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Review: THE LOVE WITCH

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by smuckyproductions

(This is one film to watch post-election, because of its empowerment, brilliance and social intelligence.)

Stylistic homage in horror is nothing new in 2016. So many of the greatest genre offerings in the past few years have been throwbacks to past decades, usually the 70s or the 80s. It’s an interesting reaction to the “horror is dead” statement that keeps throwing itself around – filmmakers respond to this by returning to their roots, the eras during which so many horror classics were produced. Few of these films go beyond homage, though, to comment on the eras that they are meant to inhabit. THE LOVE WITCH is one such film.

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Anna Biller’s sophomore feature is, like her debut VIVA, created in the style of 60s and 70s sexploitation cinema.She achieves this homage with an incredible attention to detail – everything from the film grain and the harsh lighting to the vivid production design and celestial soundtrack fits the era impossibly well. Had I been told I was watching a 60s film, I wouldn’t have questioned it (aside from a few important moments that I can’t reveal here).

This world exists around the titular witch, Elaine, who joins a Wiccan cult and uses her practices for one thing: seducing men. Hence, her name. But Elaine runs into some trouble when her love spells backfire. Soon, the locals become wary and a handsome police officer begins following her trail. Will Elaine finally find love, or will she fall victim to her own desires?

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The plot, like the film’s aesthetic and atmosphere, is pure exploitation. Its occult elements and sexually ‘liberated’ characters provide plenty of excuses for trippy visuals and copious sex scenes. Biller’s script is full of cheesy one-liners and flirtations straight out of a dating how-to; but it’s aware of itself enough that the audience can laugh without mocking the film. These moments constructed to be funny, but they aren’t farcical – Biller takes her world seriously, too. That’s where the brilliance comes in.

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What begins as an exercise in homage evolves into a political exploration of themes found throughout 60s and 70s cinema – where does sex-positivity end and delusion begin? Had this film been directed by a man, perhaps these questions would not be asked. That is why Biller’s scrutinizing voice is essential to the film’s success. Early on, as Elaine explains what men want in a woman (a maternal figure who satisfies sexually, more or less), her friend shuts her down – how can she say such demeaning things? Of course, at first, Elaine seems an expert in seduction. Until people start ending up dead.

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This is where Biller’s genius shows through. She isn’t content to perpetuate the sexualization of her predecessors – she displays that, while these films are attractive, they also contain some demoralizing ideas. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Elaine’s story is not all bright colors and sex scenes. THE LOVE WITCH earns its place in the horror genre through its dissection, and destruction, of the demeaning elements.

Apart from being a lush and charming homage, Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH manages to be a rich commentary. It exists in two eras, eventually bringing them together until the lines blur – have things really changed? For cinephiles and social psychologists alike, this is a hefty, essential film. It will take you under its spell, and won’t let you leave without a little bloodletting.

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A Tribute to Free Love in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

Posted in Dark Musings, Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, an occasion on which monogamous couples are encouraged to celebrate their union and romance. In many ways it’s a paean to heteronormativity – it’s meant for a man and a woman who are solely bound to each other.

Rather than feed into this, I want to talk about THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW – one of cinema’s purest celebrations of free, uninhibited love and pleasure.

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Most people know of this film as a crazy, hilarious, purposefully bad sendup of 50s sci-fi films and musicals. It’s a midnight classic, still screening around the world with shadow casts and costumed fans who have memorized the lines. But even more remarkable is its depiction of sex and love. There is a Bacchanal sense of madness to the film, and an unabashed queerness, with men dressed as women, people sleeping with the same and opposite sex without qualm, orgiastic pleasure… All hot topics in social culture today. Only Richard O’Brien crafted this show forty years ago, when this was still a dangerous idea.

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RHPS is bold and overt in its dissection of traditional love. We begin with the wedding and proposal, played with grotesque, pure excitement; but it’s not long before we’re sucked into the frenzy of Frank ‘N Furter’s world. This is a character who completely destroys gender boundaries. His fabulous wardrobe, his ever-selfish dominance, and his obsession with Charles Atlas are his own, creating an identity independent from societal constructs. The wedding between Frank and Rocky is a terrific parallel to the opening scene. It would be seen as a perversion of that ceremony if it wasn’t so passionate, so free.

