Archive for Arthouse

Smucky’s Most Anticipated Horror Films of 2016

Posted in Best Of, Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2016 by smuckyproductions

2015 was an incredible year for horror. Now, with a legion of festival favorites, directorial returns and a few arthouse surprises, 2016 promises to be even better. Here are the films that Smucky looks forward to most in the coming year:

BEFORE I WAKE

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The release date for Mike Flanagan’s newest film have been confused, but by all accounts, it comes out this winter. After “Absentia” and “Oculus,” Flanagan has proven himself to be a fantastic genre director. This latest effort looks like a continuation of this streak. Following a boy whose dreams come to life – in suitably scary ways – “Before I Wake” promises to be surreal, beautiful, and unsettling as hell.

THE NEON DEMON

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I like it when arthouse directors tackle this genre. Efforts from Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and David Lynch have proven to be some of the best horror films ever. Here’s to hoping that Nicholas Winding Refn, the indie-darling-director of “Drive,” delivers on this tradition. A violent and beautiful horror film set in the world of fashion has endless potential, and a director of Refn’s skill is the one to make it work.

THE GREASY STRANGLER

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Little has been said about this one, and it’s technically not released yet, but its Sundance slate has me excited. The fabulous folks at SpectreVision bring this to Park City at Midnight: a horror/comedy about a killer, likely unpleasant-looking, stalking the seedy streets of an unknown city. I’ll be seeing this at Sundance this year, and I can’t wait to see what new vision it presents.

FEBRUARY

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After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, this film got quite a bit of buzz for being subtle, slow, and totally unsettling. While the reviews are semi-split, the promise of a thoughtful and well-crafted demonic thriller caught my attention. Whispers hint that it’s both moody and shocking, sad and terrifying, a combination that I’m dying to see.

THE WITCH

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While technically a 2015 release, as it premiered in January at Sundance, this highly talked-about creeper will not appear in theaters until February of this year. All the more reason to anticipate it. Aside from being one of the best and scariest trailers of 2015, the reviews have been stellar. It sounds like a claustrophobic, sublime, and transgressive horror film – about witches in Puritan America, no less. I’m in.

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Review: SON OF SAUL

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2015 by smuckyproductions

It’s awards season, and we all know what that means. Horror is often a genre that gets neglected at these ceremonies. But this year, the campaigns are pushing for a certain film in the Best Foreign Language category: the harrowing Hungarian tragedy, SON OF SAUL.

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I had the privilege of seeing this film a bit early. It’s been on my radar since it won the Grand Prix at Cannes this past May, for two reasons: it sounded very good, and it’s listed on IMDb as a horror film. Not that this has much to do with the actual movie, but it’s unusual to find that genre associated with an Oscar contender. But it makes perfect sense. It is NOT a traditional genre film, but “Son of Saul” horrified, disturbed and wrecked me in a way that no film has aside from maybe “Funny Games” and “Eraserhead.” It’s a brutal piece of dark art.

The story follows Saul, a Jewish man forced to burn bodies in Auschwitz, as he discovers what he believes to be the body of his son. As the other prisoners plot to rebel, Saul must stop at nothing to give his son a proper burial.

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Amidst a nightmarish mis en scene, this plot is brilliantly simple and raw. It examines unflinchingly the things a man will do to keep his humanity, and the way the dead can take precedence over the living. Screenwriting professors around the world will rejoice at the clear objective and the massive obstacles in his way. This is pure storytelling, and I can’t begin to say how effectively this tale is portrayed. While the audience knows nothing about Saul aside from his circumstances, his quest becomes vital, and the horror he witnesses is impossible not to feel. It helps, too, that Geza Rohrig – who plays Saul – gives a phenomenal and understated performance of pure desperation.

It is amazing to see a film that so basely and unglamorously uses cinematic techniques to evoke emotion. The cinematography is made up of unending tracking shots, rarely leaving the proximity of Saul’s face. The audience becomes a voyeur and participant. The horror is never dramatised, but it is always present, becoming even more damaging for its lack of trappings. Like the films of Michael Haneke or Krzysztof Kieślowski, “Son of Saul” portrays its human experiences in the most realistic way possible: simply by showing the viewer what they need to see.

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I want to point out, as well, that this is not a Holocaust film. Labelling it as such makes it seem like an awards-bait melodrama or a History channel special. This film is about people, their morals, and what happens when they face utter inhumanity. These themes are best explored, for this story, in the setting of Auschwitz. By avoiding the ‘history film’ tropes, this one actually portrays its subject with a remarkable amount of realism and respect. It is clear how much research and detail went into the production. For that reason, it is that much harder to look away.

