Archive for thriller

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.

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.

New MINUTE MORBIDITIES: CLEANSING

Posted in Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Minute Morbidities is back with a vengeance!

Need some help purging your systems of 2015’s toxins? Look no further than CLEANSING:

Stay tuned for a new episode NEXT WEEK!

SUBSCRIBE for more scaring and caring.

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.

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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.

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.

New MINUTE MORBIDITIES: FOLLOWER

Posted in Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Greetings, ghouls! Ever feel that prickle on your neck that makes you wonder… is someone following me?

Today’s episode, FOLLOWER, is for you:

Look behind you. And SHARE THE SCARE.

New episodes every TUESDAY and FRIDAY.

Forbidden Tomes: ZOMBIE by JOYCE CAROL OATES

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2015 by smuckyproductions

There are countless thrillers and mysteries about serial killers, hard-boiled cops following grotesque trails of breadcrumbs to catch a psychopath. But rarely do we get a convincing glimpse into the mind of the killer him or herself. Perhaps because to enter such a mind means questioning your own. One book that accomplishes this all too well, and most disturbingly, is Joyce Carol Oates’s ZOMBIE.

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We all know about Jeffrey Dahmer – the pretty boy who had a habit of lobotomizing his lovers, killing them by accident, and keeping their body parts in jars of formaldehyde. Ever wonder what it’s like inside his head? Through the fictional character of Quentin P., Oates delves into this mind, unearthing thoughts and secrets in the form of a diary. The reader follows this diary through the most mundane of things – school visits, family dinners, days at home. Oh, and the occasional murder. He is simply engaging in a hobby. That hobby just happens to be lobotomizing young men in an attempt to make them his sex slaves.

This is a fascinating exercise in empathy. Oates does not linger on the nasty bits – she spends most of her time exploring Quentin’s everyday life, which is more or less similar to our own. That is what makes it so disturbing when he does commit crimes. He is a human being, after all; and Oates makes it clear that Quentin does not believe that he is doing anything wrong. It’s easy to write a character who is ‘evil,’ who relishes in causing others pain. But what if the ‘evil’ thinks it is good?

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Because of this, Oates’s killer becomes horrifically real, and almost sympathetic. He isn’t a coldblooded beast, causing pain for the joy of it. He is a human being, trying to find love and connection in a world that shuns him. Who hasn’t felt like an outsider before? By tapping into this emotional core, Oates makes Quentin a protagonist who we can root for – even though we don’t want to. It’s a dirty trick, sure, but it reveals so much about who we are as people.

Reading this book feels perverse, in the end, due to the extreme nature of the empathy that Quentin P. conjures in us. That is a testament to the power of Oates’s writing. She crafts horrific narratives but inverts the point of view – without warning, the reader is seeing through the eyes of someone who society deems monstrous, evil. While there is no glorification of murder – the book is as grim and depressing as they come – it does raise some immensely disturbing questions. How can someone be evil when they believe they are doing good? And how do we know that we aren’t hurting someone in our actions, too?

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Let that serve as a warning to readers: this book twists and ruins a person’s mind for a while after finishing. But the experience is, in the end, revelatory. That is the power of horror, and the power of empathy alike: it forces you to see something you do not want to face.

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.

Films That Haunt Me: HOUR OF THE WOLF

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Today we venture into the infamous mind of Ingmar Bergman. Known mostly for his psychological dramas like “The Seventh Seal” and “Persona,” Bergman did indeed make one (ONE) horror film in his career, allegedly his most personal work. This film is christened HOUR OF THE WOLF (Vargtimmen).

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Like most of Bergman’s films in the 60s and 70s, this one is set on a remote Swedish island and details the mental breakdown of visual artist Johan (Bergman veteran Max von Sydow)…but this breakdown turns out to be contagious, as his wife Alma (also veteran and muse Liv Ullman) begins to suspect that his delusions are more than mere figments.

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After Alma finds a notebook of outlining the identities of her husband’s demons – nightmarish things including a 200-year-old faceless woman and a crow-man – Alma and Johan are invited to a castle full of grotesque aristocrats who love Johan’s work. From here, their world begins to unravel – affairs come to light, the aristocrats won’t leave them alone, and Johan’s demons begin to come out in the daytime. And when the Hour of the Wolf (3 am) comes… let’s just say no one goes crazy like a Swedish artist.

