Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: THE HUNGER (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Tony Scott

FEATURING: , Susan Sarandon, David Bowie

PLOT: When her lover of many centuries begins rapidly aging, vampiress Miriam Blaylock seduces a gerontologist to revive him.

COMMENTS: Catherine Deneuve. Susan Sarandon. Ann Magnuson. David Bowie. When your movie features some of the most attractive people around, it can’t help but look beautiful. Tony Scott’s directorial debut is a beautifully shot Eurotrash-style drama whose only parallel to his smash-hit sophomore effort is, perhaps, that it has some flying things: in The Hunger, there is what I dubbed “the Dove Room”, teeming with white birds; in Top Gun, there are some flying machines (and a character named after a bird). There the similarities just about stop—but not entirely. Though Scott’s oeuvre would lean heavily toward action-thriller after he was harvested by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, a romantic sappiness pulsates through his first two films.

The advertising featuring David Bowie is a bit misleading, seeing as his character dies (well, mostly) by the halfway mark. This is really the story of Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve, gloriously vague in a European kind of way), a vampire who originated at least as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Her man-squeeze John (Bowie, young and sexy, until he very quickly isn’t) seems to have lost the knack for eternal youth—a fate suffered by Miriam’s innumerable lovers beforehand. However, their final hedonistic days of early ’80s New York City party-fun-time do slow down enough to allow them to make the acquaintance of Doctor Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon, doing a wonderful job as the smoky-sexy scientist), whose research may relate to the sudden trouble suffered by hapless John.

The Hunger starts in a nightclub, with the camera focused on a goth singer and his band performing behind a caged stage. Intercut with his exorbitantly vampiric lyricising are shots of Miriam and John picking up some gothed-out groupies and draining them dry. The pastiche of club life excess, luxury car excess, and sanguino-sexual excess nicely sets the mood, and acts as an early filter for the audience. If this is not what you want to be watching for the next eighty minutes, then The Hunger is not the movie for you. What follows is a semi-tragic romance, rapid aging in a doctor’s office, and some softcore lesbian sex (if you’re into that sort of thing). Ultimately, Scott’s movie reveals that perhaps the greatest hunger is a hunger for companionship…

This is all very flip, but it’s hard not to be that way when discussing something as cheesy and stylishly overwrought as The Hunger, whose stylized nonsense and hyper-vampire-sexuality predates Interview with a Vampire by about a decade. (On film, anyway: apparently that bit of fluff-core had been in development since the early ’80s.) The only truly impressive element to be found is the make-up work on David Bowie; by the time you see John Blaylock morph from 30-something Bowie into just-about-decomposing Bowie, you’ll understand why Dick Smith’s credited with “make-up Illusions.” Otherwise, this film merely demands you grab some of the butteriest popcorn and reddest wine you can find and marvel at its wet dreaminess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dreamily photographed by Stephen Goldblatt and cryptically edited together by Pamela Power, nothing in The Hunger makes sense… like in that ludicrous advertisement for Britney Spears’s Curious perfume, sexual desire simply provokes postmodern psychotropic episodes.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (DVD)

CAPSULE: RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jalmari Helander

FEATURING: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Jonathan Hutchings

PLOT: On the Finnish/Russian border, an excavation crew disturbs an evil that has been buried for centuries—the real Santa Claus!

Still from Rare Exports (2010)

COMMENTS: Set in a chilly Lapland that’s eerily devoid of women (the fairer sex are, apparently, even rarer than Santa Claus), Rare Exports is a slow-burn horror marketed as a black comedy. It wears its coat of absurdity lightly, taking its  outré premise about a monstrous Christmas spirit with, if not utmost seriousness, at least the same amount of gravitas that you’d expect from a B-movie about summoning a standard-issue Hollywood demon. It always helps an enterprise like this when you can get a good performance from a child actor. Young Pietari, whose father requires him to close his eyes when he enters the slaughterhouse so he won’t be traumatized by reindeer corpses, starts off still believing in a benevolent gift-giving Santa. The boy grows into (naturally) the only one who recognizes the danger posed by Santa, and eventually into the savior of his small village. Dressed for much of the movie in improvised armor—a hockey helmet and shoulderpads—young Onni Tommila, alternately quizzical and confident, outshines the older actors, who all play rustic stoics.

Despite a surprising amount of geriatric nudity, Rare Exports is not really a weird movie—but it was an original one when it was released in 2010. Aside from the similarly-themed but little-seen Santa’s Slay (2005), previous Christmas horrors had been almost exclusively slasher flicks about madmen obsessed with Santa Claus who dressed up like the jolly old elf for their killing sprees. Rare Exports instead identified Santa himself as evil—recalling his legendary Finnish origins as Joulupukki, the “Yule Goat.” This movie inspired other horror filmmakers to research the darker side of Yuletide legends, leading to the rediscovery of Krampus and a series of competing films about the Christmas devil. In other words, Rare Exports launched a sub-genre (the demonic Christmas spirit) inside a sub-genre (the holiday-themed horror).

