Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sinister. (2012) Scott Derrickson

A Halloween Night October Chiller.

Honestly, I think this is the one to see this year for Halloween. It's a moody little chiller, with a very different kind of story involving found footage and a demon who stalks anyone who views what's found. Ethan Hawke, as always, is amazing, as a true-crime author who moves his family into the house of a crime scene. He finds film in the attic, begins to watch, discovers horror after horror on those Super 8 reels, and learns that his family is being stalked by an ancient demon, Bughuul, a creature who preys on his victims through iconography.

Bughuul, also called "Mr. Boogie," is a fascinating movie monster, and there is little doubt we've not seen the last of him at the end of Sinister. This could easily be the new Saw series, but if there are sequels to be spun I hope they leave it in director Scott Derrickson's hands. The first Saw film explored some very interesting themes and territory, only to have the following films wallow in the grime of torture-porn and the like. I'd hate to see a little mood piece like Sinister follow that path -- but I'd really like to find out more about Bughuul.

The film is getting rave reviews, and yet I've talked to a few friends about it and they aren't as enthusiastic. I guess it depends on which side of the spectrum you're on. This is not a blood and guts film. You won't find but a hint of the splatter party here (although it is fully present). It is my opinion that good horror films horrify without necessarily showing all the details of the horror, and they also boil to the surface using believable characters in tense, real situations. The Shining is a great example of this, and in a lot of ways Sinister feels like it hearkens back to a classier era when the fear itself was the fun, not the desecration of human bodies.

For the past few years, Derrickson has been a member at a forum I've been involved with for thirteen years, in one incarnation or another: Arts & Faith. He has been able to share quite a few of his views there about what it means to be a Christian, and creative, and a person unafraid of the world's horrors. This is obviously a somewhat different way to approach the faith than most. He has stood up to criticism with wit and a smile, and is always personable and congenial in his encounters on our boards. But honestly, I can't see much criticism being thrown his direction over Sinister. It's like last year's Insidious. It may be the finest horror film you'll find in theaters this year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Possession. (2012) Ole Bornedal

October Chillers continues...

It makes my job so much easier when the title is the same as the plot.

Possession movies are soooo hit and miss. We come into these films fully knowing what to expect. We've seen it all before in many a film with a priest and a demon and a script, but it's never quite as good as the first time we got the holy crap scared out of us when we were kids.

The Exorcist was the film that did it for me. I'm sure The Exoricist is the film that did it for many. Seeing the darkness slowly creep upon Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair, somewhat typecast after the role) was an exercise in just enough spiritual realism mixed with over-the-top horror antics (the head spinning, the spider crawl), making the spectacle seem possible, morbidly fascinating, and scary as hell. Literally.

The Possession is a mostly decent horror film, but it has a little too much of the "antics" and too little of the "possible". That a powerful demon, in this case a dybbuk from Jewish folklore, can be trapped in a box, for anyone to open at anytime is rather silly. Genie in a bottle, anyone? And in one scene in particular a thousand moths seem to magically come out of that box and spend some time in the bedroom of the little girl pre-possessed. I don't know how to trap a fox in a box, much less a demon, and while I don't know where the moths came from I guess they made for a somewhat cool visual.

But it's a fun film to watch, and the possessed little girl here has a Linda Blair aura about her. In fact, all of the acting is solid (even Matisyahu as a Jewish exorcist!), along with excellent visuals, up until the ending, when the dybbuk makes his full, physical appearance. And even at that point the visuals are fun, theatrical, and kinda freaky. Just not very believable.

The score, classic in its feel, brings a different dimension than much of what's currently released. No sonic soundtrack with loud head banging bands; no over-the-top goth industrial. This is a classic exorcism film that wants itself taken seriously, and the score does a lot to improve its odds. But remembering the beginning from the end ("Based on a True Story") would hold it up to a harder scrutiny.

The tag about it being "Based on a True Story" makes me think a bit about my own experiences with exorcism (which I'll briefly explain in a moment), and the odds of a possession actually being real. For the record,  I've come up with four ways of looking at the possibilities:

1. The phenomenon of possession is spiritual. There is a God, and he lets innocent young girls get possessed by demons (why, in the movies, is it always an innocent little girl?), seemingly by chance, in this case, a dybbuk box - a box used in Semitic culture for holding a demon. In the case of The Exorcist it was a Ouija board, but many films of this type have their own method of introducing a creature from hell. That the object may be the method is a lesser question than whether this is actually possible, and to out-rule the notion that there is a God who lets this happen, whatever the reason, is to claim to be higher than God and to claim that we know how the Universe should operate, that our ideas are better than his. There is a possibility that He does exist, and I would never claim to be omniscient.

