Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES (2021)

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Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Kopacka

FEATURING: Anna Platen, Jeff Wilbusch, Luisa Taraz, Frederik von Lüttichau

PLOT: A couple visit an old gothic castle the wife has inherited; it’s haunted, and simmering resentments from their past erupt into anger—but then there’s a twist.

Still from Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes (2021)

COMMENTS: Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is a difficult movie to talk about, plotwise, because it contains a major twist coming at the end of the first act. It’s much easier to discuss in terms of its stylistic inspirations: it’s a shameless tribute to minimalist Gothic Eurohorror of the late 60s and early 70s, as exemplified by , , and (especially) . Set in a “castle” (I’d call it more of a manor), you can expect to see lots of lingering scenes of women wandering the darkened corridors bearing candelabras or walking through the grounds at night in a trance clad in white nightgowns, that sort of thing. The music—jazzy prog rock à la Goblin, alongside a variety of other rock-pop styles and more traditional orchestra-and-synth scare cues—is excellent, if ladled on a bit thick at times. Period details are perfect, even down to the pale pink, drop-shadowed opening title font, festooned with curlicues.

Again, there is not much that can be said about the plot without spoiling things. We’ll mention this nugget: while wandering around in the dusty wine cellar, Dieter (whose face and bearing perfectly express a Germanic arrogance that begs for a bloody comeuppance) finds a chest. Inside are a pair of glasses, an old newspaper article describing a tragedy, and a whip. All three items are clues, of an obscure sort. True to its inspirations, Dawn Breaks is more concerned with eerie ambiance than with narrative momentum, and the first thirty minutes are slow going. Things pick up, however, in the second act, eventually landing in a massive psychedelic-fueled orgy that shades into a finale that’s even weirder and more abstract than what came before.

Fans of vintage arty European horror movies are likely to be sucked in, although it is not the simple homage it appears to be at first. If the viewer can make it through the slow-paced introductory act, the movie starts to open up, introducing more levels that provide a psychological depth to the characters, casting them as archetypes of man and woman engaged in an eternal battle of the sexes. You are invited to infer your own backstory for the major characters based on hints dropped in casual conversation. The movie does well overcoming its budgetary limitations, utilizing every dusty, paint-stripped corner of its setting and relying on nifty editing and basic camera tricks (blurring, pink gel filters, superimposition) when it strides into lysergic territory. Multilayered and elegantly decadent, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes remains mysterious to the end, a fact which will frustrate many horror fans hoping for a clear denouement, but which shouldn’t be a barrier for most of our readers.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes debuts on video-on-demand starting June 24; we’ll update this post with the link when the time arrives.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“About once a year, I see a movie that is so weird it takes me about 48 hours to figure out if I like it… Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is that movie this year.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels (Part One), Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Part Two), Paloma Baeza (Part Three)

FEATURING: Voices of , , Jarvis Cocker, Susan Wakoma, Helena Bonham Carter

PLOT: Designed by an eccentric 19th-century architect, a magnificent house traps and torments a series of owners over the centuries.

COMMENTS: This unusual house has three stories. The first is classically unsettling, the second is downright creepy, and the third is charmingly hokey. Each story’s physical structure is ever-changing, as the house is built, re-built, and re-built, then is infested and decays, finally embracing its ephemeral nature. From its loftily sinister beginnings as a macro-doll’s house up through its final untethering from its foundations, the titular mansion houses three separate visions: one man’s cruel infliction of nightmarish doom; one man’s mental disintegration as he attempts to tame the decaying edifice; and one woman’s spiritual liberation. Each director provides a unique touch, but each tale fits together, creating a narrative arc that morphs into an arc of redemption.

The chronicle begins with a house within a home. A doll’s house, that is. Mabel’s immediate family has fallen from grace, and a troupe of off-putting relatives chastise them. That night, her father gets drunk and wanders angrily through the woods, only to stumble across an illuminated sedan chair, the luxurious transport housing the altogether-too-creepy architect, Van Schoonbeek (“clean stream”, one of the most subtle bits of foreshadowing I’ve seen), who promises Mabel’s family a beautiful new place to live. But as is so often the case, midnight rendezvous with giggling fatcats lead to terror and lamentation.

The House dodges the bullet typical of anthology films in that, unlike the physical structure, none of the sections are weak. Their tenor differs, as well as their style. The first features unnerving felt-made people, the latter two anthropomorphic animals. The dark shadows of Mabel’s section become marvelously lit, and tackily modern, in the second segment. An unnamed “Developer” (perfectly voiced by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as an at-his-wits’-end handy-rat; he also provides the closing credit’s song) begins falling part as he repairs the now-dilapidated house in the hopes of selling it off. Fate is as unkind to him as it was to the first owners—albeit with a modern twist. Part two climaxes with an intricately choreographed club-jazz dance of fabric beetles and a run-in with the law after the Developer’s dentist, sick of being telephoned at all hours and called “sweet-heart” and “dear,” sends the police around to the hapless rat realtor.

