Tag Archives: Horror

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE KEEP (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Michael Mann

FEATURING: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: A Nazi regiment unwisely establishes a base inside the keep of a Romanian castle where an otherworldly beast has been imprisoned for the safety of humanity.

Still from The Keep (1983)

COMMENTS: Wanting to cleanse my palette after my last encounter with Nazis, I figured it would be fun to watch them get slaughtered by a supernatural force even more evil than themselves. What I forgot to reckon with was Michael Mann, a man who walks eagerly into grey spaces. To be clear, dead Nazis haven’t lost their appeal. It’s just that no one comes out of The Keep smelling like a rose. 

Mann has always been interested in the bad things that decent people do in defense of some greater good, usually accompanied by moody visuals and moodier music. In that sense, The Keep fits right into his CV. We’ve got pure bad guys in the form of a Nazi platoon that sets up camp in a Carpathian castle, but the forces aligned against them are a disparate bunch: Molasar, an ancient demon trapped behind silver crosses and a talisman; the amazingly named Glaeken Trismegestus, a kind of knight-errant tasked with ensuring Molasar never emerges from this dark prison; and Dr. Cuza, a Jewish academic sprung from a concentration camp to help the Nazis translate ancient languages, who decides that freeing Molasar will save his people. So our bad guys are plenty bad, but the enemy of our enemy might not be our friend.

The stage is set for a real philosophical showdown, but  Paramount was looking for a horror-thriller, and when the production went way over budget, the studio declined to provide additional funds. To complicate things further, the visual effects supervisor died two weeks into post-production, leaving behind no instruction and no means of accomplishing the effects-heavy finale Mann intended. Finally, Mann turned in a cut nearly three and a half hours long, promptly getting himself thrown off the project. The studio hacked off about ninety minutes and, following a terrible preview, applied classic Hollywood logic and shaved off another thirty. The final product is, predictably, disjointed and open-ended, with characters appearing and disappearing randomly, a significantly truncated romance, and the entire thing wrapping up in a flurry of anticlimax. (Amusingly, an entire battalion of Nazis is wiped out while we’re watching their commander in another room.) It’s hard to argue that a horror film the length of The Godfather Part II is a good idea, but the shortened version is sorely lacking in some of the most critical areas, such as suspense, or clear linear progression.

The elements that work best in The Keep are the ones that go gleefully beyond the pale. Electronica pioneers Tangerine Dream provide a wonderfully anachronistic score that works despite itself. The production design by John Box and the art direction of Alan Tomkins and Herbert Westbrook are suitably evocative and foreboding. And best of all, the acting is top-notch baroque insanity. Byrne is relentlessly nasty in classic Nazi fashion, positioned opposite the war-weary pragmatism that Prochnow brings over undiluted from Das Boot (1981). McKellen uses the full power of his stage-acting experience, bellowing in a bizarre American accent (reportedly at Mann’s instigation) that eventually becomes a John Huston impression. Watson makes no impression at all. And then, in the role of the enigmatic stranger who is engaged in a millennia-old battle against evil, there’s affable everyman Scott Glenn. He’s horribly miscast, but somehow he gets far entirely on the basis of the asynchrony. The story may not make sense, but at least everyone goes for it.

The best thing that The Keep has going for it is its spectacle, and that suffers from being visibly undercut, far from the poetic grandeur its auteur intended. It’s hard to say if the film Mann had in mind–a blend of arty philosophy and purple grandiosity –would have worked. But it’s clear from what remains that it would have lacked for neither.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Keep is a weird movie and I mean that in the best possible way. On the negative end of the spectrum, there are too many characters and the film is often muddled and slow-moving. However, if you stick with it, you will be rewarded with some rather fine monster-mashing and other assorted general nonsense.” Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum

(This movie was nominated for review by purplefig. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS (2007)

エクステ

AKA Ekusute; AKA Exte; AKA Hair Extensions

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: , Miku Satô, , Ken Mitsuishi

PLOT: A woman’s corpse found in a human-hair-filled shipping container spews forth beautiful black hair, inflicting grisly fates upon those who use it as hair extensions.

Still from Exte: Hair Extensions (2007)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA:  Paranormal hair attacks alternate with domestic drama, making a strange weave of narrative that slides the viewer ever more tightly between its strands as it braids into a frightening, heartwarming climax.

COMMENTS: You may note that the word “hair” appears three times in the plot description. This is not enough times. The hair in Exte is ubiquitous, vexing its victims in increasingly strange ways. An extension harvested from an organ-harvest victim poises itself ominously at the ear canal of its wearer; a stylist is bombarded with harrowing recollections of illegal surgery. The hair tips jab into her brain, and she jabs her scissors into the side of her customer’s head. Later, the victim’s daughter views a violent, bloody thrashing through a hair-cut gash in door of the cupboard where she hides. An apartment window smashes outward as copious human hair bursts through the living space. And those are just small snips of the sinister proceedings.

