Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Dead & Buried: Sometimes, Dead Is Better

Every now and then, you’ll see a film described as a “curiosity.” This usually means that it’s not all that well-known, and isn’t necessarily typical for its time, but has some quality that makes it worth considering nonetheless. It’s easy to forget that in any given time period a lot of films get made, but not all of them get remembered. So, for example, if you think about horror films in the late 60s, you’re probably thinking about Rosemary’s Baby, not Spider Baby. And Rosemary’s Baby is excellent, no doubt, but Spider Baby has a unique charm and vision of its own that owes absolutely nothing to the former film, and it’s largely sat in obscurity. So when you stumble on one of these films that the zeitgeist has forgotten, they can be a real treat.

This is very much the case for Dead & Buried, which got made in the middle of the first wave of slasher films (a genre that’s become synonymous with the late 70s and into the 80s), but owes very little to that style of filmmaking. It does have its problems, but it’s also entirely its own thing and defies easy expectation a lot of time.

The film opens on a small coastal town in New England called Potter’s Bluff. There’s a man walking along the beach, taking photographs of nature, of fishing nets, seabirds, and then into his viewfinder comes an attractive young woman. They get to talking - he’s a professional photographer, she asks if he’s famous, it gets flirty, then it gets flirtier, then it gets blatantly sexual as she comes on to him…

…and then he’s surrounded by villagers, who -with the woman’s assistance - begin to beat him with shovels and bats, before tying him up and burning him alive, filming the entire thing.

Enter Dan Gillis, the local sheriff. He’s a local boy made good - went up to the big city to get a Master’s degree in criminology before coming back to Potter’s Bluff to take care of law enforcement. And now he’s looking at what appears to be the aftermath of an especially gruesome accident. There’s a car, overturned and burnt out, with a man - the photographer, as it happens - trapped inside. It looks like he burned to death in there, but something about it doesn’t sit right with Dan, so he consults with William Dobbs, the local mortician, and begins an investigation. There’s something strange going on.

So the basic narrative spine of this film is the small town with a dark secret, and the film does a good job of leveraging that feeling of small-town intimacy to create a pretty solid sense of paranoia throughout. Everyone’s friendly, everyone seems normal, and it’s not immediately apparent why some of the fine folks of this village are murdering tourists. Dan goes down a very dark, very strange rabbit hole over the course of the film, and it largely pays off. The rhythm of the film is a little perfunctory, leaning a little more towards a connected series of set pieces rather than a single organic story, but the filmmakers do a good job of setting up the important twists and reveals at a good pace, so it holds your attention and manages some very solid surprises. Most importantly, the whole game isn’t given away all at once - the “what” of the film is revealed bit by bit, but it isn’t until the absolute last moments of the film that you really get a sense of “why,” and even then there’s room for one last audacious reveal. This is a film that is very good at knowing when to drop the next surprise in your lap.

It also works well because it isn’t afraid to create a mood and commit to it. Since it’s set in a coastal New England town, everything is weather-worn buildings and gray, cloudy days and lights cutting through thick fog at night. A lot of this film is bluish and backlit, and it’s not very subtle in that regard, but it definitely helps maintain an atmosphere, and there’s a lot of very, very good practical effects work that still really holds up today, making it effectively creepy and gruesome without being especially gory. It’s not the obvious hatchet to the face of its slasher-film contemporaries, it’s something more evocative and uncomfortable than that, and combined with the small-town paranoia and the relentless gloominess, it’s a pretty uneasy experience, especially considering its age.

But speaking of age, in a lot of ways it is still definitely a product of its time. The dialogue is pretty stagey throughout, not all of the effects work holds up equally well, and the acting ranges from absolutely fine to scenery-devouring. And if you came of age in the 1970s, some of the casting is probably going to be a bit distracting. But then yet again, in some instances this actually works for it. At points it makes things feel nicely off-kilter, like a lighthearted TV movie about the wacky folks in a small town took a very dark turn at some point when you weren’t looking. And for a film made in the middle of the masked-killer craze, it really feels more like it’s riffing on things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even The Stepford Wives to some degree, and is even sort of adjacent to H.P. Lovecraft in his less cosmic mode. It’s a bold choice, and it pays off in both a sustained sense of paranoid uneasiness and in some surprising little choices in some scenes, culminating in a third act that is an absolute ride, capped by an ending that I can only describe as bonkers in its staging and its final reveal. If you stop to think closely about it, it’ll fall apart a little and there’s some stuff that isn’t ever really explained or resolved, but that didn’t really bother me at all while I was watching it - I was just letting it wash over me and getting swept up in the strangeness of it all. You don’t see films like this much anymore, and hell, you didn’t even see movies like this when it was new. It’s definitely worth a look.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Whisperer In Darkness: Beyond Space And Time

After last week’s film left kind of a gross taste in my mouth, I felt up for something a little more…I dunno, wholesome?...for this week. This is definitely not my usual thing, being all “horror should be bleak and intense, it’s art, not entertainment” and whatnot, but I gotta admit, sometimes I need a break from that stuff and instead spend some time splashing around in the spooky end of the pool. So I thought I’d take a look at another film by the fine folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. They began as part of a group of friends who spent the 1980s doing live-action role-playing of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game, and I’m sorry that they’ve taken the archived accounts of those games off their website, because the amount of sheer theatrical inventiveness that went into some of those games, given the time period and resources available to them, is really impressive.