The House breaks no new ground, and much of the spook-or-creep factor relies on old fashioned methods: light-play, musical cues, background laughter, scuttles, wriggles, and poofs of poison. But it all works more than well enough. I was not unpleasantly transported in mind to that special place I can end up when emerging from a well-crafted film experience. It is worth noting the third segment, which differs sharply from the first two. It’s the story of the final owner, and of her desire for her home clashing with a subconscious itch for freedom. Helena Bonham Carter’s hippy cat performance is relief-through-whimsy (she pays rent with potent crystals), and she is the perfect guide for the frazzled young owner. The House‘s first two acts scrabble in the darker corners of the mind, but when the sun breaks through the finale’s mists, I could feel the haunting memories begin to recede.

The House is exclusive to Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a consistent anthology, in that it’s always just about the same level of surreal, playful, sadistic, and entertaining. Across its different styles and species, The House never holds the audience’s hand when it comes to the poetic flourishes from its mighty gradual pacing; it prefers to be odd…” -Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MEN (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu

PLOT: Harper rents a remote English manor house to recover after what could euphemistically be called a “bad breakup”; she finds herself haunted by a strange nude stalker, and condescended to by the odd and unsympathetic men of the nearby village.

COMMENTS: Alex Garland does his latest movie no favors by giving it the in-your-face,  on-the-nose title Men, provoking accusations of “wokeness” and scolding responses of “not all men…” From the other side of the aisle, it’s simultaneously eliciting complaints that Garland is Men-splaining toxic masculinity. The title frames the film in a way that undoes a great deal of its subtlety and ambiguity; there would surely be less controversy had Garland named it A Question of Guilt or The Haunted Village or The Randy Vicar or somesuch.

Broad message aside, there’s a lot to enjoy about Men, considered strictly from a psychological horror perspective. The acting is top-notch; Buckley ably and sympathetically carries the film, with quiet moments fearfully wandering the woods as well as a few big outbursts of terror and anger. Rory Kinnear is even better in multiple roles, some subtly uncanny (his friendly but increasingly snoopy landlord) and some less subtly so (an uncommonly mannish schoolboy). The cinematography and sound design are superlative, particularly shining in a scene set in a long lonely tunnel with an unnatural echo that allows Harper to perform an unaccompanied a capella symphony—before she’s interrupted by the sight of a stiff silhouette lurking at the tunnel’s far entrance.

That’s all part of the eerie atmosphere Men sets up before Garland launches into bonkers territory for the third act, basically a long home invasion where characters blink in and out of existence and morph into one another, ending in a climax that one-ups Takashi Miike‘s Gozu. The madness rolls on for so long that, by the end, Harper’s attitude switches from terrified to resigned. But even before that resolution arrives, Garland deploys eccentric and fascinating touches. The local chapel with pagan faces carved on its altar. A shot of a dead deer, its eye perfectly hollowed out by maggots. Dandelion seeds hang in the air, and get swallowed. A horny vicar spouts classical allusions. A naked stalker turns into the Green Man, then into a hermaphrodite. All of the imagery and references don’t quite add up at first glance, but they make Men more interesting than the simplistic “gee-don’t-men-behave-badly?” reading suggests.

The evil of Men is supernatural, but, although symbolic and psychological sources are clear, events are never explicitly justified or explained from inside the narrative. It seems Harper suffers from a curse, one that’s enacted as pure metaphor. Men is more interesting as a psychological horror study unfolding from a specific scenario than as a manifesto on gender relations. Those wider implications should have been left to hang in the subtextual background. Alex Garland has said that he may give up directing to focus on writing. I say, stick with both writing and directing—but let other people come up with your titles.

Men is currently in theaters; we’ll let you know when it arrives on streaming and home video.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Near the end, Garland ramps up the surreal elements and the special effects, gliding towards an over-the-top ending… It’s easy to admire his audacity, even if it is too much even by surreal standards.”–Caryn James, BBC (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel

FEATURING: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau

PLOT: After marrying on a whim in Switzerland, Stefan and Valerie find themselves in a grand hotel where the mysterious Countess Báthory and her companion Ilona are the only other guests.

COMMENTS: It’s just as well that Olstend’s “Grand Hotel Thermes” is nearly empty during the off season—its cavernous hallways, regal stairways, and spacious suites can barely contain the thick layers of Eurotrash that pile up the moment Stefan, Valerie, the Countess, and her “secretary” come in from the rain. This gang of sex-dripping ’70s stereotypes jostle with one another for the title of Maximus Libidinosus. Is it the new bride, Valerie, often topless and presenting an innocence that belies her eagerness? Is it creep-hunk Stefan, who nearly loses it when recounting the sadistic methods of a medieval Hungarian noblewoman? Is it deer-in-headlights Ilona, when she lingers in the nude outside of Valerie’s window the first night she meets her?