Simultaneously, we hear the story of Mizushima Yoku, an up-and-coming young stylist who cheerily bombards an unseen audience with exposition—a habit that she and a co-worker picked up from a crummy television show. At work, Yoku cheerfully goes about her styling under the firm, but kind, tutelage of the master stylist. She has a jerk-bag sister, Kiyomi, who abandons her submissive daughter at Yoku’s house for a few days while Kiyomi goes out to party with her scum boyfriend. This mix of filial tension and sober depiction of child abuse exists as its own story universe while, on the other side of the narrative, a creepy coroner with a hair fetish steals the body of a mystically charged woman who grows hair at a furious pace in response to the wrongs she endured. When paths cross, as they must do, things get… hairy.

Exte juggles its tones so deftly that it’s only upon reflection that it dawns that Sion Sono is up to something very strange. To be sure, the hair-murder set pieces made me want to cheer Exte on. But the fusion of that strand with small gauge melo-tragedy is simultaneously incongruent and perfectly blended—like a cunning weave of ever so slightly off-colored hair done at the hands of a master stylist. And this tangle of a reaction has barely even mentioned Ren Ôsugi as the manic-pixie-psycho-coroner, all creepiness, whimsy, and song in his seaside shack-cum-shrine to beautiful human hair.

Sono proves once again a master stylist, lovingly curling this absurd story together from its disparate strands (in case this all was coming across as too simple, there’s also “police procedural” thrown into the mix, as detectives investigate the increasing body count). The perfect pacing, balance of soft and terror lighting, and the finessed performances calibrated to a scissor-edge between high drama and silly splatter are a sheer delight.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Even by the standards of Japanese horror movies, Exte is a very weird film. This is a movie all about hair, not just tangentially but intrinsically. Hair isn’t the McGuffin, it’s not the setting, it’s everything.” — M.J. Simpson, MJ Simpson Films (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chris Thurlow, who describes it as “a possibly weird film about a man obsessed with hair who, while working in a police morgue, discovers a woman’s body that continues to grow copious amounts of hair despite the fact that she is dead.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

WEIRD VIEW CREW: THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975)

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Pete cosplays as a devil-worshiper for this review of ‘s strange occultist feature “The Devil’s Rain” (1975), with a bizarre cast including ; Mr. “Green Acres,” Eddie Albert; ; ; ; a very young John Travolta; and real-deal Satanists Anton and Diane LaVey.

(This movie was nominated for review by Heather. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

43*. ADULT SWIM YULE LOG [AKA THE FIREPLACE] (2022)

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“Poor men, when yule is cold,
Must be content to sit by little fires.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Holy Grail”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Andrea Laing, Justin Miles, Charles Green, Tordy Clark, Brendan Patrick Connor

PLOT: We open on a shot of a crackling yule log. After a few minutes, a cleaning woman enters and begins vacuuming in preparation for the arrival of a couple who have rented the cabin, but is interrupted by a ringing doorbell. More people arrive at the cabin—it turns out it has been accidentally double-booked—along with many unwanted guests, including the Little Man in the Fireplace.

Still from adult swim yule log [AKA The Fireplace] (2020)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Adult Swim,” the Cartoon Network’s late-night programming branch, dropped this feature-film special into their lineup on Dec. 11, 2022, with no previous notice or promotion.
  • Yule log videos began in 1966 on NY TV station WPIX, which broadcast looped footage of a crackling log in a fireplace accompanied by Christmas music in place of normal programming on Christmas Day. The format was popular enough that enterprising companies eventually released “Yule Log” videos on VHS tape and DVD.
  • Writer/director Casper Kelly caught the world by surprise with his viral sitcom introduction spoof “Too Many Cooks” in 2014. That success encouraged Panos Cosmatos to contract Kelly to direct the memorable “Cheddar Goblin” sequence in Mandy. He has worked on a couple of TV projects in the past year, but hasn’t scheduled another feature film project (yet?)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Little Man Inside the Fireplace, a true Southern gentleman in a seersucker suit, lounging inside his room housed within the flaming log, attended by his stag-headed bartender. It is, the Man proclaims, like that meme with the dog in the burning house: “this is fine.” Only it’s not.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Nurse Nutmeg, flashback-quoting flying log

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Yule Log that turns into a conflagration that blazes across genres, Adult Swim’s Yule Log is much more than a gimmick: it’s a truly weird horror film that mixes absurdist comedy, slasher movie parody, genuine tension, a truly goofy antagonist, and thoughtful criticism of America’s past. It’s always an unpredictable surprise. So accept your time privilege, grab a Nurse Nutmeg, and sit down by the fire to enjoy the soothing chaos of Adult Swim’s Yule Log. Yule like it.


