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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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Films That Haunt Me: THE IRON ROSE

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2016 by smuckyproductions

For some years now I’ve been a fan of Eurohorror, but I always stayed away Jean Rollins – though I saw his name pop up around every corner – because of his reputation. Thankfully, having gone through most of the horror canon already, I had no other option but to try him out. And I am ashamed to have waited so long. At his best, Rollins is a Gothic master – and we have a fine example of this in THE IRON ROSE.

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The plot is so simple, it surprises me that it hasn’t been done a hundred times: a couple gets lost in a cemetery after having sex in one of the crypts. It could have been a Tales from the Crypt episode, or a good zombie movie – but Rollins takes a more interesting approach. Certainly, it starts out like a good ol’ B movie… until the psychological effects kick in.

The cinematography trapped my attention from the beginning. Rollins finds the most fascinating locations and the camera knows how to showcase them. Whether it be the beach, an abandoned train yard, or the cemetery itself, each image is enthralling. This is good, because most of the film crawls along at a snail’s pace. One of my favorite attributes of Eurohorror is its patience. This will be an instant turn-off for many viewers, but for those who can withstand it, the slowness becomes hypnotic. With a gorgeous (and seldom-used) score to back up his images, Rollins creates a delicious Gothic atmosphere.

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It is the atmosphere that allows for the psychological fear to come through. Unlike most films of its kind, “The Iron Rose” features fairly decent acting and dialogue, and no violence. Good thing, too, because the two characters carry almost the entire film. You might expect zombies or ghouls to come into play at some point – but Rollins opts for a more truly Gothic story. The only supernatural element is the graveyard itself, which goes on forever like a labyrinth. Everything else come from the characters.

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Once the plot kicked in and I realized there would be no traditional horrific elements, I was pleasantly surprised to still find myself afraid. It is the mental degeneration of these characters that is so unsettling. Rollins pulls this off without subtlety, but the effect is strong. His images emphasize the morbid trap that these people have fallen into. They are innocent for the most part, and yet they are dealt a disturbing punishment. It plays out like a realistic nightmare – who isn’t afraid of being lost in such an awful place? And the ending, while not as climactic as some might like, is genius to me – and haunts me still.

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While I am sure that most of Rollins’ work will not reach these heights for me, I am thrilled to have unlocked a new corridor of Gothic cinema for myself. The emphasis on image and mood, pertaining to psychological chills, is an art that I hope will not be lost. If patience is one of your virtues, indulge in this moody piece of the grotesque – you might get lost, too.

Forbidden Tomes: TO WALK THE NIGHT by WILLIAM SLOANE

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

It’s been quite some time since I published a Forbidden Tomes review, and I can think of no better way to revive the tradition than to discuss my latest cosmic read. This story is one of many that found new life last year, finding a place amongst authors like Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell and Thomas Ligotti. Yet it sets itself apart from those by creating a style that I find wholly unique. Our tome today is William Sloane’s quiet tale of monstrosity called TO WALK THE NIGHT. 

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The plot is straight out of Lovecraft – after finding their old professor burning to death under impossible circumstances, two college friends become involved in the professor’s enigmatic wife. When one falls in love with her, the other succumbs to unnamable fear, and unravels a truth too horrible to mention.

Lovecraft might have written this, but his version would have been drastically different from Sloane’s. The story is set when the narrator returns to his friend’s home to tell the man’s father the truth of his death. From the first sentences, we are instilled with a sense of tragedy, but also dread. Lovecraft’s stories have always been fairly emotionless, evoking nothing but fear. Sloane sets himself apart by infusing his terror with human sadness. It managed to draw me in from the first page, and when the fear came into play, I was already vulnerable.

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Sloane moves his plot along at a quiet, patient motion – most of the scenes are utterly mundane, but with this mystery dangling over us, they become uncomfortable. Those who want instantaneous monsters and tentacles need not look here. Our characters are the centerpiece of the story. But through masterful descriptions of landscape and memory, Sloane creates a sense of smallness that haunts them – and us – throughout the everyday interactions. He creates fear out of almost nothing, a lesson today’s writers have not yet learned.

