Cannes back in 1970 (?). It impressed me greatly—I appreciated the irony of a young Canadian actor standing in for a doomed US soldier. With the titular song played in the background (as covered by The Grass Roots, a late 1960s folk-rock band), a young GI runs from enemy fire while quick clips of home, youth, love, and innocence are interspliced with his panic. Hokey-sounding, to be sure, but strangely moving to watch. I just wish I could find it again.

But it was not a night for politics: it was a night for the audience, along with one of Canada’s veteran character actors, to see an impressively awful movie together for the first time. McHattie quipped afterwards, “That looks like it was two-hundred years old.” For all its crumminess, there was an earnestness to Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, and at the very least, McHattie’s career survived the hit. He’s been in more than 200 roles since.

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“Connoisseurs of bad movies will likely find this misconceived project a worthwhile hunt, especially given its strange period details (imagining Adrien as a ‘60s hippie rocker despite the ‘70s setting) and the manner in which the story pushes a plot along through sequences that can generously be called anti-horror. “–Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com

Q & A AUDIO

CAPSULE: THE DEEPER YOU DIG (2019)

DIRECTED BY: John Adams, Toby Poser

FEATURING: John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams

PLOT: After running over his young neighbor, Kurt hides the girl’s body in ever deeper depths while her ghost haunts him and her psychic mother begins noticing Kurt’s strange behavior.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Deeper You Dig is an entertaining combination of endearing family dynamics and unsettling horror/possession atmospherics. It is a damn fine yarn spun with aplomb, but it’s more charming than weird.

COMMENTS: I don’t make a habit of staying up past midnight after a full evening of watching movies, but I emerged from the cinema with a spring in my step that contrasted considerably with the despairing sluggishness that had overcome me during the previous movie (the unfortunate Sadako, whose mini-review will be forthcoming). I also don’t make a habit of showering film-makers with unadulterated praise in the Q & A session, either, but frankly, after the satisfaction I received from watching The Deeper You Dig, it would have been almost dishonest of me not to.

On the eve of a snowstorm, a mother and daughter (Toby Poser and Zelda Adams—who are, incidentally, actually mother and daughter) have stocked up on provisions to hold them through the coming days. When mom goes off to work—bilking some neighbor with a psychic tarot reading act that’s more authentic than we’re initially led to believe—the daughter, Echo, decides to do some teenage rebellion in the form of nighttime sledding. Unfortunately, this brings her into the path of Kurt (John Adams), an aloof neighbor, who is distracted by some deer passing his truck on the road after a night out drinking. After hitting the girl, he panics and brings her body to a house he’s fixing up, then panics further when he finds she hasn’t died. On a desperate and destructive whim, he finishes her off, setting off a chain of occult misfortunes.

The Deeper You Dig begins its titular motif with Echo first being “buried” in a tub in an abandoned bathroom before being relocated to a shallow grave (the winter ground is hard), then to a deeper one. As her spatial descent begins, so does Kurt’s mental collapse. This clever hook, like much else in the movie, is executed well: the “Adams Family,” as they refer to themselves, know their tropes and technique. Filmed entirely in the Catskills (less than an hour from my stomping ground, coincidentally), they capture the  watery chaos of last year’s wet winter beautifully. The abandoned house that Kurt’s repairing allows for plenty of truly neat-o camera shots, with one of my favorites being a recurring use of a window overlooking the property’s well. This screen within a screen portends actions of import, as well as a number of the grisly laughs to found throughout The Deeper You Dig.

Am I over-selling this? I doubt it. I know that I was in a rather depressed frame of mind after the big-budget, go-nowhere, God-what-is-wrong-with-you-people? blah boredom of Sadako, but I also know that I found The Deeper You Dig to be genuinely fun, appropriately creepy, and peopled by characters I actually cared about. (Big-budget J-Horror filmmakers, if you’re reading this, take note.) Having swung to a low I haven’t felt at Fantasia since Our House, this little family-horror picture from a genuine-actual family from the Catskills was nothing short of a revitalizing tonic.

You can also listen to our interview with the filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a brooding, atmospheric piece of work that points up unforeseen and perhaps unforeseeable consequences to having that one last drink.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (Fantasia screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MIDSOMMAR (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren

PLOT: American grad students travel to a remote Swedish village above the Arctic Circle during the midnight sun to witness an ancient festival.

Still from Midsommar (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With just two features under his belt, Ari Aster impresses with his ability to encase deep and painful psychological dramas inside true-to-form horror stories. The emphasis on bizarre rituals and the wavery psychedelic interludes make Midsommar a weirder candidate for our endorsement than 2018’s (excellent) Hereditary.

COMMENTS: Although it features a memorably schizo performance by a tormented Florence Pugh, flowery pagan pageantry, brilliant cinematography, a frightening folk horror score, and daytime nightmares that bleed into reality, the one thing Ari Aster’s Midsommar lacks is surprise. It’s obvious to anyone who’s seen The Wicker Man (or any horror movie, really) that things won’t go well for the four American master’s thesis students visiting the apparently quaint and welcoming remote hamlet where the villagers still remember the Old Ways. Aster also retreads a lot of the same ground that made his debut Hereditary so intoxicating: grief-based psychological drama, a strong female lead, leisurely pace, ian  pans, and obsessive invention of occult rituals. The one surprise is that Midsommar works admirably on its own terms despite reminding us of so many other movies (including Aster’s last one).

