Archive for Classic

Review: THE WITCH

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

Yesterday saw the nationwide release of the most anticipated horror movie of 2016. After massive buzz from Sundance and a series of incredible trailers from A24, I was insanely excited to witness what was being called a soul-shaking experience. For once, the reviews were pretty spot on. THE WITCH is like nothing else that I’ve seen in recent years.

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It’s a plot that, in other hands, could have been cheap and silly – a Puritan family is plagued by a baby-stealing, boy-seducing, and mind-warping witch. But under Robert Eggers’s direction, already infamous for its extreme attention to detail, that storyline becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Let’s state the obvious: the production design and authenticity of the world is incredible. The cinematography is stark and sparing. This allows the film to take on a realistic texture that is rarely seen in horror. But the realism doesn’t stop at the surface. Eggers pays even more attention to the minds of his characters, drawing out their thoughts and emotions so viscerally, so realistically, that the audience can’t help but empathize. You won’t want to feel what they feel, though. That’s the genius of the film – you have no choice.

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With this film, we finally get to see what it would have looked like if Bergman directed a Hammer movie. (“Hour of the Wolf” is a different type of horror.) By combining the psychological breakdown of the characters alongside some wickedly visceral images, Eggers crafts a comprehensive assault on the audience’s brain. This recipe is reserved for only the best genre offerings – most focus solely on the mind or the monster. Eggers brings us both, and each is ingenious on its own, but together they create something brutal and traumatizing.

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The witch herself is frightening, but what she does to the minds of her victims is even more so. Mainly because it feels so real – it’s what you would do, too. By the end it seems like we’re spying on someone’s private tragedy, a thing we should not see, but cannot look away from. Eggers is merciless with his story. And that makes it all the better. His vision is also refreshingly free of influences – so many of today’s horror films mimic the style of another decade – and takes on a transgressively Gothic tone, a truly demented fairy tale.

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It must also be said that much of the film’s power comes from the music – a perverse soundtrack of howling strings, clacking wood and hideous chanting. The marriage of these sounds with the film’s visuals is overwhelmingly horrific.

This film also excites me because of its unexpected wide release. Not only that, but it’s exceeding expectations at the box office. People are flocking to see this film. If this trend continues, perhaps it will open the doors for more horror in this vein. We’re witnessing the possible birth of a wide-spread genre renaissance. In the meantime, it’s enough to enjoy this brilliant nightmare on its own. Go live deliciously and experience its darkness.

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Films That Haunt Me: HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2015 by smuckyproductions

A little break from the snow and ice – let’s travel down to Louisiana, for Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to the Grand Guignol classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” After the success of that film, Aldrich teamed up with Bette Davis again – this tim excluding Joan Crawford, who dropped out for ‘health reasons’ – to create this classic Southern Gothic nightmare called HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE.

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This film starts, like “Baby Jane,” with a bang: the first thing we see (in shockingly graphic detail for the 60’s) is a man getting decapitated. It’s the climax of a love affair between the man and the young daughter of a plantation giant. But who committed the crime? Forty years later, the daughter has grown into an old woman (Bette Davis), trapped in her decaying plantation mansion by the guilt of what she did or did not do. It is far from over, though – when Charlotte’s long-estranged cousin comes to visit, Charlotte begins to deteriorate into hallucinations, hinting at a sinister plot going on in the shadows.

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It isn’t as original of a plot as “Baby Jane,” but it is made unique by the manner of its telling. This film drips with dark atmosphere that is special to the South – sprawling swamps, drifting moss, and thick shadows. The images that populate this setting are equally bizarre. As Charlotte falls into madness, we see what she does – phantasmal shadows crossing the windows; ghostly balls with faceless dancers; and the spectre of her lover, headless, reaching for her. Is any of it real? The film doesn’t give up its secrets easily. And that’s the fun of it. This type of psychological horror yields the most fascinating imagery and tone, because it is allowed to access the subconscious and all its mysteries.