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale derives from two short films from the same director, and serves as a sort of prequel. The shorts are presented as instructional videos, and are more obviously in the black comedy rather than the horror vein. Not to get too deep into spoiler territory, but the shorts suggest “Father Christmases” are a separate, feral species, without acknowledging the single demigod known as “Santa Claus.” The mythos described by the shorts is weirder than that in the feature, and the two don’t seem entirely compatible. In fact, the ending of the feature doesn’t make as much sense independently without seeing the shorts; for most of the film, we are asked to accept on faith the notion that possession of the original Santa Claus would be worth a lot of money, without a sense of how he could be commercially exploited. For my money, the universe of the shorts is superior—the problem being that it’s too much of a one-joke a premise to support an entire movie, which is why the expanded version leans into horror rather than comedy. For the best experience, watch the shorts and the feature in tandem for two different takes on the same basic idea. If you’re the kind of person who liked the Grinch better before his heart grew three sizes, Rare Exports may become a holiday staple at your house. It beats the 200th screening of the usual chestnuts, at least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

(This movie was nominated for review by “Paul Singleton,” who dubbed it “an excellent movie and very strange to say the least. This one will be certified weird by you guys at some point.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THINGS (1989)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Jordan

FEATURING: Barry J. Gillis, Bruce Roach, Doug Bunston, Amber Lynn

PLOT: Don visits his brother Doug in a remote cabin infested by things; Doug’s wife suffers a miscarriage and the two brothers investigate the fuse box after the power goes out.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This cinematic monstrosity is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, horror or otherwise. But it pushes the envelope of ineptitude so incredibly far that it turns a corner, reaching Zen levels of disorientation and otherworldliness.

COMMENTS: The closing credits begin with a notice that is probably more telling than the filmmakers intended. After we see the hapless Don Drake running through the woods, we are told, “You have just experienced THINGS.” I certainly have. I experienced many things: dismissiveness, confusion, disgust, and ultimately, wonderment. I watched this movie under the impression that it was a purposely bad, contemporary movie designed to invoke the strange era of straight-to-video horror. Upon discovering that this was actually from that era, I felt confusion, betrayal, surprise, and once again, wonderment. Things does not seem like it could have been made as anything other than a joke. That it stemmed from ambitions other than snarky tomfoolery blew my mind.

Things kicks off looking like a ’70s porno from Hell. A young woman in a Lucifer mask is propositioned by a skuzzy Canadian named Doug who wants her to have his baby. She disrobes, and then withdraws a baby—in a carrier—from a nearby shower stall. The man is pleased until the unseen infant nips his hand. Doug awakens on the couch, his encounter just a dream. His reality sucks even worse, though; his wife is in horrible pain from some procedure (which we later learn was performed by the evil Doctor Lucas), and his brother Don is coming to visit. Doug, Don, and Fred (an affable friend of Don’s) exchange bizarre remarks and make allusions to previous, infinitely superior horror movies. But as needs must, the “things” begin appearing and zed1-grade gore ensues.

Whoever the hell Andrew Jordan is (was?), it at least can be said of him that he knew his good horror films. No fewer than half-a-dozen classics are referenced—from Evil Dead to Videodrome—in an amusingly oblique manner (particularly Evil Dead: “How’d that movie start that you’re always talking about,” asks Don while holding a tape-recorder, “Y’know that weird one, with all the weird things?”). Even odder are the intercuts with 80s porn mega-star Amber Lynn as a newscaster very blatantly reading off of cue cards. The film claims to be set in America, but by the tenth “aboot” and the line, “Agh! The blood is just dripping like maple syrup!,” I saw through the façade. That, however, was the only revelation I could tease out of this morass of non-sequiturs and ambiguous—to put it politely—narrative spasms. (I almost wrote “narrative leaps” there,  but changed it after considering how the story never really goes anywhere.)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what happens in the movie, and at a further loss to explain how it kept my fascination throughout. Unfortunately Things appears to be the writer/director’s only film credit (although leading man, co-writer, co-producer, etc., Barry Gillis, went on to rack up intermittent IMDb credits), so I may never view another window into his creative process. But it could be worse: I could have lived the rest of my days never having witnessed such a spectacle in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically, this movie is like the lovechild of Hotline Miami and Evil Dead as directed by Max Headroom. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and anyone with a stomach for gore and even a little bit of a taste for the weird owes it to themselves to give this one a try.” -Alex, Movie Russian Roulette (DVD)

CAPSULE: SLEEPLESS BEAUTY (2020)

Ya ne splyu

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DIRECTED BY: Pavel Khvaleev

FEATURING: Polina Davydova

PLOT: Two orderly researchers trap unsuspecting Russian, enacting potent operational reprogramming, neurologically.

