Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: PIERCING (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Pesce

FEATURING: Christopher Abbott, , Laia Costa

PLOT: Reed has a good job, a loving wife, a cherished newborn daughter, hallucinations, and a (hopefully satiable) lust to kill; he checks into a hotel planning to get his bloodlust out of his system by murdering a call girl, but the woman who arrives may be more than a match for him.

Still from Piercing (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s slick and sick, but plays like a milder version of a film that already made the List.

COMMENTS: Piercing will play better if you’ve never seen Audition, but if you have seen the older film, you may find that the newer one suffers (hee hee) by comparison to its sadistic sister. Piercing is adapted from ‘s 1994 novel of the same name. The author reworked the same general sadomasochistic theme three years later for “Ôdishon.” In doing so, Murakami improved the scenario by making the male protagonist more sympathetic and the female antagonist more mysterious. That’s not to say Piercing is unworthy of your time, or that you will always know exactly where it’s heading, but Audition initiates should prepared for a little bit of a disappointment.

Director Nicolas Pesce explored similarly dark territory in his debut, The Eyes of My Mother, which he shot in rustic and minimalistic grayscale. Here, he goes for a much richer stylistic palette, with a Technicolor style showcasing deep reds and mahogany wood paneling. The opening, in fact, puts us in mind of Rear Window, with the camera panning over an artificial mosaic of skyscrapers, inside whose windows we can imagine individual dramas playing out. Hitchcock, of course, would never have added an infant girl who tells daddy “you know what you have to do” in a creepy baritone.

Pesce creates a genteel atmosphere—a world where men put on ties to meet call girls, hookers wear stocking and fur coats, everyone drinks their spirits on the rocks before getting down to business, and guys use embroidered silk handkerchiefs to douse their dates with choloroform. The soundtrack is a selection of smooth and sophisticated pop, including “The Girl from Impanema” and needle drops from classic gialli like Profondo Rosso; even the most cloying number, the mellow folk-rocker “Bluer than Blue,” is given the best possible treatment. The hotel room and apartment interiors all look like 60s penthouse bachelor pads, with sunken living rooms and dramatic wall-mounted half-moon sconces, very mid-century modern. All the elegant trappings of civilization, of course, only serve to disguise the depravity and barbarism squirming inside the characters’ souls.

Abbott and Wasikowski are perfectly cast. He is superficially suave, but constantly bumbling as he hides his guilty secret; Wasikowski, keeping her natural Australian accent, is a psychotic pixie dream girl who lets on very quickly that she’s not quite all there. They are a perfect match. In terms of gruesomeness, Pesce doesn’t go quite as far as would, but he is willing to go quite a ways, and you should find yourself squirming often. Abbott’s casual hallucinations—he constantly carries on conversations with people who encourage him to carry out his secret murderous plan—keep things interesting, and cast doubt on Wasikowski’s character. Is she really as depraved as he is, or is it just his projection of her as a willing victim/collaborator in his elaborate fantasy? A grotesque dream sequence (scored to the aforementioned soft-rock hit) also mirrors the surrealistic excursion of Audition, and although it is put in service of revealing backstory, there are still some tremendously eerie moments here, with a scorpion-bug monster scurrying from out of a toilet to harass our paralyzed protagonist.

For an evening of dangerous fun, refined sickos could do a lot worse than Piercing. Pesce reaffirms his talent while broadening his range. He’s come close to a breakthrough weird movie with his first two films; his next project is a remake of Ju-on [The Grudge], after which we’re hoping he will be able to come through with something that will really blow our socks off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie gains momentum as it indulges in hallucinogenic phantasmagoria.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TERROR 5 (2016)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Sebastian Rotstein, Federico Rotstein

FEATURING: Walter Cornás, Lu Grasso, Gastón Cocchiarale, Arias Alban

PLOT: An anthology of horror stories in an Argentinian town told over a single night, involving revenge, zombie-like creatures, and snuff films.

Still from Terror 5 (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: What strangeness is to be found here can mostly be credited to shoddy construction.

COMMENTS: If you’re looking for something nice to say about Terror5, then camerawork isn’t bad. There’s a nice shot of a blue neon cross, whose glow becomes reflected in the luminous eyes of the “zombies” who spontaneously appear when the local mayor is cleared of corruption in a construction tragedy. And there’s nothing wrong with the acting; the players do the best they can to inject some life into the dull scenarios.

