Archive for mystery

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.

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Films That Haunt Me: LES DIABOLIQUES

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

It’s November now, a time for Halloween hangovers before the Christmas rush begins in full force. After the horror rush of October, some might think it’s time to calm down, watch some wholesome films, get away from the macabre. And some can never get away. For those in the latter group, I continue my discussion of the grotesque and the Gothic, starting off with the noir nightmare LES DIABOLIQUES.

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This gem of French cinema is often referred to as the alternative to “Psycho,” perhaps because Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot – the director of this film – engaged in a bidding war for the book rights. When one sees the film, this couldn’t make more sense. It’s a dark, psychological, power-play crime story about a brutal man and two women – one his wife, the other his mistress – who conspire to get him out of their lives once and for all. Which they do. But what if he’s not done with them yet?

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So, yes, it sounds like a noir-thriller… until things start to happen. I can’t say what those things are, but just thinking about them horrifies me. Something about classic horror and bathtubs, man. But this is a film that brilliantly combines two genres that often get mistaken for one another. There is the reality and logic of a crime-thriller – murder, cover-up, detective work – but then, out of the dark, comes the cloying nightmare of horror. The latter component has less screen time, to be sure, but it is certainly provides the most memorable scene. Suffice to say, this has one of the best shock endings of all time.

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Its unique atmosphere also sets it apart from most noir-thrillers, which tend to have seedy, hard-boiled tones. Even before the murder takes place, this one adopts a sodden, autumnal aura that might be more at home in a ghost story, full of rainy skies and ill-kept corridors. With the quiet Gothic-ness of the beginning, the horror does not feel out of place.

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And that aura of the uncanny only serves to support the quietly-building hints within the film that something is not right. This is a master-class of tension. The occurrences are minute, almost imperceptible, until it dawns on the viewer that they’re terrified. And that’s when things really begin to happen. The film is patient and trusts that it will achieve its effect – a confidence that is often missing from modern genre offerings, which are too hasty to grab a quick scare, rather than sustaining a mood of dread.

This film is a dream come true for lovers of classic cinema and horror fans alike – perfect for these damp November afternoons, when we need a chill to keep us warm. And perhaps a heart-stopping shock, too.

Night Film: Review

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2014 by smuckyproductions

Author: Marisha Pessl
Published in 2013
Rating: 8.5/10

I did not expect to be reviewing this book on a horror blog – especially considering Pessl’s first novel reads as a coming-of-age dramedy/mystery. I was a huge fan of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” though it was a bewildering read, and when I saw that Pessl had come out with a new novel after 7 years, I was extremely intrigued. I’m not a big fan of mystery/thriller novels – the masculinity of their prose is usually too much for me – but I had to see what it was all about. I couldn’t have been more surprised, and obsessed.

“Night Film” is centered around the world of Stanislas Cordova, a cult director with the reputation of Lynch, Kubrick and von Trier combined. He’s reclusive, brilliant, and his films are terrifying; shrouded in mystery and rumor. But there’s something strange about him – something dark. Scott McGrath, a journalist whose last attempt at uncovering Cordova’s secret left him disgraced, has never given up on his story; and when Cordova’s daughter is found dead, he has an excuse to pick up the mystery once more. This time, though, the stakes are higher – McGrath might not only lose his job, but his sanity.

It starts off how you’d imagine, with a cynical investigator met with a confounding case. It doesn’t stay typical for long, though. Pessl fabricates a mind-bending reality for Cordova, evoking his films brilliantly, as well as his obsessive and cult-like fans. Add in a few wonderfully painted quirky sidekicks, and you’ve got an intriguing premise. The reader is led through McGrath’s search for answers step by step, uncovering little bits of evidence that range from weird to disturbing. As he hunts for clues with his two assistants, both of whom were connected to the dead daughter, he is drawn into a surreal Lynchian underworld – one that soon becomes deadly, and perhaps even supernatural.

The brilliance of “Night Film” lies not in its story or its writing, but in the little details it brings to life. Pessl fills the book with fake Internet pages from Cordova’s secret fan sight (full of eerie urban legends and creepy pictures), and as the book goes on, with anecdotes from those who were involved with him professionally or intimately. The stories begin to pile up into a horrific painting of an occult family, harboring disturbing and demonic secrets in their Gothic mansion (which plays a big role in the novel as well). The book reads flawlessly like an ultra-long Lynch film, complete with surreal characters and hints at dark magic. As the clues are uncovered and McGrath becomes more paranoid, the novel transforms beautifully from a typical thriller to a bizarre horror-mystery-psychological dissection.

I became obsessed with this novel very quickly, once the real story began to unfold and the horrific elements came into play. The mystery is so complex and unsettling that I found myself looking over my shoulder at the slightest sound. I have rarely been so involved in a book as this one – an apt comparison would be “House of Leaves,” which is undeniably more intelligent, but has the same documentary quality that seeps into your brain and convinces you that what you’re reading is real. I was attached to the characters, fascinated by Pessl’s imagery, and desperate to get to the ending.

There are flaws, of course – the ending being, for a moment, one of them (I won’t give it away, but I do encourage readers to keep faith while reading the conclusion) – but I was able to overlook them due to the intensity and morbid beauty of the tale. It inhabits the world of cult arthouse horror perfectly, and by the end, feels like one of Cordova’s fictional films. If Lynch, Fincher and Argento were to become one person, their first work would be something like this – a colorful, atmospheric, Gothic, and deeply human thriller of epic proportions. It’s not for everyone, surely,  but I recommend it highly – so long as the reader knows they will stay with it through its 600 pages until they have reached the ending.

The Awakening (2012): Review

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2013 by smuckyproductions

Director: Nick Murphy
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton
7/10

Being a sucker for a good atmospheric ghost story, I was exciting to see The Awakening available on Netflix. I had seen the trailer and was convinced that it was worth a watch. While it wasn’t exactly what I hoped for, I wasn’t wrong to check it out.

Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a jaded woman who dedicates herself to debunking supernatural tales and legends in post-Great War England. When Robert Mallory (West) approaches her with the story of a haunted boarding school and a dead child, she decides to investigate. Her cold skepticism begins to slip once she begins encountering the ghosts of the school – and her past.

This film reminded me instantly of classics like The Innocents and The Orphanage, all works that employ sprawling mansions and foggy landscapes to create an eerie atmosphere that sets the stage for some creepy supernatural manifestations. The Awakening uses the wintry English countryside to the fullest extent, with beautiful images of misty forests and grey lakes all surrounding the gorgeously spooky boarding school. The cinematography is impeccable, creating many memorable visuals apart from the creepy stuff. If nothing else, it is a feast for the eyes. The acting is also wonderful, especially from the two female leads. In a horror industry that puts performance last, this film stands out.

The creepy stuff, however, does fall a little short. Compared to the subtlety of the camerawork and the acting, the scares are trying just a little too hard. There are a few scenes that gave me legitimate chills, but I was never very scared. In that sense, looking at the film as more of a supernatural drama puts it in a better light. It feels like an arthouse film more than anything, bringing up some poignant questions about the afterlife and the cynicism that World War I brought to Europe.

As a horror film, The Awakening doesn’t work on many levels. The scares are cliched and the ending has been seen too many times. As an arthouse drama, however, the film is well done, and even borders on brilliant at moments. The imagery is haunting, the performances are wonderful, and the questions raised are actually thought-provoking. It is, in some ways, a thinking man’s ghost story. Recommended, as long as it is looked at as something other than a scary movie.

“Fool’s Gold” Official Book Trailer

Posted in Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2013 by smuckyproductions

The official trailer for my novel “Fool’s Gold,” which will be available for download in late April.