Still from Sleepless Beauty (2020)

COMMENTS: In case my subliminal message didn’t sink in, here’s an illustrative rhyme to clarify:

T” is for “trying“, the squeamish beware;
O” is for “overt“, showing all it dares.
R” is for “retching“, a result that’s sought;
T” is for “tension“, one’s throat in a knot.
U” is for “ugly“, most violent of crimes,
R” is for “razor“, it’s used oftentimes.
E” is for “endless“, may blood never cease,
P” is for “prodding“, in places liked least.
O” is for “offal“, of the human kind,
R” is for “rotting“, of body and mind.
N” is for “nasty“, how it has to be–
It spells “Torture Porn”, unsettling with glee.

Like most porn, “torture porn” is an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. In Pavel Khvaleev’s latest film, Sleepless Beauty, I saw plenty of it. Khvaleev takes cues from the Saw franchise (woman locked in room facing various “challenges”), the Dark Web franchise (a chatroom transcript springs up at intervals throughout), and the Hieronymous Bosch franchise—illustrated by an extended animation sequence that can only be described as “Boschian”. (And yes, technically there isn’t a film franchise under that Dutchman’s auspices, but hope springs eternal.)

For the most part, Sleepless Beauty is spot-on. The introduction gives the viewer enough grounding to follow what’s happening to “Mila” (a very much put-upon Polina Davydova), even if we don’t necessarily know what all this sturm und drang is storming and driving at. Joining us in our confusion is a peanut gallery of chatroom personalities who have opted to watch the web broadcast of the ordeal (on some server even TOR-ier than TOR) in pursuit of lurid thrills. Two chat-room “Admin” voices have a conversation during the feed that increasingly hints at what is actually going on.

To the extent torture porn can work, Sleepless Beauty works well. The chatroom vignettes provide some great black comedy moments. And the seemingly-unrelated framing story about a Russian ambassador nicely wraps everything together. However, whoever cast the English-dub actors should be fired from show business. This is a dark Russian movie, and one should be able to watch it and listen and hear the kind of casual fatalism that can only come from Russian actors whose Russian can be heard. The low-rent Californian-English “coming” from Mila’s somber-looking parents effectively ruins the movie every time they appear—and the less said about the C-grade vocalizations for the world-weary Russian detective, the better. I have a hunch I could give this movie “Recommended” status if I had been able to view the original language cut.

But I didn’t. If you find yourself curious at this point, seek out the subtitled version and I can all but guarantee that, if you are a fan of this genre, you will enjoy yourself tremendously, as horrible things are enacted on the protagonist-cum-test subject.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the online viewers constantly asking for ‘more action’… brings a strange edge, together with the bizarre virtual reality clips, which are stop-motion animations looking like a mix of Terry Gilliam, the Quay Brothers, Jan Svankmajer, with some Giger and general biology thrown in for good measure. A good thing that is too, as the film needs that edge, because… there is not that much to look at beside a woman being tortured.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE CIRCLE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Fowler

FEATURING: Taylor Dianne Robinson, Ben Cotton, Matthew MacCaull, Hilary Jardine, Cindy Busby, Andrea Brooks, Michael Rogers

PLOT: After a bear mauling, a man and his daughter are rescued by a strange cult in the woods.

Still from Welcome To The Circle (2020)

COMMENTS: “The meaning is the message.” “And the message is the meaning.” “So what is the message?” “That is exactly the question.” “What is?” “We have to figure out what it is.” “What, the message?” “The meaning.”

No, that’s not a transcription of a first draft of a discarded sketch where Abbot and Costello meet the Dalai Lama; it’s a typical “circular” dialogue exchange in Welcome to the Circle.

To be fair, this cult’s dogma is supposed to be mumbo-jumbo; and given all the crazy things people believe in nowadays, it’s not too much to ask us the audience to take the seductiveness of this verbal jujitsu on faith. The decision to give the Circle’s philosophy no intellectual content whatsoever is deliberate; the movie’s thesis is that the things we believe can override reality, and so it’s important to focus not on the strings, but on who’s pulling them.