But the script! Ay! It all plays out in one Argentinian town in a single night, and the five plot strands—each of which is supposedly inspired by an urban legend—connect, somewhat. But none of them are well thought out or interesting in themselves. Nor is the overall architecture sound. While the movie cuts between four of the stories, the worst, a tale of students who take revenge on their teachers at night, plays out in its entirety right up front. Since there isn’t much to it—the characters all buy into the absurd conceit with little resistance, with no explanation of why the teachers don’t fight back and no tension or internal conflict to be found in the new student seduced into the cabal—it lowers expectations for the rest of the tales. One of the remaining plotlines is basically an extended sex scene with a senselessly brutal finale. Another involves two men in their cars, waiting patiently for a plot that never arrives; it’s largely a conversation over walkie-talkies, with another grisly out-of-nowhere ending. It makes almost no sense at all. (At one point one of the men says “I’m super confused,” and that’s before his pal starts talking about “the shower game” and parallel universes.) The introductory and climactic story involves the aforementioned non-zombies and makes a weak stab at a generic satire about political corruption. That leaves one episode of some interest: a booze-and-pot costume party at which a jerk dressed in KISS makeup dares the assembly to watch a snuff film and bullies a heavyset kid until he snaps. Due to some reasonably convincing acting from the greasepainted lout and his victim, it’s the best segment, but it’s still a yawner.

Each of the stories are ridiculous and poorly motivated, but they aren’t executed in a dreamlike or absurd fashion that might engage our interest. Instead, they’re played straight, as if they were really horror shorts. Although there is a mildly surreal aesthetic at work here in the unreal scenarios, what weirdness results is largely by accident rather than design.

The idea of making a hypertext horror is not a bad one, and the filmmakers don’t do anything especially obnoxious, but Terror 5 just plain fails on a storytelling level. With ruthless cutting, they might have salvaged a (still relatively lame) 30 minute short from this material. For sleaze film fans, it offers a smidgen of sex and nudity and a modicum of violence and gore. There’s very little terror, though, and even less sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Terror 5 is a movie that will turn viewers on and probably trip them out once they realize the almost certainly ominous object of their salacious contemplations…”–Misty Wallace, Cryptic Rock (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: POSSUM (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Holness

FEATURING: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong

PLOT: A lonely ex-puppeteer tries to dispose of his demonic spider puppet, but it returns to his room every morning.

Still from Possum (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Possum earns a look due to its sheer intensity and commitment to a consistent mood of lingering, suppressed evil.

COMMENTS: You’ll know whether you are into Possum or not from the pre-credits scene. Sean Harris, with a face that can only be described as carved into a permanent frown, gray shirt buttoned to his chin, looking like a guy forced to sign up for the sex-offender registry solely because he looks like a pervert, stands in a field while he reads a corrupted nursery rhyme in voiceover: “…Can you spy him deep within? Little Possum, black as sin…” He places a bag at the base of an odd tree formation with seven trunks. Shot from a dramatic low angle, he stands before it, looking down at the package, pensive, uneasy, shoulders hunched, hands pointed inward toward his crotch; two trunks flank him on either side like splayed limbs. A flute plays a nervous melody, accompanied by the deep strings of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, which explode into a cacophonic drone as the titles play. The atmosphere is already thick and dreadful, filled with a tension suggesting horrible repressed secrets.

Possum is great at suffocating you, making you feel like you’re inside the airless mind of a tormented madman. It fills you with apprehensive suspicion. But, up until the end, the story does not really develop so much as pile on. Every day, the same scenario repeats, with hallucinatory variations. Every day, Philip leaves his brown and dingy house with a large sack containing his puppet, Possum, a spider creature with a human head that looks suspiciously like its owner. He slouches about town, avoiding human contact; he throws the bag in the trash, in the river, burns it, but when he wakes up in the morning Possum is there again at the foot of his bed, or hanging on his wall. Other than a few awkward encounters with locals who shoo him away, Philip only converses with his housemate Maurice, an avuncular older man with a veneer of sarcastic friendliness, who obliquely hints that he knows things from Philip’s past—awful things, it goes without saying. Their daily conversations, though nominally about Philip’s indestructible puppet, are almost entirely subtextual. “You show that to children?,” asks a skeptical Maurice.