So two of them went on to found the HPLHS, and they do their primary business in the production of era-appropriate props for role-playing groups, while also working in the film and theater industries in Los Angeles. They’d done radio plays, but in the early 2000s, they produced their first feature-length film, a silent-film adaptation of Call of Cthulhu. It had its weaknesses, as I observed in my write-up, but there’s something I found really appealing about how they approached the material in a way that was budget-effective and made sense narratively. For the time when the original short story was published, if it had been adapted into a film, it would have been a silent film, so in a sense it was like a discovered artifact, a piece of entertainment from a bygone era, telling a story from that era. And it was largely evocative - maybe not as viscerally scary as a modern horror film, but you could appreciate how audiences in the 1920s would have freaked out at what was up on the screen. And for that matter, the genuine affection for the source material really shone through, so it was clear that this film - made on a shoestring budget, filming in backyards and actor’s houses, everyone pulling double and triple duty - was absolutely a labor of love. That’s not something you see a lot of in horror films, and I think it’s important to preserve it.

So it was with all of this in mind that I went into their second full-length effort, an adaptation of The Whisperer In Darkness. It’s a much more ambitious endeavor than the first film, and it has many of that films’ strengths, but also some of its weaknesses as well.

It’s the story of Albert Wilmarth, a folklorist who’s just come into possession of a very rare text - the original annotated manuscript of a long-unobtainable book about myths and legends specific to rural Vermont. Legends about the mysterious creatures that have been living in its hills and caves since long before the land was settled. Wilmarth is, of course, a committed skeptic - these are tales, not truth, and he has an academic’s interest in them, not a believer’s. But he’s also been in correspondence with a resident of the area, Henry Akeley, who insists that the creatures are very real, and he has evidence to prove it. Armed with this manuscript, Wilmarth intends to pay Akeley a visit.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s been experiencing the worst flooding it’s had in years. And things are washing up as the water recedes. Strange things, with an unrecognizable biology.

Just as their first film was done in the style of a 1920s silent film, contemporaneous to the story’s publication, this film is likewise done in the style of early talking films from the early 1930s, when this story was originally published as well. The move from silent to talking films adds a layer of complexity - now they have to actually manage dialogue and sound design along with everything else - as well as the need to flesh out a short story into a feature-length film. I give them a lot of credit here - this is a much more ambitious outing than their first film on pretty much every front, and mostly they pull it off with aplomb. The cinematic details, like title and credit presentation, are period-accurate, as is the camerawork (no drone shots here), dialogue, wardrobe, set design, and most importantly, the acting. There’s a certain mannered delivery to the way people talked in early talking motion pictures - I don’t know exactly why, (I wonder how much of it was a transition from theater and the need for precise elocution, along with broad affectation as a way to establish character) but whatever the case may be, there’s a certain rhythm and melody to how people talk that you don’t hear in modern films. If it hadn’t been present here, the game would have been up immediately. So - some technical details aside - this looks and sounds like a 1930s talking picture, which is essential to creating the feeling the film strives for.

It’s also a story about strange creatures from beyond the blackness of space, as Lovecraft’s stories tended to be, and so this meant a fair amount of effects work. A lot of that is pretty period-accurate too - lots of in-camera and practical effects work, though they did utilize some digital effects to cheat things that would have been more costly in terms of time and money to achieve in a period-accurate way. For the most part, however, it looks period-accurate, leading to the irony that digital effects are being used to emulate early stop-motion. But the upshot is that with a few exceptions, nothing looks too slick or clean to be something from a 1930s film. All of this is important because a film like this is going to work if it draws the viewer into its world - you aren’t just watching a movie about one man’s discovery of horrors from beyond space, you’re watching a movie about those things made in a very specific place and time, so you’re responding not just to the story, but to its time as well. It’s the same reason that filmmakers who attempt to emulate the 1970s-era “grindhouse” style of exploitation film use specific film stocks and editing choices and soundtracks and title cards. Referencing a period-specific set of aesthetics adds an emotional component on top of what’s already there.

So the upside is that for the most part, the filmmakers have made something that looks like it came out of a vault somewhere, as if we’re watching another film adaptation that audiences in the 1930s would have watched, and given that Lovecraft’s work wasn’t getting the film treatment when he was still alive, there’s a really interesting feeling to that, like we’re privy to entertainment from a parallel universe. There are some downsides, however. First, this film doesn’t quite have the emotional intensity of the earlier film - silent films were theatrical by nature, with no dialogue, so the music and the actors’ performance had to sell the whole thing. This made that film much more melodramatic, and thus, more intense. The performances are more subdued here, as befits a talking film, but as a result it loses some of that intensity. It’s a lot of polite, civilized people talking in a polite, civilized way, which is again totally period-appropriate, but it loses some tension as a result.