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By the time we are ready for the revelation, set brilliantly in the vast desert of the Southwest, we already have guessed at most of the elements. Sloane still manages to surprise us by bringing back that tragedy. At its core, this becomes a story of loss, loneliness, and the inability to accept the ‘other.’ Like the best of horror, it is about outcasts. The cosmic notion of a vast, impenetrable universe only amplifies this sense of sadness. I was chilled by his story, but also felt heartache, and when horror can do that to me, I can’t help but love it. Sloane chooses small details to frighten the reader, but also to bring across that tragedy, and make it visceral.

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Due to its slow pace, it will not please everyone. But for those who can be patient and are willing to accept the human elements, there is a majorly entertaining read waiting for them. We must thank NYRB for re-releasing Sloane’s novels. This is a lost gift to horror fans, and a reminder of how much power the genre can hold.

Film Review: THE INVITATION

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by smuckyproductions

There is a fine line between the thriller and horror genres, which film fans have been debating for decades. My personal definition has to do with mathematics – a thriller will follow a clear path of reason and logic, no matter how muddled it gets; while horror is the destruction of logic. Every once in a while, a film will come along that inhabits both genres ingeniously. One such film is Karyn Kusama’s THE INVITATION.

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Kusama is perhaps best-known for her direction of “Jennifer’s Body,” a film people love to hate. This latest effort displays all of the talent that might have been lost with Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. “The Invitation” has a deliciously simple setup: a group of friends are reunited for a dinner party by a woman they haven’t seen in two years. Our main character used to be married to this woman, before an unspoken tragedy drove them apart. As the dinner progresses he notices strange things, subtle things, that point to a drastic change – and sinister intentions – in his host.

Beginning with a bang as our character has to mercy-kill a coyote, this thriller does not let its audience breathe. Kusama directs her actors – including the incredible John Carroll Lynch – through unbearably tense scenes that escalate from amusing to bizarre. She infuses the film with a surreal style that jumps back in time, makes us doubt, especially as the main character begins to suspect his guests of malevolent deeds. And she manages to keep the secret for most of the running time.

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This film follows the same rule of tension-building that we saw in “Goodnight Mommy” last year, and was outlined by Alfred Hitchcock. Place a bomb under the table, allow it to tick for five minutes, but don’t let it go off. This keeps the audience aware of danger but does not give them the satisfaction of seeing it play out. There are no jump-scares, no sudden outbursts; everyone is well-behaved and accepting, somehow, of the strange goings-ons. This also makes the film feel horribly authentic. In reality, that is how people would react. In fiction it becomes agonizing to watch – in the best way possible.

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We spend our time in a decadent house, with a crew of intelligent yuppies, ranging in race and orientation – a refreshing thing to see when much of film is so white-washed. They are normal people encountering abnormal things. The brand of weirdness that we see is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, who knows better than anyone how to set up an average domestic scene and infuse it with uncanny tension. Nothing overt happens – no dead bodies in the closet, Satanic symbols in the bathroom – but we feel in danger regardless. Kusama is cruel but brilliant for keeping us in suspense until the last possible moment. The final revelation is not original, but it feels earned. I will say no more than that.

In the end, the film winds up feeling human in the most heartbreaking way. What struck me so deeply was this sense of emotional reality – while I was frightened and thrilled, I also felt a sense of tragedy. So many genre films forgo that sensibility in favor of a hard-boiled and ‘brutal’ exoskeleton – but what is more brutal than human sadness? Kusama understands this, and uses its effect to the fullest extent.

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While it may too slow for some viewers, and the ‘twist’ ending might not shock you like you want, “The Invitation” is undeniably a massive display of talent. It is horrific in the most human way. I am thrilled that Kusama could show her chops in this manner, and cannot wait to see what she does next. (Her upcoming project is a segment in a female-directed horror anthology.) To see the folly, the brutality, and the tragedy of normal behavior, see this film – but be warned.

Forbidden Tomes: THE ACCURSED

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Happy March, ghouls – we’re beginning to get a taste of spring in the air. It’s a time of reawakening, good weather, and fertility. Unless you’re in a Joyce Carol Oates book. In one of her only outwardly supernatural works, Oates weaves a disturbing portrait of historical Princeton as it falls under the power of demons. Things get weird in the sepulchral spring of THE ACCURSED.