A pair of foci orbit around each other throughout the movie. The first is the failing relationship between the two leads. Christian, an unfocused grad student with no idea what he’s going to write his masters’ thesis on, feels trapped by the emotionally needy Dani. She’s already neurotic, popping lorazepams to dampen her frequent panic attacks, before the tragedy she fears actually strikes, making it unseemly for Christian to abandon her. Swedish student Pelle invites Christian, along with two buddies, to visit his remote northern homeland, an isolated pseudo-utopian commune where the people live in harmony with nature, for a pagan midsummer festival that only takes place once every 90 years; a trepidatious Dani tags along, even though the affable Swede seems to be the only one who actually welcomes her presence. When they arrive, the film’s other focus comes to bear (so to speak), as Aster builds a familiar-yet-novel nature worshiping cult out of details like icky surreptitious love potions, runic holy texts dictated by deformed inbreds, and an elaborate (and rigged?) drugged dance around the maypole. The two plots collide in a finale that should leave you with a queasy, ambiguous feeling, since it works quite differently on the metaphorical and the literal levels.

As the only horror movie I can think of filmed almost entirely in bright daylight, Midsommar gives a new symbolic meaning to “day for night” shooting. With its white-haired elders in white robes standing on white cliffs above rune-encrusted white standing stones, the film is lit in blinding, blanched whiteness, decorated with red and yellow wildflowers and lush green fields. The special effects for the psychedelic scenes are legitimately shroomy, with the dilated camera showing off lots of breathing objects, including a flower disc that pulses independently in Dani’s headdress. It’s lovely to behold.

The audience, a mix of Hereditary fans and patrons shut from sold-out screenings Toy Story or Spider-Man, gasped collectively at the midpoint when the villagers’ rites suddenly turned from the picturesque to the grisly. The third act brought genuine, if uncomfortable, laughter with one of the most awkward sex scenes ever filmed. People muttered as the credits rolled. These are sounds you like to hear in the theater.

We’re living in a golden age of adult psychological horror at the moment, so enjoy it while it lasts. Personally, I could do with a new Jordan Peele release every winter and a new Ari Aster release every summer for the foreseeable future. Just throw in more frequent pictures while you’re at it, please.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Midsommar‘s core themes still land when they come back into focus in the third act; it’s the indulgent weirdness in the build-up that dilutes the movie’s overarching impact… it’s hard to imagine that this one won’t end up going down as the most WTF wide release of 2019.”–Sandy Schaefer, Screen Rant (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by J.R. Kinnard, who gushed, “The third act is a masterpiece of weirdness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAGAZUSSA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lukas Feigelfeld

FEATURING: Aleksandra Cwen, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, Celina Peter, Haymon Maria Buttinger

PLOT: An orphaned goatherd exacts revenge on her village before succumbing to her own dark fate.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The sensation left by this brooding contemplation on mystic solitude and the effects of cruelty renders it a far cry from typical supernatural horror. It is a stunning example of the genre of Eldritch Dread. For the briefest of moments I was on the fence about this movie’s viability as an Apocrypha candidate, but after some thought I can attest it is well within the scope of such an honor—though I’m relieved this came to our attention after the Canon had closed and the possibility of hundreds more films opened up.

COMMENTS: If the prospect of watching long, meditative shots and hearing only some few dozen lines of dialogue over the course of one-hundred minutes discourages you, perhaps you should stop reading right now. Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut Hagazussa begins on a lonely alp, runs its course on a lonely alp, and finishes abruptly on a lonely alp. Like the slow muffling of snowfall, the patient viewer will find the film’s subtle accumulations result in something profoundly rewarding.

From our opening glimpse, we can imagine the entire childhood of young Albrun (Celina Peter), living alone with her mother in a high-mountain cabin tending to a herd of goats. The few locals all fear Albrun’s mother (Claudia Martini), a fear that even Albrun develops when her mother is stricken physically, then mentally, by a grotesque disease. Grown up and now completely alone, the adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) keeps no company other than her own infant daughter, acquired by means unknown. She is surprised when a local peasant defends her against the taunts of some idle lads, and seems on the cusp of reaching out to the rest of humanity, when her naivety is betrayed.

Very rarely do I approve of films relying on “atmosphere” to carry them, but Hagazussa has the advantage of drawing its quiet intensity from a handful of sources. The unearthly quavering drone of MMMD (a cryptic duet whose music has been described as “Chamber Doom”) grabs your ear right from the start. The score is appropriately minimalistic, limited in tone as well as deployment, which heightens the effect of its eerie nature wonderfully. The harsh beauty of the mountain setting complements its sparseness. Scenes are typically covered in snow, or rain, or lake water, with long shots cutting between the extreme closeups of the characters.

Which brings me to Aleksandra Cwen. With such little dialogue and exposition, we rely on her to convey the sense, if not the exact nature, of what is going on, and her face and eyes do a marvelous job. This triangle of haunting sound, haunting backdrop, and such a haunting face carries the viewer through a fragile, minimalist narrative amazingly well.

Be advised, anyone who plans on streaming this through Amazon: there is no subtitle option, only closed captioning. In other words, you can either have no subtitles, or all the subtitles, with every musical, sound, and even non-sound1)Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies. cue brought to your attention alongside the dialogue. Despite having watched it with continual captions, Hagazussa still managed to enchant me with its measured disquietude.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If last year’s standout psychedelic genre piece ‘Mandy’ was lysergic cinema par excellence, this equally trippy (if otherwise very different) quasi-horror revenge tale offers a nightmare soaked in psilocybin, its every element queasily organic.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

References   [ + ]

1. Never before have I seen a notice spring up (and spring up so often) in closed captioning stating, “No Audio”; but then, Hagazussa has a lot more silence in it than most movies.