Although the movie initially plays as obscure, the symbolism is not difficult to tease out, and becomes fairly explicit by the end. But that hardly lessens Possum‘s effect. Although the repetitive first hour may lose impatient viewers, Possum is unforgivingly rewarding to those who stick with it. It wears away at your sanity drip by malicious drip. Armstrong, primarily known to British audiences for his portrayals of Dickens characters in stage and television plays, makes a wily and terrifying villain. Harris completely crawls inside the shell of his loner puppeteer; he generates sympathy while simultaneously remaining alien and creepy. The camera is bleak and the music oppressive. It’s a great movie for those who like their horror emotionally punishing, and no fun whatsoever.

Believe it or not, writer/director Matthew Holness was previously best known to the British public as a comic actor. I haven’t seen his comedy, but I believe he should stick with horror. Possum is an adaptation of a short story he wrote for an anthology themed on Freud’s notion of the uncanny. The movie did not play in U.S. theaters, but it was released on a DVD with extensive interviews with the director and cast. It’s also currently available free to Amazon Prime subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’ve dreamed of ‘Ken Loach’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,”‘ here is the closest such thing anyone is likely to ever commit to celluloid… Fans of conventional horror will no doubt sigh with boredom over the lack of action, but more adventurous viewers may lend this modest but distinctive enterprise its own eventual cult following.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: STARFISH (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Al White

FEATURING: Virginia Gardner

PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.

Still from Starfish (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.

COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.

This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in sxplicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)

Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a  shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.

It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.

Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a beautiful, emotional, weird, and fascinating movie.”–Germaine Lussier, io9.com (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND (1981)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Steve Brodie, Cameron Mitchell, Katherine Victor, (?)

PLOT: A crew of hot air balloon travelers land on a remote desert island and encounter the great-grand-daughter of Dr. Frankenstein presiding over an assortment of natives and other random people.

Still from Frankenstein Island (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: An extreme low-budget B-movie director of legendarily bad productions, Jerry Warren is no stranger to our pages here. Frankenstein Island stands out as his only color film, a movie he made after a 15-year hiatus, and his final film. In spite of all that, it manages to out-crazy everything else he ever done, not to mention being the most deranged film with the name “Frankenstein” in its title, a major feat in itself.

COMMENTS: Move over, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Manos: The Hands Of Fate, and even The Room:  we have a new contender for “so bad it’s hilarious!” If Frankenstein Island (1981) isn’t a candidate for “worst movie ever made,” that’s only because it’s too crammed full of jaw-droppingly bonkers scenes to be not-entertaining. As is typical for a Jerry Warren experience, count on muddled story structure, random stock footage inserted into the plot, extreme budget sets, abrupt day-night transitions, wooden acting, and new lows in filmmaking incompetence all around. What follows is a stalwart attempt to convey what’s going on, to the best of my ability; please be advised that in-movie continuity errors and contradictions make some details hard to pin down.

Four men and a dog fly in a pair of hot air balloons on a little-explained recon errand (later said to be a balloon race). They end up on a desert island because they ran out of stock balloon footage, and start exploring on a quest to build a raft to escape—despite leaning on a rubber dingy while discussing this plan. In due order, they encounter (1) a tribe of Amazon natives in leopard-print bikinis, (2) a cult of zombie-like/robot-like men in black shirts, who kidnap natives and get up to other mischief, (3) a mad prisoner in a cell who raves in Edgar Allan Poe references, (4) a jolly drunk in an eye-patch who can not stop laughing and acts as the men’s guide, while guffawing “HAR HAR HAR HAAAAAR,” and finally (5) a woman, Sheila (previously referred to as “Xira”), wearing a pile of wigs, who claims to be the great-grand-daughter of the original Dr. Frankenstein. Her invalid husband Dr. Von Helsing is there too. Sheila Frankenstein carries on some kind of mad science research in a suspiciously modern and well-furnished mansion and laboratory on an island where everybody else lives in shanties. The black-shirt thugs are her minions, the natives were there when she got there, she’s on a quest to cure Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND (1981)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Richard Blackburn

FEATURING: Lesley Taplin, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, William Whitton

PLOT: An innocent tween-age girl navigates a nightmare vision of post-Prohibition America in a search of her long-lost father, running into danger at every turn.