The second problem is that the pacing is an issue. There’s a nice sense almost from the start that all is not right here, even if you are - like me - familiar with the original story and have an idea of how it’s going to play out. But the last act feels padded with long stretches of expository dialogue, so when it feels like things should be speeding up and getting more tense, they slow down instead and there’s more air between the tense moments than there should be. The epistolary nature of the first film’s story made it a little easier to open things up. but here, there’s a more linear story in play and so it’s much more apparent when things are being stretched out. They made the choice to add new story elements onto the third act, and I understand their reasoning for doing so (mostly fleshing out the main characters a little more and making the end less perfunctory), but it seems to me that if they’d leaned more into the original version of the story, where there’s much more lead-up to Wilmarth’s trip to Vermont and less time actually spent there, making the end more of a rush of revelation after a slow burn, that might have been a more effective way of telling the story in terms of creating and sustaining tension and dread.

There are some technical issues as well, ones shared with their first film. Overall it’s an achievement - it’s tough to emulate a bygone style of filmmaking, and in so many ways they get it right, but the end product looks a little too clean, it’s a little too apparent that this wasn’t actually shot on 1930s film stock and recorded using period-appropriate technology. It’s too clean to be even the best restoration as well, so the conceit doesn’t always hold (there’s one special effect where it’s especially apparent they used green-screen, and it pulls you out of the story some). There are sequences which could have been accomplished in the 1930s through other means and would have been incredibly ambitious for the time, and I’m usually not one for artificially aging films (it’s so easy to go overboard), but I think in the case of this film and their previous work, some post-production dirtying-up would be to their benefit. There was also one monster design choice that didn’t quite land for me, reminding me less of horrors from beyond space and more of characters from an old Flash Gordon serial, which hurt the ending a little too. Then again, for everything that didn’t quite land, there were multiple things that did, but as is so often the case, when it doesn’t work it leaps right out at me as a result.

Like the first film, the result is more a film that you appreciate than one you get swallowed up by, there’s always a little bit of distance there, though I think this would be true of a number of films made during that time period. Still, the Society’s motto is “ludo fore putavimus,” which they translate from the Latin as “we thought it would be fun,” and it’s clear how much fun everyone had making this film. There’s something to be said for that when so many films are marketed and focus-grouped until all the life is sucked out of them. Even if it didn’t really scare me as much as it could have, I’m impressed at how they’ve pushed themselves and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

IMDB entry
HPLHS webstore
Available on Amazon  

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Ich Seh Ich Seh: Not Everything Is What It Seems, But You Kind Of Already Know That

The trick to a good mystery is keeping information back from the audience until just the right time. I mean, the clue’s in the name - mysteries require keeping things mysterious, so that the reveal is meaningful and affects the audience’s understanding and experience of the story. If, in a scary movie, you’re trying to create an atmosphere of unease, or paranoia, or a sense that there’s something wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on it, then withholding information in order to reveal it at a dramatic moment is a really solid way to do that.

But it requires that you not give things away too soon, which is where Ich Seh Ich Seh (I See I See, released in the U.S. as Goodnight Mommy) drops the ball. It’s slow-paced, unsettling, and atmospheric for a good part of its runtime, but there’s a lot less mystery there than it thinks, and the film suffers as a result.

We open on a lazy summer day in the Austrian countryside, where brothers Lukas and Elias are playing hide-and-seek in a cornfield. It seems like one of those days you only have when you’re a little kid, free of all responsibility and content to go where they day takes you. They live in a fancy modern home, far away from the city. It looks like the summer home of someone who doesn’t have to worry about money. And then, at some point, their mother comes home. She’s been in the hospital, having some plastic surgery done, and so she arrives, unrecognizable with her head swathed in bandages. She needs to rest, she needs to avoid the sun, she needs peace and quiet and to be left alone.

She isn’t acting like their mother at all.

So almost from the get-go, everything seems slightly…off. The acting in general is a little on the inert side, but it works with the mood that’s established. Their mother seems cold and distant, but especially so when contrasted with a home recording that Elias plays, of her singing them a lullaby and telling them how much she loves them. For some reason, she won’ t speak to Lukas directly, as if he’s done something unforgivable. She doesn’t even want to acknowledge him, and when Elias asks why she won’t, she just says “you know why.” It feels harsh, and vindictive. She’s hard to connect with. Late at night, she goes out into the woods, takes off all the bandages, and screams. It’s just the three of them, out in the country, and the emptiness surrounding them is tangible, expressed through lots of long, static shots of empty rooms and surrounding countryside with no other people to be seen. There are all kinds of odd touches - first, her presence, face mostly obscured, evokes films like Eyes Without A Face and Hellraiser 2, so her just standing there is kind of unnerving. For some reason Lukas and Elias collect hissing cockroaches in a big terrarium. Blinds keep getting raised and lowered, the boys sneak around the house so they don’t disturb their mother, and she gets disturbed very easily, by all kinds of things. The vibe is very sinister, without clearly pointing to a specific outcome. Even little things seem faintly wrong.