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What follows is a sexual awakening for Brad and Janet, whose sexuality was so clearly repressed. Frank initiates a renaissance for both of them – while they protest at first, they give into the pleasure and realize what they were missing. Janet’s tryst with Rocky is funny, sure, but she also finds her own identity in the act, as bold as Frank’s.

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And (SPOILERS!) the big number, followed by the orgy in the pool, ties it all together. “Don’t dream it, be it” – a hymn to all of those who felt their identities locked away, too ashamed to explore them. Frank might be hedonistic and bizarre, but he is liberated. His liberation carries over to Brad and Janet, too. They find their own happiness in sexual freedom because there is no longer fear. To anyone who has ‘come out,’ that experience is universal.

The ending has always struck me as far more tragic than the bulk of the film would justify. Frank is murdered for living his dream, seen as a perverted lifestyle by his own servants. His final song is heartbreaking in this context. And at that time, this was a reality. Anyone who did not fit into the societal definition of ‘normal’ was targeted for hate and violence. Is it a coincidence that O’Brien, who identifies himself as a third sex, concludes his show in this manner?

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It might end in sadness, but even so, Rocky Horror is wholly liberating. It presents these themes and ideas without batting an eye. So, rather than indulge in films that promote the image of ‘normal’ romance this holiday, I want to celebrate Frank ‘N Further’s message. Allow yourself to find your own identity and embody it to the fullest extent. As opposed to forty years ago, today, there is not nearly as much reason to fear.

Sundance Review: THE GREASY STRANGLER

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Sitting in the Yarrow Theater at 9 pm on January 23rd was a special experience. And by special I mean disgusting, bewildering, stupefying and inanely hilarious. It isn’t often that you witness the birth of the next cult phenomenon. In the midst of oily grapefruits, potatoes, hootie-tootie-disco-cuties and a vat of costuming grease, those of us in Park City can say we did just that. This film is THE GREASY STRANGLER.

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Looking back on it, I’m shocked to remember that there is a very coherent plot. A father and son duo, living together after the death of their wife/mother, begin a personal war when they fall in love with the same woman. But there is an even more dangerous scheme afoot – a murderer is stalking the streets, someone covered in grease and growling like a post-modern Wolfman. Also like the Wolfman, his kill of choice is a good, old-fashioned strangle. (The title is very literal.)

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Another surprise – the film is gorgeously crafted. The production design and lighting are vibrant and ultra-professional, lending it the aesthetic of a true Hollywood rom-com. That look only makes the bizarre aspects more delirious. From the opening, we are assaulted by totally insane images and conversations – greasy coffee, oozing sausages, men in pink short shorts, and endless Dada arguments about free drinks and potatoes. (Also, BULLSHIT ARTIST.) And don’t forget the prosthetic penises. Yes, I said it, prosthetic penises.

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It’s a hymnal to absurdist humor and the grotesque (in the classic sense of the word, which means ugly to a hilarious extreme). While there is a clear plot, which is more than can be said about many ‘normal’ films, there is nothing clear in the way it pans out. The film is utterly baffling in the most exhilarating way – an amalgamation of cartoonish comedy and endless goop that all serves to create a world we’ve never seen before. And I truly haven’t seen anything like this in film. Comparisons to John Waters can be made, but this film is so surreal, almost animated, that it creates its own brand of weird.

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This originality is only part of the reason I call it the next cult hit. The charm of this film hard to explain to someone who wasn’t in the theater. Listening to the audience erupt in almost-constant confused laughter, usually because the images on screen were just so out there, was undeniably special. Like “Rocky Horror” and “The Room,” I think this film is destined for midnight greatness. Its wacky quotability and immersive boldness will give it eternal life.