It’s a thoughtful idea rife with possibilities and potential allegories, but unfortunately the message gets lost under too much obfuscating trickery. It’s relatively straightforward horror ride through the first act, but then the plot loses its way with information overload (founder Percy Stevens’ strange and confusing backstory, in which a tiger shark plays a role) as it’s simultaneously diving into a rule-free, anything-can-happen abyss. It’s a nice touch that cult membership includes an unusually high number of creepy mannequins—most of the prop budget went to this small army—but other ideas don’t pay off. Too many sudden cutaways to stock footage montages (marionettes, chess moves), too many portals that pop characters from one location to another, too many ostentatiously delivered Zen warnings that “nothing has any meaning” and “the thing we have to do is nothing.” It’s tough for a movie founded on such a free-floating structure to work, unless it has the budget to pull off some majorly distracting special effects, or a long series of catchy/scary surrealist ideas consistently pitched on the level of a .

Needless to say, Welcome to the Circle can’t match these standards. There’s no one we strongly care about to interest us in entering this circular labyrinth. Greg, bear victim and loving father, should be the character we identify with, but there are a couple problems. He’s  too slow on the uptake: he leaves his daughter in the care of the winsome twenty-something females who put her in a creepy happy-face mask for a couple of days, before finally thinking to look for his cellphone to call for medical help after his mauling. And Greg is pushed to the sideline relatively early in favor of a new main character, a stoic cult deprogrammer (who talks, one character observes, like a “stoned robot”), headed into the Circle intent on rescuing one of the females. It’s a bold narrative gambit, but we would need to be much more invested in the overall stakes of this story than we are for this perspective shift to pay off.

Ultimately Welcome to the Circle lacks the budget and, unfortunately, the imagination to fulfill its lofty ambitions. The film’s meaning gets lost in its message—or maybe it’s the other way around.

David Fowler’s previous credits were mostly writing the narration for Disneynature documentaries like Elephant and Penguins. A low-budget surreal horror film was an unexpected choice for a directorial debut. Artsploitation Films picked it up and debuted it on VOD and physical media in late 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…starts out as a familiar horror movie before descending into complete trippy nonsense.”–Josh Bell, Crooked Marquee (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: THE THIRD DAY (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Marc Munden, Felix Barrett, Philippa Lowthorpe

FEATURING: Jude Law, Naomie Harris, Katherine Waterston, ,

PLOT: Sam, a bereaved father, saves a suicidal girl and returns her to her home on a remote strip of land off the English coast, only to discover an undercurrent of violence and a weird theology permeating the island. Months later, mother Helen brings her children to the island for a vacation that quickly goes from bad to worse.

Still from "The Third Day" (2020)

COMMENTS: One of the most beloved tropes of horror is the character who goes somewhere—a room, a house, a portal to hell—that no reasonable, clear-thinking person would dare to tread. Part of the joy of the creepy-town variant is that no place is safe; every entrance you make is a bad idea. When Jude Law motors across the rarely appearing causeway that takes him away from the normal, safe world and into the strange island village of Osea, he’s making the classic horror-movie hero journey—and the classic mistake. And when Naomie Harris repeats the trek three episodes later, the audience has to be flat-out screaming “Don’t go in there!” at the screen. (Osea, incidentally, is a real place. Their public relations reps have much to answer for.)

In some respects, The Third Day is two deliberately different shows. (Actually, three. We’ll get to the third one in a moment.) “Summer”, the first three installments starring Law and directed by Marc Munden, mix a persistent sense of dread with a bizarre color palette. The landscape is a perpetual mossy green and dishwater blue, but other colors are riotously bold, as if the very look of the place is conspiring to keep Law’s discombobulated traveler Sam off balance. (Dropping acid, he will learn, does not help.) It is in this first act that we will learn that this community has a very particular theology that is directly related to Sam and the personal tragedy that his thrown his life into chaos. Though there is violence and shocking imagery, the look of the show reflects the town’s view of itself: a paternalistic flock welcoming a lost sheep back into the fold.

Harris’ arrival in “Winter” (with Philippa Lowthorpe now directing) is a significant contrast. Mirroring the weather, the village has turned cold and cracked, with whatever pleasant disposition that might have existed gone and the entire community in a dither over a forthcoming childbirth. The town is more clearly adversarial now, and unlike Sam, Harris’ Helen is not so easily thrown off her game. Of course, the two outsiders’ fates are intertwined, and it will take a fair amount of recriminations and violence to resolve their situation.

The Third Day falls neatly within the popular “outsider goes to strange little northern European village” genre associated with The Wicker Man or Midsommar, and most of the show’s power comes from an ever-present vibe of discomfort seasoned with folk cult horror that intentionally distances the hero and viewer alike. The island’s faith is a bizarre corruption of Christianity peppered with Continue reading CHANNEL 366: THE THIRD DAY (2020)