At least, that’s how it starts, going by slowly as one day becomes another and the boys wonder what happened to their mother, with a constant undercurrent of unease. But then about 20 minutes in, a major plot point gets revealed. It’s not the filmmakers telling us outright, they’re not revealing the big twist in the first act like some other movies do. No, it’s just something we aren’t supposed to be aware of quite yet, but the way scenes are staged and the way some dialogue is written, it inadvertently gives the game away, and the film deflates as a result, because it turns what should be a startling revelation that recontextualizes everything that went before into a foregone conclusion. We stop trying to figure out what the fuck is going on well before the end of the first act, and so it ends up being an hour or so of knowing exactly what is going on and just sort of waiting to see how it turns out. This was also a problem with the filmmakers’ later film The Lodge, which shares a lot of thematic and character beats with this film, remixed and relocated, but very much a variation on a theme. In that film, information that would have had a real impact if it had been held back until the end of the first or even second act is explicitly revealed in the first 10 minutes or so, and it sucks a lot of the air out of the room. In both cases, a revelation is supposed to be just that, a revelation, but instead just ends up being affirmation of something that anyone paying attention to the film has already figured out well before the other shoe drops. Here it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice, like it is in The Lodge (and clumsily handled, at that), but the effect is the same.

And then, on top of that, it shifts in the third act to something much darker, nastier, and violent than the first two-thirds of the film. It makes sense narratively, but tonally it’s really jarring. You’ve settled in expecting diffuse creepiness, nefarious goings-on, a world slightly out of kilter, and then out of nowhere it turns absolutely brutal. By this point the outlines of the situation are completely spelled out and in terms of what’s really going on, there are no surprises left. And in some ways, that makes the third act even more grueling, knowing the reality of the situation and what’s likely to come, and indeed it ends with a bleakness that is almost punishing. Maybe the filmmakers did us a favor by tipping their hand early, because all of it crashing down at once might just be too much. But somehow I think what really happened was that they just thought they were being more subtle than they actually were, and the big revelation isn’t a big revelation because we’ve known for most of the movie and we’re just waiting for it to end. The result is something that manages to be anticlimactic and shocking at the same time, and it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Death Of Me: Fool Me Once, Etc.

Like anyone else, I have my biases, and though I know they shouldn’t color my opinions or perspectives or the choices I make, sometimes they do. Case in point: More often than not I will avoid anything directed or produced by the folks who gave us the Saw franchise, because even though I thought the first one had some stuff going for it and it didn’t really look like anything else at the time, everything that followed embodies for me the worst things about sequels and franchising in horror film. And over the course of multiple films (and multiple franchises), they’ve refined it into a slick, technically competent, profitable revenue stream. They don’t make films, really - they make product. And I’m not here for that.

So, full confession: I started to write up Death Of Me, which is directed by old Saw hand Darren Lynn Bousman, a month or two ago. But I started the film (which had a premise that at least piqued my interest), got as far as his credit on the title screen, and said “nope.” Shut it off, opted for something else instead.

But it sort of nagged at me. Am I being fair? Plenty of good directors have stinkers in their catalog, there’s no reason the reverse can’t be true as well. I was sort of curious about how the film would play out. And it’s important to look past our biases and snobberies once in awhile. Sometimes you want to give a filmmaker another chance, and well, what do you know, this is one of those times it…didn’t pay off. Sorry to say, it’s a muddled, cliched mess.

The film opens on a beautiful landscape in Thailand, overlaid with some ethereal singing, before landing on a couple passed out in the bedroom of their rental. It looks like they had a wild night, and the television behind them is droning on about a typhoon that’s about twelve hours away from making landfall. It’s gonna be a bad one, and the meteorologist is urging everyone to evacuate. The couple is Christine and Neil Oliver. Neil’s a travel writer, Christine is along for the ride, and that’s…pretty much all we get on that front. Indeed they did have a wild night the night before, and in trying to reconstruct it, they go to Neil’s phone and discover a bunch of photos and a long video. It seems like they got pretty wasted, and in the course of their bar crawl they ended up at a place way off the beaten path, and ended up drinking something that the video reveals was clearly spiked. So that’s not good. The waitress gives Christine some kind of amulet as a gift, and the next time the video cuts back in, they’re somewhere else entirely, barely able to walk. Christine slumps to the ground, and Neil, obviously in some kind of stupor, bends her over, undoes his pants, does what you think…

…before strangling her to death, snapping her neck, and burying her in a shallow ditch.

So here they are, faced with video evidence that he killed her, and yet here they both are, very much alive.

There are potentially a couple of different stories here - you’ve got the tourist couple off the beaten path, at the mercy of the locals and their strange customs, and then you’ve also got two people trying to figure out what happened during a 12-hour blackout. Sort of like The Hangover, only not played for laughs. Either one of these could have made for a solid movie on their own (though the former has been done plenty already), but instead what we get is something that starts out as the latter and ends up being the former, and so it’s sort of a mess. The video is sort of the instigating factor, but almost immediately it’s clear that there’s something not quite right going on in this little village, and that’s really where most of the movie happens. Which isn’t to say that the story is actually developed all that much. It turns pretty quickly into Christine and Neil alternately running around looking for each other, Christine hallucinating some creepy shit, and then waking up someplace else like a reset button has been hit on the scene. Neil looks vaguely confused and yells for Christine, Christine sees something nightmarish and passes out, lather, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t take long before it feels extremely predictable. That she’s experiencing hallucinations also gives the filmmakers a license to write off whatever set piece they want as a hallucination, whether it makes much narrative sense or not. It’s less a story and more a bunch of ideas for scary moments stitched together under the assumption that “this is really happening/oops, no it isn’t” will be enough to carry it.