Watching this film devastated me, and I say that as warning to the unsuspecting filmgoer – but it is an amazing experience as well. “Son of Saul” serves as a testament to the immense power of cinema and the universality of story. It is bleak, ruthless, and absolutely brilliant.

Review: #HORROR

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2015 by smuckyproductions

This is a tough one to place, partially because I haven’t seen anything quite like it. But that is also what makes #HORROR worth talking about.

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Directed by actress Tara Subkoff, played out by both veterans like Chloe Sevigny and a group of newcomers, this film feels like a mix of several disparate elements: video art piece, a lost episode of American Horror Story, and a very grim Breakfast Club-style dramedy. All of this comes together to tell a story about cyberbullying, the vicious nature of teenage girls who take their insecurities out on others, and the violence that results. (Sort of.)

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Let it be said that, structurally, #Horror is a mess – there is no clear story, beats are repeated over and over again, and the ending is frustratingly rushed – what could have been tense and scary is confused (but disturbing nonetheless). Many audience members will be completely turned off by this. But it seems, maybe, that this is the point.

Subkoff constructs her film to look and feel like a millennial’s subconscious. It’s flashy, fancy and sleek – the production design is stunning – and it’s also cold as hell. The Connecticut winter woods that serve as the backdrop reflect the characters themselves: pretty, but frozen and ruthless. The video art that represents social media in the film is loud, colorful, and abrasive – disturbingly so. It’s frenetic, unfocused, and crazy. Which, as a millennial, I can say isn’t wholly inaccurate.

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The sleekness is almost mocked by the brutality of the characters. They’re pure grotesque, which is another thing audience members will recoil from – they’re easy to hate. Subkoff doesn’t leave them in the dust, though. She makes it clear that these girls are hurting – and their parents, too. It’s the unjust nature of the story that does not allow them to reconcile. They destroy each other and themselves, parent and child, friend and enemy. It helps that the cast is very, very talented – especially the newcomers, who display a lot of confidence in the face of a script that doesn’t pull punches.

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I am not arguing that the film is good. That is something I haven’t decided myself. It is, however, fascinating and evocative, which is more than can be said about many films. And it’s the first horror film I’ve seen that has tackled the bizarre world of social media, along with the self-hatred that accompanies such a world, in an honest, authentic way. Tara Subkoff has created a wildly unique film – even if it doesn’t horrify or entertain, it does provoke.

My initial reaction is still confused, but I applaud #Horror for being one of the only horror offerings that has commented on the state of youth today. We need more of these films. And may they all be as frenetic, original, and strange as this one.

Films That Haunt Me: LISA AND THE DEVIL

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by smuckyproductions

I’ve talked about Mario Bava a few times on this blog, but it’s time I gave special attention to one of his lesser-known and more poetic creations. Colorful, chaotic, and the epitome of liminal, this is the story of LISA AND THE DEVIL.

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One thing to know about Bava films: disregard the title, the American distributors don’t know what they’re doing. This film has little to do with the devil. (Though the film was re-shot and re-edited to contain some half-assed exorcism scenes after the success of “The Exorcist.” DO NOT watch that version.) It feels more like a ghostly fairy tale, about a woman on vacation who stumbles on a mysterious villa… where the inhabitants begin experiencing bizarre, hallucinatory deaths. She’s caught in the middle of a nightmare, one that becomes supernatural, watched over by the butler (played by a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas) who may be more than he seems.

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Confusing? Yeah. In great Italian horror tradition, Bava does not pay particular attention to a plot. Regardless, the events unfold eerily and intoxicatingly, filmed in gorgeous Gothic Technicolor. Their lack of clarity adds to the spectral atmosphere of the film, in which everything seems like a hallucination. It’s a ghost story with notes of reincarnation – a tragedy acting itself out during a night of horror – but the story itself is not what gives the film its weight.

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Like all Bava films, the environment – production design, lighting, camera movement – is the real star. The villa in this film is stunning, full of secret rooms and vaulted ceilings, mist-covered grounds that resemble a graveyard. The uncanny images contained within echo the best of Lynch and Bunuel; along with Lisa, we run through corridors filled with lifelike mannequins, premature burials, and skeleton brides, haunted by the sense that all of this has happened before. Bava evokes the nature of a recurring dream in a deeply impactful way. It is nothing short of atmospheric genius.

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The attention to image and tone is elevated in this film by the presence of an underlying theme, something that usually goes missing in Bava’s films. The ghostly villa and its inhabitants, even the main character, pervade a sense of loneliness and desperation – something all the best ghost stories manifest. It’s a lyrical but disturbing hymn to crushing fate and the death of the soul.

The sensory beauty of the film may vanish from memory after the credits roll, but because of this melancholy undercurrent, one will remember the images for a long time – even if they can’t recall where they came from.

MINUTE MORBIDITIES #4 is up!