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For the most part, this film plays like a moody thriller – but there are definite moments of pure horror. The shadow-crossed house and Bette Davis’s wafting, nightgown-clad Charlotte provide the perfect platform on which to launch some legitimate scares. Like “Baby Jane” as well, the film is adept at putting the viewer inside a character’s mind, so every fictional experience becomes utterly visceral. It’s a creeping, dread-filled piece of surreal cinema.

And, at the same time, it manages to speak heartbreakingly to a life lived in the past, drowned in guilt. Bette Davis plays her character so tenderly  – chewing scenery, of course, but with palpable sincerity. There is a beating heart to this chiller, even if that heart gushes blood. Charlotte is a woman whose ideals were shattered by violence – to see where that leads her is truly disturbing. The characters around her, too, all seem to have ulterior motives – speaking to secrets kept and deception maintained in the name of greed. The people in this film are drawn boldly and convincingly, yielding most of the terror from their own actions.

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It may not be the masterpiece that “Baby Jane” is, but this film stands on its own, for its revolutionary surrealism and its mastery of Gothic tone. A story of guilt and the capacity of human evil, it is sure to warp your mind – and in spite of its sunny Southern climes, it will chill you like the winter wind.

Forbidden Tomes: HAUNTED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Short stories were arguably the first great American literary tradition, with Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne contributing groundbreaking tales that still resonate. It is no question that many of these stories at least dabbled in the Gothic. This tradition has lessened over the years, but there are some contemporary authors who have not forgotten. Joyce Carol Oates is one of them, and she contributes to this tradition brilliantly with her collection HAUNTED.

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I talk about Oates a lot. That’s because I think she’s a genius. These stories showcase her ability to render a typical American scene – dollhouses, Christmas dinner, and Thanksgiving shopping, to name a few – in visceral prose that makes them disturbingly wrong. Her detailed and ruthless eye skewers the everyday with macabre observations, warping things until they are almost beyond recognition. Almost. Her stories are all the more chilling because they rarely stray into the supernatural, drawing all of their horror from things that could – and have – happened.

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With these details Oates explores a number of themes that may, in another author’s hands, be commonplace – but not here. There are four sections of stories, and each deals with a broader, recognizable topic: aging, birth, sex, and finally, death. Oates handles these with just the right touch of grotesque, avoiding the garish, and brings them to light in a way that feels revelatory. In the title story, a girl’s childhood ends abruptly with a nebulous trauma and her friend’s death; “Extenuating Circumstances” and “Don’t You Trust Me” both display the horror to which mothers are subjected; and “Martyrdom” makes us question the nature of humanity in the most horrific way.

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In Oates’s beautiful but glaring prose, the above topics become magnified. Her vivid rendering is what makes her ‘normal’ environments so disturbing. Because Oates is also the master of the unreliable narrator, these worlds become even more unreliable. But, like the best horror fiction, their extremes bring out truths that would otherwise be lost.

On a very specific note, the penultimate story – “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” – presents a delight for horror fans in its reimagining of “Turn of the Screw.” Seen from the perspective of the ghosts themselves, who cannot reconcile their place between life and death, and instead taunt the children whom they loved. This story alone is reason to explore Oates’s collection.

Take these grotesque visions of a world we all know and plunge into them. On cold evenings, the rotted truths that Oates presents will make a particular mark.

Forbidden Tomes: BELOVED by TONI MORRISON

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

America’s past is full of horrors. Red stains that we have tried to expunge. But while scrubbing away the colors may dull them, it only embeds them deeper into the fibers, where they fester. It is rare to find a book or a film that honestly and completely explores these stains; and it’s no surprise that one of the greatest examples comes from Toni Morrison, in her powerhouse novel BELOVED.

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Set in the years just after the Civil War, this novel acts as two things: a historical thriller and a ghost story. It occupies two times, weaving the narrative of a woman who escaped slavery, and the aftermath of her family some years later. They live in a house haunted by the ghost of the woman’s baby. When a man whom the woman knew before she escaped comes to visit her, along with a mysterious young girl who may not be human, the woman is forced to confront the horrific past that she may not be able to reconcile.