What’s more, it’s another horror film that doesn’t trust that its audience is paying attention, so it has all of the restraint of a fire alarm. Every moment in the film is underlined with pulsing synths and spooky, ethereal singing and though it doesn’t really traffic in jump scares (thank heaven for small mercies), it goes right for music stings whenever the slightest thing happens, shouting at you “YOU SHOULD BE SCARED NOW.” It isn’t frightening - it’s irritating. It feels very much in construction like one of those horror films where they came up with a bunch of moments which are in and of themselves scary, but that exist in isolation from each other and from any larger narrative context, so instead of things emerging organically from the people and place and circumstances, we’re ushered from one nightmare bit to another with not a lot of regard for how it all ties together.

And the hell of is, there’s stuff going on underneath that makes me think that it didn’t have to be this way. The “small foreign village with mysterious traditions” angle, though nothing new (and maybe a little icky when it’s white folks in the middle of a poor part of Asia), is actually handled reasonably well for the first two acts or so. Since a decent chunk of the film is in unsubtitled Thai, it does develop a sense of isolation and paranoia as Neil and Christine run into obstacle after obstacle in trying to leave, and the villagers aren’t leering villains - quite the opposite, they’re very happy to see Christine wherever she goes, and it can be really unnerving at times. There’s a lot of little bits of business going on in the background (albeit almost drowned out by the constant reminders that Scary Things Are Happening) and even though none of the characters are really developed into people at all (Neil is essentially just vague confusion on legs), nobody chews the scenery that much either. There’s an expatriate with the stock overly-precocious daughter, but even that sort of pays off by the end. It doesn’t really need the weird video angle at all, and that’s certainly not where it’s doing most of the work, but if there’s a choice between developing an atmosphere or going for the cheap shock, it’s gonna go for the cheap shock every single time.

Ultimately a lot of what good there is ends up undone by the predictable rhythm of the film and a twist that I mostly had puzzled out by the end of the second act. This leads into a third act that goes on far, far too long - everything that’s been going on has to be explained to us by one of the characters, and this leads into about three fake-out endings before the film actually ends. There’s the big reveal, and instead of smashing to end credits while the revelation is still fresh, it drags it out, and then drags it out some more until by the end you’re just wanting it to stop already. There isn’t a single ounce of subtlety in this film from start to finish, and so what we end up with is less a story about two people in a dangerous situation with no immediate way out, and more a catalog of things that range from genuinely creepy to stock scares inflicted on a couple of nonentities. None of it is surprising, and everything works out pretty much the way you expect it to, since none of the multiple false endings are in and of themselves surprising or any kind of twist. The result is basically a whole bunch of scary parts thrown at you, mortared together by plot points that carry no surprise at all. It’s occasionally kind of gross, occasionally kind of creepy, but it’s mostly just an inert exercise in cliche and scenery. I gave it a shot, but I don’t think I’ll be making the same mistake twice.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix
Available on Amazon 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Vigil: Laid To Rest

As movie monsters go, you can’t get more classic than the ghost. They’re generally portrayed as restless, tethered to our world by something unfinished or unresolved. Sometimes they’re benign, sometimes they’re vengeful, but that’s their thing: They can’t move on. They can be read as an externalization of our regrets, or our fear of regret. We are haunted by the things we can’t let go.

And The Vigil is an excellent example of how the idea of the ghost can work both as a monster and a metaphor. It’s spooky, thoughtful, and surprisingly moving.

We open on a room in what looks like a community center or a church annex, with a group of people sitting around, relating the events of the last week. A woman talks about asked out, and how oddly forward it felt. A man is asked how a job interview went, and he relates that it didn’t go as well as it could have, noting that he’d made the mistake of handwriting his resume on a piece of loose-leaf paper. These are people who seem to be brand new to modern life, despite being fully grown. And as it turns out, that’s exactly the case - they’re all former Hasidim, who’ve left a very cloistered, insular life behind, and are struggling to adjust to a culture that is almost entirely foreign to them. This is a support group, then, where they share their successes and get tips on how to navigate this new existence more easily.

Yakov Ronen - he of the loose-leaf resume - is having a rough time of it. He’s having trouble finding work, he’s having trouble making rent, he’s down to choosing between buying food or the medication he takes for his panic attacks. And so as the group is departing for the night, waiting outside on the street, is Reb Shulem, the rebbe for the community these people have left behind. You get the sense he’s done this before - waited outside, trying to coax the strays back into the flock, and the group leader is very unhappy to see him. But he tells Yakov he has work for him. A member of the community has passed away, and Shulem needs a shomer - someone to hold vigil over the deceased until morning.

Typically this is a volunteer, someone who knew the deceased, but in cases where none are available, someone can be paid to perform the service, and the deceased was reclusive, estranged from pretty much everyone in his life except his wife, never leaving the house. Yakov’s not really in much of a position to refuse $400 for five hours’ worth of work, so he goes with the rebbe to the house of the deceased. It’ll just be him, the body, and the deceased’s widow, who is elderly and frail and expected to sleep through the night. They had someone lined up, but he left suddenly.

Well, he fled the house, to be precise. He said there was something in the house with him. Something…wrong.