Still from Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Lemora is a movie that will remind you of Night of the Hunter (1955) and Return to Oz (1985),  in exactly equal measure. It takes the formula of an innocent child wandering in not-quite-tamed roadside Americana and turns it into “Goldilocks and the Zombie Apocalypse.” By the time we get to the title character, the uncomfortable psychosexual tones are no longer just a subtext, and we’re still not done sliding down the pit of creepy childhood fears.

COMMENTS: Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is often touted as “a fairy tale for adults,” and that devotion to this theme makes it too difficult to treat fairly and yet far too close to an unqualified masterpiece to just ignore. First we have to yell [TRIGGER WARNING] because there’s sex stuff, and it involves minors. We don’t mean “barely underage jailbait,” we’re talking thirteen! Remember how Labyrinth (1986) plays on the idea of Sarah being a woman-child heckled by a grown fantasy ruler? Take that, subtract two years, change “goblin king” to “lesbian vampire queen,” and you’re in the right neighborhood. Second, we have to hedge a minor [SPOILER] tag in here, because while the movie is coy with revealing its ultimate genre tags, and every review of it screams “lesbian” and “vampire” in the opening paragraph, this movie is in a completely different universe from the Jess Franco style one would normally expect given those keywords. You will not be titillated. You will squirm with discomfort at the squirrely games this movie plays with your psyche.

Lila Lee (the late Cheryl Smith) is a 13-year-old church choir girl famous in her small town for her gospel singing. Surreally innocent in her golden hair braids and Christian upbringing, she is a foster ward of the church, raised by the Reverend Meuller [sic] (played by director Blackburn) because her real father is a 1940’s style gangster on the lam for murder. The Reverend isn’t shy about touting her ascension to grace from such unsavory beginnings in his sermons, delivered to a peculiarly all-female congregation. But we barely have this backstory established when Lila gets a letter from a correspondent named “Lemora,” with news of her father. He is supposedly on his deathbed and ready to reconcile with Lila before slipping away, bidding her to come visit and cautioning her to come alone. Lila packs a suitcase and heads out the door post-haste, destination “Asteroth.” If you’ve brushed up on your demonology, you can take that as foreshadowing.

Lila is scarcely on the road before we’re confronted with the seedy Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAREBITO (2004)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: , Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara

PLOT: A reclusive photographer obsessed with fear discovers a network of underground tunnels beneath Tokyo, where he finds a mute young woman who feeds on blood.

Still from Marebito (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This slow-burn horror almost entirely eschews conventional horror narrative structure to serve as a character study of its eccentric, delusional protagonist.

COMMENTS: I still remember the J-Horror craze of the early 2000s—though, living in a mostly third-world country, I had to largely settle for experiencing them through their American remakes.

Thinking back, it really was a perfect way to bring Asian media to the Western world: films like Ringu or Ju-On or One Missed Call, with their foreign settings and basis in regional mythology, were “exotic” enough to feel different from the standard Hollywood fare, but not so overly different or extreme as to feel alienating. Even some of the genre’s more extreme offerings, like Audition, tended to join Cannibal Holocaust and A Serbian Film among the ranks of “extreme films that everyone’s heard about.”

(Of course, that probably renders all those remakes pretty much pointless, but that’s a whole other matter.)

One exception to this was Marebito. Despite coming from the creator of the Ju-On series, as well as its highly successful American remake, Marebito made little impact in the West—perhaps best reflected by the fact that it never got a remake.

And viewing Marebito, it’s not hard to see why: even among the standards of J-Horror (which, around the time, usually went for the slow burn), Marebito takes its time. Many shots simply follow the protagonist as he absently wanders the streets, or stares obsessively at his collection of recordings; and the vampiric young woman at the center of the plot doesn’t even show up until the half-hour mark.

Good for atmosphere, and consistent with Shimizu’s usual approach, certainly; but not very marketable.

Nonetheless, for those who appreciate a horror film with character, Marebito has a fair amount to offer. It’s made clear relatively quickly that the focus of the film is not its fantastical elements, but the eccentric mind of its protagonist. Masuoka (played by Shinya Tsukamoto, best known around here as the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man) is a withdrawn and disenchanted individual with dark obsessions who is ever hidden behind his camera, relating to the world far better when seeing it through his viewfinder. And all of this is made sharply clear in the first few minutes of the movie, when we see him obsessively watching and re-watching footage that he shot of a public suicide on a subway, trying to discern what the dead man might have seen in his last few moments.

Masuoka is obsessed with the concept of fear, and seeks to uncover Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAREBITO (2004)