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Morrison is an undersung genius in the art of the metaphorical Gothic. Her novels are populated by strange, but deeply human, characters – people like Milkman and Pilate in “Song of Solomon,” Sethe and her haunted family in this story. These slightly surreal elements are intriguing from an entertainment perspective, but by the time the reader has become interested, Morrison has already unleashed the full blow of her disguise. Her fantastical elements always stand for something else. She never undercuts them by retracting from their reality, though – in the world of the story, they exist, but they also represent something in our physical world.

The ghosts in this novel, amongst things both literal and nebulous, stand for past trauma. Sethe and her living daughter, along with the supporting characters, are haunted by the horror that their mind cannot escape: the nightmares of slavery. Morrison doesn’t spoon-feed these metaphors to the reader, though. She embeds them in the terror, making the reader feel every wrong done until they can’t deny it. Her vivid details serve a more horrifying purpose because, to many people, they were reality.

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This is a deeply important novel. Morrison’s ghosts are those of our own history – and they are not at rest. ‘Beloved’ is far from a traditional scary story, but it embodies the truth of horror so completely, and digs up terrifying graves that were never really buried. The aura of doom that pervades the characters’ lives is a doom that exists. For that reason, it is impossible to look away, or to forget. This book’s truths are more haunting than any phantom.

Thoughts on MACBETH (2015): Shakespearean Gothic

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

One of the year’s most buzzed-about films, a new incarnation of MACBETH, premiered in limited theaters this past Friday. Starring the genius pairing of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, we see once again the tale of a Scottish king and his wife driven mad by greed and ambition. The striking style of this new adaptation warrant some discussion on Smucky’s Grave, because it gives us something that is often shunned in the world of Shakespeare: a taste of Gothic horror.

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I’m not saying that the witches have hooked noses or that Banquo’s ghost pops out with a VFX-laden face. This is a classic type of horror, one that is usually just called “moodiness” to avoid the genre’s negative connotation. Director Justin Kurzel, who made a splash in 2011 with the disturbing “Snowtown,” infuses his interpretation with all the Gothic trappings: mist-swept moors, dark shadows, fiery chambers, and an impressive amount of blood. The witches haunt and the apparitions stalk; the madness creeps like an entity in its own right. The film drips with a sense of immense, almost cosmic, dread.

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This is one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies, and most violent. While “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Richard III” all feature phantoms, they are easily read as psychological omens or metaphors, not supernatural manifestations. In “Macbeth,” however, the specters are joined by the Weird Sisters – who, while they can be staged to seem non-supernatural, are undeniably uncanny. Their prophecies are not only unsettling, but they come true. The Weird Sisters, combined with several disturbing ghosts and a general aura of doom, give “Macbeth” a distinctly Gothic air.

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Kurzel plays his “Macbeth” straight. The setting, accents and costumes are all, as far as I know, period-accurate. But, in spite of the seriousness of his direction, the supernatural and uncanny elements have a strong presence. The spirits come to Macbeth in vivid and grotesque displays, and the witches are shown to have clear supernatural abilities. Lady Macbeth herself even witnesses them, along with a few other apparitions.

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Giving the supernatural a very real hold on the story allows Kurzel’s “Macbeth” to feel like a Gothic thriller. Adam Arkapaw’s incredible cinematography, similar to his work on the occult-centered “True Detective,” heightens this and brings a liminal type of fear to the entire film. It isn’t strictly horror, since isn’t meant to frighten, but it absolutely unsettles and disturbs. The filmmaking – brooding camerawork, uneasy set design, and a gut-churning score – bolster the story and cement this “Macbeth” as an exercise in Gothicism. Others might disagree, and some will undoubtedly be turned off by this brand of darkness, but it is a fascinating atmosphere nonetheless. And, overall, serves as one of the most interesting films of 2015.

Forbidden Tomes: BOOKS OF BLOOD I-III by CLIVE BARKER

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Logic would never place horror and erotica in the same field. But history goes to show, these two genres often cross over, finding commonalities in each other that perhaps should not be uncovered. For the most part these crossovers are subtle and quiet. Not so with Clive Barker, who broke open the pairing with his debut work, the BOOKS OF BLOOD.