What follows is very much a long, dark night of the soul. Yakov is left alone in the apartment not just with the deceased and the widow, but as it transpires, he’s also left alone with his own disconnection from his old community and heritage, his own guilt and unresolved trauma around the tragedy that drove him out of the community, and on top of that, there is some extremely weird shit happening in this apartment, and soon enough everything comes to a head. There is some real ambiguity here in terms of how much of this is actually happening, and how much of it is potentially hallucination, brought on by a lack of sleep or food or medication. I do think the film commits to a particular reading, but it doesn’t do so right away, leaving things open for awhile. It begins as you’d expect, with the requisite mysterious noises and things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, but as the film moves on it becomes harder and harder for dismiss what’s happening as the product of an overactive imagination. I don’t know that it’s especially innovative on that front (though it does make some interesting choices), but it’s executed skillfully and with a decent amount of restraint. The film does a good job of escalating tension - it’s a spooky, atmospheric apartment, all dim lighting and staircases going up into the dark, and though it’s a small location there’s a real sense of geography, where things start to feel more dangerous the further away from the living room Yakov goes - a feeling that there are terrible things just outside of the range of the few lights that are on. It’s especially effective in the climax, a confrontation set at the end of a long, narrow hallway, lit only by candlelight. There’s something of the nightmare about it, cryptic and awful without being obtuse.

It’s visually inventive as well, in a way that low-budget indie films sort of have to be. Everything is shot with a lens that makes shots look at little warped and distorted around the very edges, a subtle fisheye effect that lends everything a sense of slight unreality and unease, and shots often transition with a very brief stutter or fast-forward effect that further heightens the feeling of dislocation. Yakov spends a fair amount of time on his phone, and his text messages and web search results are superimposed on the screen next to him - it’s highly artificial, but it works because it’s less disruptive than constant cuts to the screen of his phone and provides us with more insight into his character without just telling us things. The action moves between the present and flashbacks to Yakov’s past, so as the film goes on we get a better sense of what’s brought him to this place in his life, and like the rest of the film, the flashbacks are set at night, grainy from low light punctuated by streetlights and lens flare which again make everything feel slightly otherworldly, like a fragmented dream.

Where this film falls down is in a tendency to try too hard. There’s a flashback at the beginning that is creepy and atmospheric, the scenes in the support group are natural and comfortable, and there's a real sense of tension between Yakov and the rebbe, but then a lot of that restraint and subtlety gets left behind once the vigil begins. The soundtrack is pretty obtrusive, all full of ominous strings and brass and synthesizer that often double and triple-underline things that need very little highlighting at all. The setting and the action rely on minimalism, and the constant blare of the score serves to undermine that. There’s also a couple of jump scares that the film doesn’t really need, and though they aren’t especially irritating, you sort of wish they’d gone for something a little less obvious.

But despite that, I think the film ultimately redeems itself in the end, tying Jewish mysticism (in a more respectful treatment than other films I’ve seen) and two generations’ worth of trauma and survivor’s guilt together into a story about literal and metaphorical ghosts that gives as much space to grief and sorrow and the opportunity for healing as tension and dread. It might not be a flawless film, but it’s a thoughtful and well-considered one and has some extremely evocative moments. Ultimately, it ends up being a film that eloquently addresses the need to take the things that haunt us and lay them to rest.

IMDB entry
Available on Hulu
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Uzumaki: From The Page To The Screen

It’s easy sometimes, watching horror films, to forget how important filmmaking technique can be, and I think part of that is because anytime you’re dealing with genre film, there’s a tendency to lean into familiar cliches, into obvious settings and a style of filmmaking that is purely functional. Give the audience what they want as efficiently as you can. And I guess maybe that’s a style of its own, but to me it’s not an especially interesting one. I think sometimes people forget that how you tell a story is as important as anything else, and when you aren’t thinking about the potential of a visual medium for evoking all of the things the story usually does, you’re missing out.

This all occurred to me watching Uzumaki (Spiral), a film that isn’t the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen, but works as something really creepy in its relentless cinematic strangeness. It has less in common with other Japanese horror films than it does the work of H.P. Lovecraft and David Lynch, and that’s very much to its credit.

Kirie Goshima is a young woman who lives in the small village of Kurozo-cho, and she has the kinds of worries and cares that come with being a teenager in a small town. She’s worried about school, looks after her widower father, has a kind-of, sort-of boyfriend in Shuichi Saito, and an annoying boy constantly following her around, desperate to win her favor. But it’s just another day, another walk home from school, when she notices a man staring intently at something on a fence. It’s a small snail, its shell a pronounced spiral pattern.

He can’t stop staring at it. 

It gets…weirder from there. Much weirder. It’s difficult to really get into much more detail, not because of spoilers really, but because this is less a film with a specific narrative than it is a series of vignettes about the inhabitants of a village that seems to be in the steadily mounting grip of an ancient curse. The story centers around Kirie and Shuichi as they try to figure out what’s going on, but that’s about as far as it goes - it’s presented more as a slice of life than anything else.