No, no, and no. This is Countess Elisabeth Báthory’s party, despite the fact she doesn’t appear until the second act. Aged somewhere between twenty-five and one-hundred or more, this long-lived, ever-beautiful femme out-fatales all the wavy-haired blonde bomb-shells that came before her. With cryptic mannerisms and more-cryptic asides, Delphine Seyrig owns the screen whenever she graces it, for better or worse. The jalopy of a plot putters along with just enough horsepower to sustain its goings on, which themselves have just enough obligatory allusions to a story that it could be argued to have one. But Daughters of Darkness is allegory, and a very lesbian kind of allegory. The “V” of seduction (with the Countess at the hub) may just as well conjure the word “vaginal”… or, if one is so inclined, “vampyre.” This is a gloriously shameless exploration of sapphic love, layered thick with electronic musical cues, heightened acting, colored lighting, and, whenever the filmmakers remember it, arcane overtones.

It’s a good midnight movie, with an atmosphere you could hang a heavy jacket on. But it is a product of its time, and its budget. Amidst the array of sensuality, sex, and sadism, there is one item that stands out, and which remained, perhaps woefully, underexplored. A key plot point—and impending film spoiler—involves Stefan’s reticence in telling his mother that he has married a young woman in Switzerland. The excuse for this trepidation is that his family is very aristocratic, and his mother would be damned before recognizing such an off-the-cuff flight of matrimonial whimsy. However, we finally meet Stefan’s mother at the film’s halfway point, and find him to be not quite what we might expect. A middle-aged man, in a woman’s lounging dress, decorated in make-up, reclining on a hammock in the middle of a conservatory. He describes Stefan’s wedding gambit not so much as inappropriate as “unrealistic”. Who is this? What are he and Stefan? And how about that butler kneeling for a much-appreciated pat on the head upon delivering Mother the telephone? No matter. Within moments, we’re back to the gauzy layers of obvious questions weaving gracefully around this new and unexpected one. Class, discuss.

Blue Underground released a remastered special edition Blu-ray of Daughters of Darkness in 2022 with three separate commentary tracks and numerous special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange and beautiful, it’s a perfect cocktail of the weird, the horrible, and the oh-so-sexy. “–Cait Kennedy, But Why Tho? (2020 festival rerelease)

CAPSULE: THE SCARY OF SIXTY-FIRST (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Dasha Nekrasova

FEATURING: Betsey Brown, Madeline Quinn, Dasha Nekrasova, Mark Rapaport

PLOT: Two roommates rent a bargain flat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein.

Still form The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)

COMMENTS: The awkwardly-titled The Scary of Sixty-First is equally awkwardly made. It feels like an adaptation of a Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy podcast that realized it didn’t have enough crazy ideas to spin into a feature film, so a horror movie subplot was added. At least half the film is spent rehashing the Epstein case without developing any deranged (or even interesting) new theories: there’s the discovery of some arguably pedophilic tarot cards, some real estate research to see if Epstein’s properties form a pentagram, and a doppelganger of Ghislaine Maxwell (who looks almost nothing like the now-convicted socialite—intentionally?) walking around Manhattan, but the hints of occultism never really take root. A lot of potential craziness goes uncrazed: if they could have Q-Anoned the Epstein case into some kind of pareidoliac parody involving the ghost of RFK running a secret cabal out of a fleet of taco trucks or something, they might have had a movie.

While Scary does nothing wrong, cinematically, there is a strong “first film” sensibility at work here. As bold as the choice to center the movie around a contemporary atrocity might be, the rest of the stylistic choices tend to the conventional. The acting isn’t up to snuff: co-writer/director Dasha Nekrasova is fine, but co-writer Madeline Quinn (as roommate Noelle) gives some distractingly flat line readings, and minor characters (a crystal shop owner) go too far into caricature. Fortunately, Betsey Brown’s Addie saves the day—after she gets possessed—with sexual hysterics that include what surely will be the most bizarre Prince Andrew-themed masturbation sequence of the year.

Noelle, and Dasha Nekrasova’s nameless conspiracist, are humorless (although sometimes funny—“Have you heard of Pizzagate?”), and their investigation goes nowhere. Nor do their characters provide psychological insights into their obsession—as far as we can tell, it’s simply a product of boredom, and maybe too much White Claw and Vyvanse. Addie, on the other hand, is neurotic and (it’s hinted) kinky even before being possessed by the spirits haunting this orgy flophouse of the damned. Her erotic antics provide the freakiest moments: besides her multiple self-pleasure scenes, including one that’s intercut with an asphyxiation, there’s some really out-of-bounds roleplay during intercourse with her douchey boyfriend that ends with a nod to The Exoricst. Rent it for the promised rabbit hole horror; but if you chose to stay, stay for the sex in this surprisingly horny female-driven horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One oddity worth a look for the adventurous is Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, which is exactly as peculiar and WTF as that not-quite-grammatical title… too eccentric for any easy classification.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills (contemporaneous)