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It’s 1905 and we’re in Princeton. While some actual figures appear in the background, like Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair (who were at Princeton then), the main story depicts the Slade family as the daughter – set to be married – is targeted by a vampiric demon. When the demon takes young Slade as his unwilling wife, the surrounding characters (accurate and fictional alike) fall into madness, betrayal, and violence. It really sucks when demons walk into history; they tend to ruin things.

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Having read a few other works by Oates, I expected this one to be like those – psychological, grim, and very disturbing. While it is all of those things, this novel sports a wonderful, crooked sense of humor as well. Like Shirley Jackson’s work, there is social satire to spare here, stemming from these real people’s responses to demonic activity. And though it may be funny, it also tends to get nasty. Oates has created a synthesis of the macabre, the grotesque, the political, and the tragic. It’s pure literary fun to watch Mark Twain, Jack London and Sinclair interact in a world where demons roam.

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Being a part of Oates’s Gothic series (which includes “Bellefleur” and “The Mysteries of Winterthurn”), this novel is written in high language and spares no detail. It moves slowly, which for some is a turn-off. But for those who are willing to wait for the Gothic nightmares to begin, the payoff is all the better for what is established before. The imagery and manifestations are suitably bizarre – possessed babies, toad-demons in a bog-castle, snakes ejecting from men’s throats – and, even better, visually represent the neuroses of the characters. Oates is brutal with the psychological dissection of her creations, and this is no exception.

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In spite of its slow pace and its ultimate focus on satire over horror, “The Accursed” is a wicked ghost story – more so because the supernatural elements explore the human characters. The period setting and springtime aura give the uncanny occurrences an air of elegance, almost loveliness. Oates’s universe is pleasant… until it’s not. The madness and horror that seep (or explode) through the historical trappings is of the highest order. It’s a hellish tale, poking through the fallacy of human belief and their sureness in themselves, finding corpses instead.

For an old-fashioned but gruesome epic of phantoms and broken minds, Oates has given us a gift. She is a craftsman of the highest order, as long as one has the patience. So take the vow and enter this work of nightmares – but know that those vows are binding.

Films That Haunt Me: ANGEL HEART

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

What happens when the director of “The Wall” takes a walk with Satan? Throw in voodoo motifs, grimy noir atmosphere and a strikingly subdued Robert DeNiro, and you have a small idea of what this film promises. Just a small one, though. Today we discuss one of horror’s unsung classics, Alan Parker’s ANGEL HEART.

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Set mainly in 50s New York, this nasty piece of work follows a private detective on his latest assignment – to track down a man who has evaded fulfilling a contract with the client, one Louie Cypher (think about it). As the detective follows the trail, he finds himself chasing corpses, all while assaulted by nightmarish images of gushing blood, desecrated churches and screaming people. Someone is murdering all of his leads. But as the danger increases and he goes further from home, he approaches a truth that he could not imagine – nor does he want to.

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The atmosphere and imagery of this film are masterful Its New York and New Orleans are equally visceral, with vivid color palettes and gorgeous production design. The world is gloomy, spooky, and dangerous. It seems perfectly plausible that Satan would be stalking behind the scenes. New York is filled with grey snow, brown steam and blue shadows; New Orleans with green jungle, dark skies and, naturally, bright blood.

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By contrasting the two locations so clearly, Parker creates almost two separate films – one a noir mystery, the other an experimental thriller with strong voodoo threads. But the surrealism remains present throughout both halves. The horror here is fantastical, dream-like, and the imagery reflects this. Parker creates a hybrid between Argento and Lynch, then fills it with Satanic undertones. (If only Lynch would make a movie with the devil, too.)

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This potent combination gives birth to a film that totally throws off expectations. You might see the ending come a mile away, but the way it unfolds, and the things you see in the process, are unbelievable. That is the greatness of this dark dream – the disparate elements congeal into something that has not been seen in horror since. It leaves one wishing that more directors were so bold with their vision, and so wide-reaching in their influences. There are issues with it, of course – mainly the questionable treatment of Lisa Bonet’s character, who is sexualized to a gross degree – but it is worth watching for its originality alone.

For those who want a fresh gust of graveyard air into their horror viewing routine, ANGEL HEART offers a great promise. Its mystery reaches deep into the psyche and comes back with an evil revelation. Follow the clues if you dare.

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.