The result is something pervasively unsettling and creepy, and there’s a number of different things feeding into it. Part of it is that it really starts off more like a comedy or melodrama than anything else. A lot of this is down to the acting, which is exaggerated and stylized, and the characters are very much types, rather than fully fleshed-out people. So it begins feeling very much like a whimsical look at a small town, albeit one introduced by a fairly gruesome image in the opening credits, so the tone is pulling you in a couple of different directions from the start. As the film goes on, the weirdness starts moving in from the edges, and the performances never really get any less melodramatic, so the end result feels like the heightened emotions you experience in a dream, and so there’s an uncertainty, a sense that the usual rules for storytelling are getting tossed out the window. A lot of the strangeness is even peripheral to the story - students walking through the hallway of their school framed by other students, silent and heads bowed as if in mourning, a nurse standing in an elevator with the protagonists, staring fixedly up into space for no apparent reason, Greek choruses of gossips, the whole point of the film is that there’s something very wrong with this town, and these little fillips contribute to an already uneasy atmosphere. The story at least begins as a very oh-golly look at a small town with hints of the grotesque, and the heightened emotions and incidental oddness feel very much like something David Lynch would produce. I know it’s easy to describe anything strange in film as “Lynchian” (probably the filmic equivalent of describing something in literature as “Kafkaesque”) but I really do see that same sense of the uncanny at work here.

This is very much reinforced by the visuals - the look of the film is desaturated, with Kurozu-cho being largely gray and muddy to start with, and much of it is shot with a pronounced reddish-blue cast (extended into almost a spot-color effect for emphasis at points) that makes it look like it’s a much older film than the setting would suggest. This might have been as much a limitation of budget and technology as anything else, but combined with the performances, it also reminded me of some of Guy Maddin’s work at times, which is not a comparison I’m usually drawing on for the films I write about here. It doesn’t even look like other Japanese horror films made around the same time - Ju-on and Ringu were made a year or two on either side of it, and they’re much slicker productions. This oddness extends to camerawork that isn’t afraid to be highly artificial. There’s extensive use of wipes, dissolves, double-exposures, even one inventive sequence that turns looking at a photo album into a reverie of stop-motion. The overall effect, then, between the acting and the visuals, is one of a dream that is curdling into a nightmare.

The whole thing is highly impressionistic, and I think a big part of why is that the film is based on a (very good) manga by the horror author Junji Ito, and in some ways the editing and cinematography feel heavily influenced by the visual logic of manga, both in exaggeration of expression, and in the number of sudden, abrupt cuts and vignette-like structuring of the story. Things aren’t literally broken up into panels, but the editing sort of serves them up that way at times, so it’s as much an array of discrete images as anything else. It all serves to keep you slightly wrong-footed even at the best of times, and as things get stranger and stranger, moving into surrealism and body horror as this small town is twisted tighter and tighter on itself, bringing even the skies above into its pull, the result isn’t necessarily frightening, per se - a lot of things that make it really strange also cut into narrative momentum and dispel any tension that might build - but it’s hauntingly strange, stem to stern, and it doesn’t look like anything else I’ve ever seen writing this thing, and those are both really valuable, I think.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Clovehitch Killer: Coming Of Age

Horror films do a better line than you might think in coming-of-age stories, considering that those are often the province of drama. But they tend not to be very subtle. They play to the cheap seats, recasting the physiological changes of adolescence as body horror, or, in the case of something like It, recasting childhood tragedy and abuse as supernatural ordeal. They deal in monsters.

The Clovehitch Killer is very much a coming-of-age story, in the sense that part of coming of age is finding out that your parents are as flawed as any other person. That they aren’t who you thought they were. It’s largely smart and restrained, told at a very human scale, and to its credit, it doesn’t deal in monsters.

The film takes place in Tyson County, Kentucky, in a small town filled with devout, hardworking folks. As an opening voiceover tells us, however, it’s a town with a shadow over it. For several years, the town was terrorized by the predations of the so-called Clovehitch Killer, named for the knot he left behind at every crime scene. He taunted the police, leaving behind a trail of bodies, elaborately bound, tortured, and suffocated to death. Every year, the town holds a memorial for the victims. They aren’t forgotten. Ten victims accounted for, and then ten years ago, the killings just…stopped.

The voiceover belongs to Tyler Burnside. He’s a young man like any other in this small town - a Boy Scout, a churchgoer, a high school student. And he has his eye on a young lady, as a number of teenage boys do, and one night he sneaks his father’s truck out to pick her up for whatever two teenagers do, parked in a car, away from adult supervision. And as things progress, this young lady reaches down and finds a folded-up picture under the seat. A picture taken from a pornographic bondage magazine.

Well, that kills the mood right quick, and soon enough, Tyler develops a reputation as a “pervert.” It’s a small town, so people talk, and it’s a churchgoing town, so people are self-righteous, as Tyler finds out the hard way. More worrisome, though, is what was that doing in his father’s truck?

Tyler’s father, Don Burnside, is every inch the affable family man. He’s married with two kids, he’s a Boy Scout troop leader, active in his church, he calls Tyler “bud” and has an arsenal bristling with dad jokes. He’s starting to feel the aches and pains of age - he’s been a handyman for years and his back acts up a lot. He’s taking care of his brother Rudy, left catatonic by a car accident, and that’s not getting any cheaper. The same problems we all have. And like all of us, he has his secrets - desires he doesn’t tell anyone about, things he doesn’t let anyone else see,

Things he keeps carefully locked away where nobody will look. Private things.