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It’s no secret that Bergman is a genius with both the psychologies of his characters and the poetry of his visuals, and these two things always complement each other. “Hour of the Wolf” displays his strengths in brutal force. (It was made as a companion piece to the great thriller “Persona,” which is evident in many ways.) It’s a shame that he didn’t make more horror films – the images in this one are so singularly horrific that, when paired with a nightmarish story of mental failure, they sear into the viewer’s brain forever. I haven’t seen this film in a while, but I can still visualize these scenes in vivid detail because of how much they disturbed me. Bergman always makes it difficult to forget his images, but here, he’s ruthless.

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What makes the film so enjoyable, as well, is its use of Gothic tropes – the dark castle on the deserted island, a rich family of insane people, demons that may or may not be real; it’s all here, rendered brilliantly in Sven Nykvist’s top-notch camerawork. These tropes are elevated, of course, by Bergman’s filmmaking; but they are not disrespected, either. While not frightening by today’s terms and bearing a cruelly elusive ending, “Hour of the Wolf” is undeniably a horror film. It adheres to the more old-fashioned definition of the genre: to cause a feeling of unease and terror. In the deepest, most psychological way, Bergman does this and does it without mercy.

For this reason, viewers cannot come into this film expecting a traditional spook story. It’s demanding and challenging, and does not give up its secrets easily. (What Bergman film does, though?) With a more open and focused mindset, “Hour of the Wolf” easily becomes one of the strangest and most unnerving horror films of the 1960s. On a chilly, windy night, when the clock strikes that dark hour, there’s no better choice.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2015) – Review

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2015 by smuckyproductions

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Anyone who is the tiniest bit tuned into the horror scene will, by now, have heard of Severin Fiala and Veronica Franz’s German horror film GOODNIGHT MOMMY. For all the buzz, the film kept its secrets well – we only knew that it dealt with creepy kids and a creepier mother, and that the ending was horrifying. Now, it has hit select theaters, and I was finally able to uncover its secrets. The film that unfolded was, to say the least, every bit as horrifying for me as the hype suggested.

For those who don’t know, “Goodnight Mommy” tells the story of two twin boys whose mother comes home from a facial reconstruction surgery… but is she really their mother? That’s what they try to discover over the next 100 minutes, forcing the audience to watch their endeavours to understand who has come to their home. I won’t give anything more than that away, plot-wise, because it’s best to go blind into this one. Let’s just say that I spent the last fifteen minutes grabbing my face in disbelief.

This film is gorgeously constructed. It paces itself with the patience of a hunting panther, slowly creeping toward its conclusion and never allowing the audience a moment’s respite from the tension. A lesson can be taken from here for other filmmakers – Fiala and Franz follow Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table rule of tension amazingly well, refusing to resolve the suspense with a shock or an outburst of violence until they’re damn well ready to do so. Because of this, the audience is constantly on edge, waiting for something awful to happen. And it does – all the more awful because of the tension that has constricted you. (I wish I could outline some of the best scenes here, but that would be a heinous betrayal of future audiences.)

From a purely cinematic perspective, this film was a masterwork as well – the imagery is both beautiful and eerie, with sublime shots of the primal forest contrasted with a shadowy, too-modern house in which the titular, bandaged Mommy lurks like an apparition. The children, for that matter, also lurk and creep. The scenes have an almost morbidly languid atmosphere around them – everyone is hushed and waiting. As Variety’s review of the film suggests, none of the characters behave as they seem they should. It’s a grotesque film in the most classic sense, where everything is just slightly off-kilter… or not so slightly. The events seem spectral, as if playing years after they occurred, haunting the audience with their recurring nightmare.

The attention to atmosphere and imagery elevates the film from what could have been a piece of nasty, but forgettable, horror. It is tautly and ingeniously constructed, tension always rising and scenes increasing slowly in their bizarre qualities. But there is also a deep-rooted theme – investigating the ever-sensitive and painful world of mothers and children – from which all the horror is drawn. By sealing itself within that theme, the film becomes all the more disturbing and profound. It is about things that every single person knows, and what happens on screen is something that many people must dread.

I can’t say much more without ruining the surprise – this isn’t a film that banks on a twist, but it is best to know as little of the plot as possible, due to the sheer impact of the events. It’s an absolute must for horror fans, and cinema fans in general, for its amazing knowledge of the craft. But be warned – if it does get you, it will not let you forget it.

“Goodnight Mommy” is playing in select theaters now, but let’s hope it gets a wider release. It’s a brilliant genre work and deserves all the attention it can get – though it will certainly polarize.