When viewing this repugnant and beautiful piece of work, leave all conception of film at the door. This is an experience like no other. And it’s worth it. Come mingle in the mire, the disco, and the colorful chaos that is THE GREASY STRANGLER.

Sundance Review: TRASH FIRE

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

It’s hard to find good Gothic cinema these days. And I don’t mean the twee fey of Tim Burton – I’m talking grotesque, blackly humorous, and eviscerating works that examine the extreme darkness of humanity. Who would have known that this genre could be revived by a film about millennials with relationship issues? Leave it to Richard Bates Jr. to bring us a masterpiece in the form of TRASH FIRE.

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After seeing Excision several years ago, I’ve kept an eye on Richard Bates. His nihilistic, tonally various and visually gorgeous style is wholly unique in modern horror. I didn’t expect him to surpass his previous efforts with this film about a man who can’t deal with the death of his parents: in a fire that he thinks he started. When his girlfriend gets pregnant and threatens to leave him, however, he is forced to confront his past: literally. They take a high-stakes trip to his grandmother’s house, where his burned sister lives, so he can reconcile. But that’s the least of his worries.

The cast here is phenomenal. Adrian Grenier is repugnant and sympathetic at once, Angela Trimbur is empowering as his vulnerable but adamant girlfriend – but Fionnula Flanagan and Annalynne McCord truly shine as the family left behind. The former rivals Bette Davis for a Grand Guignol villain, and the latter is heartbreaking (but dangerous), the only character who has really done no wrong. Yet. Place all of these great actors in a creepy Southern house, add some snakes and fire and hallucinations, and you’ve got this film.

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It isn’t a horror movie in modern sense – it will not frighten or startle like a ghost story or survival flick. Instead, it attacks the mind, exploring very real situations with a vicious eye and finding the rot underneath. Bates reaches the heights of Robert Aldritch with his revelations, all without a supernatural occurrence. It’s Baby Jane meets Shirley Jackson meets Gen Y. This combination may not be ‘mainstream,’ but it’s all the more horrific because of that. The ending will leave you shaking and torn between morals.

Hearing Bates talk about his process after the Q&A only cemented my love for this movie. He is so passionate about these stories, and pours his own soul into them – which is why they feel so human. His personal touch makes these tales of terror touch the soul, finding their dread in humanity, but also their heart. Once the shock wore off, I felt a sense of deep melancholy – a feeling from which this film was born. I wanted to cry for these characters. That sense of catharsis and connection is the reason I love horror so much. It exposes these dark emotions in a way that we can examine and confront.

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Those who like their horror superficial can turn away now. But for a cathartic, gorgeous, funny and disturbing experience, TRASH FIRE won’t be surpassed. Bates has revived the true Gothic film – let’s hope it stays alive.

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.

Short Story: HER MASTERPIECE

Posted in Original Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2015 by smuckyproductions

I did this as a writing exercise, but ended up really liking the result. Let’s see if you guys think the same. 

HER MASTERPIECE

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            She knew he was watching, but she didn’t stop. Her palm skin had melted into the handle and her arm swung of its own volition. The burn of her muscles radiated to her mind and heated her thoughts so that she did not care about the eyes that had chained themselves onto the mess of a head beneath her. She knew he could hear the crunch more sharply than she, with the heat sizzling in her ears as it was, and she envied him for that. The sound of Mrs. Tergell’s breaking skull was the detail she had looked forward to the most.

With a blaring tang the blunt head of the hammer snapped off its mount and bounced into the air. She howled and ducked from it, but it clattered into the gutter a few feet away. When it settled and the street grew silent, her ears were still clogged with the muffled cries and squelches of impact. Several moments passed before she grew accustomed to the loathsome quiet. Then she turned to face the watching man, searing with rage. He, after all, had caused the hammer to break, and had cut her triumphant percussions cruelly short.