So, with a fair amount of narrative economy, this film sets up a situation where Tyler, bothered by his discovery (and with nobody to turn to), starts becoming more and more curious about what else his father might be hiding, gradually turning up more and more to suggest that maybe his father has much bigger, darker secrets than anyone would expect. The film, for most of its run time, generally does a good job of sustaining tension. The first act is mostly Tyler coming to realize what his father might be and having to go about day-to-day life with him as if everything is normal, and the performance sells it - an excellent example of showing, rather than telling that makes Tyler’s turmoil plain without histrionics. A lot of it also rests on a gradual process of discovery, as Tyler digs deeper and deeper and it gets harder to deny the truth. It’s to the film’s credit that the revelations carry some weight, even if you do have a sense of what they’re going to be. There aren’t a lot of twists and turns (some “oh god he knows/no wait it’s something innocuous” fake-outs, but not enough to become tiresome), more a steadily mounting dread. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time with true crime stories has an idea of what serial killers tend to keep, so it isn’t surprising in that sense, but you really get the feeling of what it’d be like for Tyler to find this stuff and know there’s no other way to explain it. You don’t want him to open that box, or look in the crawlspace, but you know he’s going to and it’s going to be bad.

So the better-than-average treatment of the family man-with-secrets is paired with a better-than-average treatment of the idea of a serial killer as well. As I’ve complained about in the past, serial killers are all too often made into monsters in film. They’re portrayed as criminal masterminds, evil geniuses with a flair for the theatrical, or as implacable, unkillable, masked hulks. And they aren’t monsters. Monsters aren’t real. Serial killers are very real - emotionally stunted narcissists whose lack of basic empathy and malformed desires cost innocent bystanders their lives, and cause uncountable anguish to the friends and families left behind. To turn them into another werewolf or vampire or zombie is massively disrespectful to the people who died at their hands. Real evil should be depicted realistically, and the filmmakers do a very good job here as well. Their fictional killer is based heavily on the case of Dennis Rader, a/k/a the BTK Killer, which keeps everything about as grounded as the world in which this story takes place. These things actually happened.

If anything, there’s a remarkable evenhandedness at work - what the Clovehitch Killer does is portrayed as plainly and matter-of-factly as trips to the grocery store or family dinners are. There are no theatrics, no musical stings or dramatic lighting, just something awful in its simultaneous cruelty and mundanity. And that’s the important point this film makes about serial killers: They aren’t monsters, they aren’t raving lunatics, and you don’t always (or usually) know one when you see one. Often they get away with it for years because they’re citizens, fathers, respectable members of the community, who have invested a great deal of energy into firewalling away the dark impulses they act on. Denial and compartmentalization are powerful coping mechanisms that we use for far less. The idea that the mask of sanity has to slip eventually (or that they’re even insane in the first place) is a fallacy.

Cinematically, one of this film’s strengths is that it isn’t shot like a horror movie. It’s shot like a drama. There’s very little music, and the film is shot in a spare, unadorned, almost utilitarian style. It depicts the events in the lives of these people in this small town, whether that’s going to church, going to school, eating breakfast together, having family game night, engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation, or tying someone else up and suffocating them to death. As I said above, there’s an evenhandedness to this that makes the awful parts somehow even more awful. It’s not an especially violent film, with the exception of the second act, and even that manages to dodge cliche - there’s nothing lurid or gratuitous, it’s just the spare, simple facts of what this killer does, presented unblinkingly. It’s very uncomfortable in its plain depiction, the way lives get snuffed out. Shots are well-composed and clearly lit - again, contrary to horror, a lot happens in the daylight in this film - and the performances are generally solid, the dialogue reasonably believable, though some of the stuff with Tyler and his peers skews into teen-drama territory, to its detriment. The outlines are familiar - Tyler is bothered by what he knows and none of his friends will listen (as much out of denial and fear borne of religious fundamentalism as anything else), so he turns to Kassi, the town misfit, the creepy girl who is obsessed with the Clovehitch murders and (gasp!) doesn’t go to church. It’s a little pro forma, some of the dialogue is pretty corny, and as the film moves on there’s more than a whiff of Encyclopedia Brown about Tyler and Kassi’s relationship.

This turn to the conventional (or maybe just cliched) about halfway through does rob the film of some of its power. The third act is a flashback that shows us events from the second act from a different point of view, and here it takes a turn for the formulaic, and improbable. It’s where the film feels most like a film, and not someone’s story, and characters behave in ways that you don’t in real life. But even then, what follows redeems it to a degree by grappling with something we don’t see in serial-killer films that often - the impact it has on the people who knew the killer all along, and it’s actually pretty touching. The end doesn’t have the impact it could - I think there’s some ambiguity there that distracts from the emotional power of it, but I I don’t know that it ruins it. There are some definite missteps, but there’s also a lot of good here.

The easy criticism for this film (one I’ve seen from professional critics) is that the evidence by a certain point is so overwhelming that there’s no way that someone wouldn’t go to the police, or there’s no way someone would make the decisions they do, but I think that’s the criticism of someone who hasn’t considered the frailty and fallibility of humanity all that closely. Denial is a powerful thing, the willingness to believe other than - anything other than - the obvious is a powerful thing if it means not having to reconsider everything you’d even held to be true. Everyone would rather just believe in the father, the husband, the churchgoer, the family man, especially in a small town. Learning otherwise is the kind of thing that makes you grow up in a hurry, and that’s not something most people want to face.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix
Available on Hulu
Available on Amazon