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First published in 1984, these stories combine two things that often go together – sex and death – but does so in such a blatant, shameless, and powerful way that is so rarely seen. Clive Barker is obsessed with flesh. His prose style is unflinching and brutal, often satirical, but always engrossing (emphasis on gross) in its exploration of the human body. It makes sense, then, that he would focus his stories on the most corporeal of all human acts: fornication and decay.

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The three-part collection is split into different forms of stories. There are traditional horror yarns – “The Midnight Meat Train,” “Rawhead Rex,” and “Scape-Goats,” et cetera – and more comical stories, like “Son of Celluloid,” “Sex, Death and Starshine,” and “The Yattering and Jack.” My favorites, however, occupy a bizarre in-between of philosophical fantasy and horror: “In the Hills, the Cities,” “Dread,” “The Skins of the Fathers” and “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” are the best examples. Here, Barker creates a space in which reality bends, then shatters altogether, questioning the nature of humanity itself.

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In the latter stories especially, the human body becomes an almost celestial plane of horrors, a conduit for the supernatural and the surreal. It might be acceptable to say that the titular story – “The Book of Blood,” kicking off Volume 1 – lays out Barker’s thesis in this regard: “The dead have highways,” he begins, and ends by showing the dead breaking into our world through those highways, literally engraving their words into a boy’s skin. The flesh of his characters is always so vulnerable, yet powerful, too – Jacqueline Ess uses the power of her sexuality to actually alter men’s anatomies, and an entire town joins together to create a singular giant in “In the Hills.”

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What truly makes me love these stories is the sense of freakishness, of abnormality, that pervades the best of them. Barker infuses his protagonists with an aberrant streak that might make them frightening, but also makes them sympathetic, heartbreakingly so. Those of us who have felt like freaks can find voice in these monsters. It is the power of horror, to find a heart in the most horrific of things, and Barker understands this better than most. His stories find the purest core of horror – no trappings, no undue elegance, just raw blood, terror, and beauty.

Films That Haunt Me: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: two notorious queens of screen melodrama who absolutely hated each other. The Hollywood rivalry. It doesn’t make sense that they would do a film together, but lo and behold, it happened. No surprise that it’s a horror film, either, and one of the most powerful ever made. This is WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

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The film pits Davis and Crawford against each other as sisters, one a forgotten child star and the other a fading Hollywood actress, locked together in their decaying Los Angeles mansion. The former hates the latter because of her long-lasting success; the latter hates the former because, rumor has it, she caused a car crash that landed her sister in a wheelchair. In their old age, their hatred has only grown. And it’s about to explode into some violence.

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“Baby Jane” is a very special film. It was born from the actual conflict between these actresses, and the energy of this conflict is present throughout every scene. But what makes it truly remarkable are the characters. The boiling, unrequited hatred between them resembles something from Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Connor – pure human grotesqueness.

There is no monster or murderer in this film other than their rivalry, but that proves to be a greater villain than any other. The vicious nature of the sister’s attacks on each other (mainly Davis, as the bitter child star, on wheelchair-bound Crawford) is utterly shocking. Particularly because there is deep emotion behind it, the undeniable bond of sisters.

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The film’s imagery is a necessity to discuss as well. Davis is ingenious as the forgotten Baby Jane, dolled up in a terrible amount of makeup, prancing around like a little girl – or exploding in murderous rages. Watching her prowl through the decayed mansion is a chilling as any screen demon. And the progression of her vengeance on her sister – starting with sisterly pranks, escalating into acts of brutality – is absolutely chilling, even more so because she isn’t doing it fully out of spite. But I won’t give too much away.

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Here we have a perfect example of film alchemy: so many elements gelling almost by luck into a piece of cinema that defies effort. Grand Guignol sets, neo-Gothic imagery (creepy dolls included), two grotesque characters… and a deeply unhealthy sibling relationship, bolstered by the actual animosity between the stars. All of this igniting into a single work of horrific, beautiful film. For that reason it is special, and a must-see – if the viewer is content with having their mind warped for two hours.