He stood where he had halted upon rounding the corner. When he had first appeared, his jaw had gone limp and his arms had dangled like severed puppet strings. She had expected him to scream or to faint, but he had remained upright, almost mocking her. The rage stemmed from this parody of her expectations. Now she faced him and wielded the jagged handle. He was meant to scream, plead, or piss himself. But he had not moved at all; only his expression had altered, pulling taut into a nearly lustful grin, cracking all the way up to his impossibly dark eyes.

“How wonderful,” he said.

The rage, so red and metallic before, sizzled into the steam of shock. Her thoughts produced no logical response – in fact, they had ceased altogether, chased out by the battering echo of his two words. She stared at him, dumbfounded.

Somehow managing to widen his grin, he extended a puppet arm – far too long – and pointed at the sticky pulp of Mrs. Tergell’s corpse. “What do you call it?” he exclaimed. “It’s marvelous! Brilliant!”

Her fingers lost all tension and the handle slipped through them. “Oh – I…” she stammered.

“No name, then? Even better – very mysterious,” he said. His legs began to quiver and he clapped rapidly. It seemed that he had begun to dance. “I’ll take it,” he shouted, pointing to the dark sky. “For one point five. No less. Or even two. Anything. Name your price.”

Understanding crested over her mind like a radiant dawn. She, too, could feel herself grinning. Beholding her masterpiece as a mother would her first, most angelic child, she said, “Two point five.”

Films That Haunt Me: SOCIETY

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Ah, body horror. We don’t see enough of it anymore. What horror fan doesn’t appreciate a good old slime-fest, with a dash of social commentary thrown into the goop? It’s a genre that often gets overlooked as being purely gross – but the best body horror films have some insightful and penetrating things to say about our civilization. No film does this more overtly, or with more fluids, than SOCIETY.

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Directed by Stuart Gordon collaborator Brian Yuzna, this ick-fest starts off innocently enough – a high school boy believes that his yuppie suburban town is hiding something sinister beneath its pastels. People are disappearing, the snobby rich kids are acting up, and is that woman’s torso twisting around like that?? These unusual occurrences culminate in a horrific realization about his family and friends – a society of people that aren’t people at all.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling the ending. It’s a sin to give away such a great surprise. (And surprisingly hard to find photos to put in this post that don’t involve what happens.) To avoid ruining the entirety of it, I’ll just say this – Yunza creates a brilliant, satirical view of the homogenous wealthy, who are quite literally all the same person. The makeup effects are bizarre and ingenious. What makes them so striking, beyond their nastiness, is the way the visuals comment on the ‘theme’ of the cruel bourgeois. They are not wholly human, and thus, they look down on everyone who is human. And use them for certain purposes. I’ll leave it up to you viewers to find that out for yourselves.

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Since we get to see this society from the point of view of an outsider, we are able to share in his surprise and horror – and Yuzna also permits himself, through this, to be as surreal and weird as he pleases. The world that our hero stumbles upon goes so far beyond anything we could imagine that it is impossible not to find hilarious, but in a way that makes it hard to tell whether or not we should really be laughing. Yuzna’s sense of humor is similar to Peter Jackson’s in “Braindead” – using gore as slapstick and an opportunity for puns. But beneath this, there is that thread of disturbing social commentary, which is so spot on that it makes the unreal sequences hard to completely write off.

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The level of satire makes it difficult to take seriously at times, especially in the earlier scenes, when it’s hard to decide if the film is a mystery-thriller or a John Hughes rip-off. But for those who can look past the off-kilter opening, the payoff is gob-smackingly terrific. I argue that, for the ending alone, it can take its place alongside the best horror efforts of David Cronenberg, and even some of Lynch’s more grotesque work.

This film represents, for me, the great artistic value of a genre that we don’t often see anymore. Body horror had its heyday in the 80’s, but once the slasher craze really took off, it fell by the wayside. There are a few modest efforts available today, but what happened to the surplus of nasty and sub-political films that used to saturate the market? In honor of “Society” and its kin, here’s to hoping that body horror makes a comeback. For now, we can relish in this one’s bizarre humor and quantity of slime-covered satire. You’ll be singing the Eton Boating song for days to come.