Posted in Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Greetings, ghouls – a new episode of MINUTE MORBIDITIES welcomes you this morning.

It’s called GARBAGE:

Take out the trash. And share the scare!

A Love Letter to Italian Horror

Posted in Dark Musings, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Following the release of “Crimson Peak,” which pays beautiful homage to Bava, I think it’s appropriate to discuss the classic art of Italian horror cinema. The bold, Technicolor style of these films is so rarely seen anymore, which is a terrible shame. Some of the best horror films of all time have come out of the Italian tradition. It’s time we, like Guillermo del Toro, pay respect to those masters.

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Most horror fans will have heard of, if not seen, films like “Suspiria,” “Deep Red,” “Black Sunday” and “Zombi.” These are the most well-known, but only a small offering, of the giallo/horror tradition in Italian cinema. None of those films sport very original plots – witches, killers, and zombies are oft seen in horror – but what they do have is an incredibly striking style. Italian filmmakers are masters of sumptuous visuals – everyone from Fellini and Visconti to Argento and Bava craft their works with exquisite production design, color and texture. It becomes so that the style is their substance, and even if the plot is distracted or the characters are thin, the style is so strong that it carries the film.

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In fact, that’s one of my favorite aspects of Italian horror. There is no attention to plot, or dialogue (the films are all dubbed anyway), or traditional storytelling – instead, the films play to the senses, utilizing colorful visuals and soundtrack to evoke emotions. Because of this, the films become like a dream (or nightmare).

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“Suspiria” is a collection of primary hues and jarring sounds, strung together in a hallucinatory tale of witches. “Lisa and the Devil” – my personal favorite Bava – is surreal and spectral, not because of its plot, but because of its disjointed images. Lucio Fulci’s films have some of the worst ADR of all time, and their scenes never match, but who can resist the draw of a film like “The Beyond,” where people get eaten by spiders and decaying zombies float out of a portal to Hell? Watching these films is akin to submerging oneself in water and listening to someone speak above you. It’s otherworldly. Which, for me, is what horror should be.

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There are different schools of giallo. Mario Bava handles the occult and the ghostly, with tales of the undead and fulfilled curses; Dario Argento rolls out grandiose, bloody mysteries; and Lucio Fulci brings the gore, whether it be zombies or people who are ripping out guts. These three directors all have different ticks, but their ethereal scores and moods create a common thread. They have cemented a style of filmmaking that is so hard to find now, because audiences seem to demand a coherent story, rather than submitting themselves to the senses.

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Screenwriting teachers and logical-minded people would certainly disagree, but for a horror fan who enjoys living in a dream, if only for 90 minutes, Italian horror is perfect for me. The cerebral dread and sensory terror that they create is unparalleled. It is hard to think of a better set of directors to choose for Halloween, when the air is filled with a sense of the uncanny, and to live in a nightmare is a dream.

Films That Haunt Me (Halloween edition): VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2015 by smuckyproductions

A companion piece to yesterday’s post about “The Bloody Chamber,” today’s film from the Czech Republic unearths old tales and weaves them into something fresh – something deeply sensual. In our efforts to modernize and darken fairy tales, we often forget what they were truly about: adolescence, immorality, and sexuality. This is epitomized in celluloid by VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS.

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This film plays out like a half-remembered dream, lifting elements from disparate fables to tell the story of young blossoming Valerie. When a mysterious and vampiric cloaked constable arrives in her town, bewitching those around her, Valerie begins a strange quest to free her town of this demon – awakening new things within herself along the way. With the help of a young man named Eagle (who loves her but is also her brother, don’t ask me), she sets out to defeat the man.

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Surreal and visual, this film does not rely on its plot – there is more focus placed on the imagery and themes. Valerie is caught in a bizarre environment where everyone is trying to seduce her. Her innocence is ours, and thus the world of the film is very confusing. But it’s completely entrancing as well. The scenes are filled with dazzling shots of water and leaves, dark castles and rich velvet, soft light and vivid colors. The horror comes in part from these visuals – the film is full of vampires, fangs and ghostly skin and all, lurking in shadowy recesses, prowling after young girls who are forced to outwit them.

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Trying to write about this film is like trying to bottle smoke. It dances in and out of memory, impossible to pin down. That’s partly what gives it its magic. Even within the story, it’s difficult to distinguish dream-time from actual event. Almost as if the film never actually played. That, in my opinion, is the true definition of a fantasy – and somehow, this film manages to transcend its medium to achieve that effect.

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Of course, this is arthouse – it won’t be for everyone. But for a purely visual, sensory fantasy, where nothing is real but everything is beautiful, nothing can beat “Valerie and her Week of Wonders.” Dazzled in sunshine and shadow, you will become a part of its dream.