First 3 minutes of Adult Swim Yule Log

COMMENTS: It would have been amazing if The Adult Swim Yule Log Continue reading 43*. ADULT SWIM YULE LOG [AKA THE FIREPLACE] (2022)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE SUDBURY DEVIL (2023)

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The Sudbury Devil can be rented or purchased on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Rakich

FEATURING: Benton Guinness, , Josh Popa, Matthew Van Gessell, Kendra Unique

PLOT: In 1678, 2 years after King Philip’s War, two Puritan witch hunters from Boston, John Fletcher (Guinness) and Josiah Cutting (Popa), are sent to a town in the Massachusetts sticks to investigate allegations of witchcraft and deviltry in the nearby woods by Isaac Goodenow (Van Guessel), where they encounter Patience Gavett (Gregg) and her companion Flora (Unique).

Still from "The Sudbury Devil" (2023)

COMMENTS: American folk horror is an established genre in literature, but it hasn’t quite made the jump to movies or television to the extent that its British cousins have. Outside of adaptations of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works (“The House of the Seven Gables”, “Young Goodman Brown” to name a couple), ‘s Eyes of Fire is probably the film people would point to, along with Ravenous and The Witch.1

The Sudbury Devil is a good addition to that slim lineup, and even more impressive for accomplishing what it does on its budget; of the films mentioned, it’s certainly the one that qualifies as microbudgeted, and it makes the most of its available resources.

If you mashed up A Field in England with Ravenous and The Witch,  you’d get The Sudbury Devil. It’s more than apparent that director/writer Rakich is a hardcore fan of the aforementioned films, and it’s to his and his cast and crew’s credit to have produced a film which goes further than its predecessors, as proper Hellspawn should.

Director/writer/actor Andrew Rakich is known for his Atun-Shei YouTube page, where he utilizes his knowledge and interest in history—he was a ‘living historian’ at Gettysburg National Military Park and a New Orleans tour guide—to produce work that amuses and informs. Starting from highlighting sites and events in New Orleans, he progressed to a Civil War series, “Checkmate, Lincolnites!”, which takes on the mythology of the South’s “Lost Cause” propaganda in entertaining fashion. Entertaining here means comedic, which makes sense; hard and unflattering truths tend to be accepted easier if there’s a laugh or joke involved, and once hooked, thinking can begin (ask filmmaker .) The same effect can be obtained by replacing laughs and jokes with dread and horror in Sudbury (although there is a touch of black humor in what the filmmakers describe as a “mischievous indictment of America’s foundational rot”).

As Sudbury lays it out, hypocrisy is at the heart of that rot. The justification of King Phillip’s War, which eradicated much of the indigenous population of New England, still weighs heavily on Fletcher in his nightmares. The “piety” of Cutting and Reverend Russell allows their disdain of women (specifically Patience). Russell supports  Mosley’s Company and the war, despite actively avoiding any involvement in it. Cutting dsiplays racism towards the original inhabitants of the land and towards Flora, despite his attraction.

While sex has always been a part of folk horror, it’s usually presented obliquely rather than directly. Sudbury puts it upfront: polyamory, homoeroticism, masturbation, gender-shifting, and even a climatic double penetration (although not in the way that you might expect.) Sex and sexual freedom is usually presented as aligned with devilry in folk horror, though Sudbury subverts that expectation.

In that sense, Sudbury is not only folk horror, but also a subset of what could be termed ‘Woke Horror’ (Get Out, Us, Harvest Lake, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster). This vein of film includes the works of , ‘s The People Under the Stairs (1991), and others; a long established tradition, so ‘Woke Horror’ isn’t such a new thing after all.

The Sudbury Devil will be available on VOD today, December 21—in time for Xmas!— on Rakich’s website, Atun-Shei Films. Other related work that may help in understanding the nuances of the film (King Phillip’ War, Sudbury area history, and specifics in the film) can be viewed there and on YouTube, as well as the webseries Checkmate, Lincolnites and The Witchfinder General, a lighter look at Puritanism. A physical media release may also happen sometime in 2024.

A note of interest for those literary horror aficionados who notice the name Tabitha King as an executive producer: yes, it is that Tabitha King (novelist and wife of an obscure writer named Stephen King). As Rakich explained in the Pod 366 interview, she is also a noted genealogist and had heard about the production and contributed to it.

Listen to our interview with Andrew Rakich and producer Veronika Payton about The Sudbury Devil.

  1. I’m certain there will be “That Guy” who pops in with some titles not named. That’s a protracted discussion for another time, after Vol. 2 of “All the Haunts Be Ours” is released… ↩︎