2. The phenomenon of possession is mental. This is a sickness, and illness of sorts. The best film example that tackles this argument is The Exorcism of Emily Rose. There is no spirituality, there is only science, and this is an issue about mental health.

3. The phenomenon of possession is sociological. It is a repressed, fear-based reaction to religious group-think. I guess this would also be classified under "psychological."

4. The phenomenon of possession is for entertainment purposes only, and we'll simply never know if any of this is possible, regardless of the words "Based on a True Story."

I can clearly remember, growing up in strong Pentecostal culture, two times when I witnessed actual exorcisms. Looking back on it now, I'm resolute in my belief that this is about repression, and group-think, and a "blame it on the Devil" way of being. I can remember one young man being told to name his demon, and the words that came from his lips (and I saw this from a mile away) were, "P---P---Pornography."

Wow. If there's a demon out there called "Pornography," then half of the first world male population is possessed. A demon of that name could exist, but I rather think that, instead, many men simply have dishonorable personal qualities.

Regardless, the demon is a figure, whether mythological or not, that we'll continue to tackle in exorcism movies of this kind. They aren't going away anytime soon. So this is in some ways a typical though well crafted exorcism film. Director Ole Bernedal (known previously for the phenomenal Just Another Love Story) has a talent for creating suspense and tension in his films which build to visually explosive climaxes. He's no longer a director to watch, but rather one to follow.

Monday, October 22, 2012

From Within. (2008) Phedon Papamichael

The curses continue in October Chillers.

This is the story of Grovetown, a small "little big-town," and all its people who are religious and yet flawed, and it's a story about the majority (Christian) imposing their values (sometimes through force) on the minority (some version of Wiccan - however, having had a few pagan friends, I am certain it's more of a movie type of Wiccan, rather than the real thing).

It's an interesting film, to me, in two very different ways:

The first is because there are quite a few films out there like it: R-rated, but still aimed at the teen crowd, with a rather typical story line about a curse and the accompanying deaths that are soon to follow. Hmff. Nothing new. Still, perhaps I'm old-fashioned or not as jaded as I sometimes I think, but the idea of an R-rated movie marketed toward a teenage audience still kinda fascinates me.

But what lies just beneath the surface is the really interesting thing about From Within. If it is indeed aimed at the teen crowd, the ones who still see those R-rated films, then it might be used as pre-college curriculum for sociology, the kind that resonates with teachings on the importance of diversity and inclusiveness, like the popular bumper sticker on the back of more than a few cars:

This is the story of what happens when we fail to do so.

"This town takes care of its own," is the mantra spoken by the son of the local preacher. Words like these can either be used out of anger, or out of protection. If there were an outside force that was an actual danger to Grovetown and its people, the words might be seen as quite protective. But the words are used against a small pagan family, a family who wishes to practice their faith and be left alone.

But they can only be pushed so far. And when the mom of that family is either murdered or killed in an accident - which side of the story you get depends on which side of the faith you're on - the family's curse brings her back to life, where her ghost reeks havoc on the townspeople, one by one.

The most interesting thing about the story's intent, which is to tell us to be tolerant, which I firmly believe to be true, is how it develops in two particular characters who, about two-thirds the way through, make key confessions in revealing their own flaws, their own contribution to the curse. A character from each side admits to his own wrong actions. And both characters wish they could go back and change things. Both would rather have peace than the horror they brought down on all.

A little preachy? Yes. Does the writer here have a point and seem angry? Yes. Is it a good message? I think so. But you can still see through it pretty easily.

But even with that hidden inclusive nugget layered into the blood and the killshots and the ghosts and the gore, the writer here is still missing what I find to be the most important point:

Sometimes I think that the group that faces the most prejudice today isn't the gays or the Christians, or the blacks or the Jews. It's not the Muslims or the women or the rich or the poor. When I see so many films that make a "witch" out to be this awful, I feel sorry for the Wiccans out there who would rather be better portrayed. I doubt there are too many teenagers who have even learned about the  Wiccan RedeDo what you will, so long as it harms none.

 Does that sound like any witch you've seen in the movies lately?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Woman in Black. (2012) James Watkins

a Classic haunted house story for October Chillers.

A friend who follows FILMSWEEP recently wrote on his Facebook wall: "It's easy to shock. It's much harder to genuinely disturb. Good horror should aim for the latter."  He was putting into words my general stance on horror, the chill I enjoy as it inches down my spine.

The Woman in Black is a classic Victorian ghost story that kind of fits into this line of thinking. It's not a perfect film -- few are -- but it's a well-crafted gothic thriller that combines extended sequences of spine chilling haunt with jump scares that getcha, and a decent story to boot. It's a fine film with an eerie edge suited for adults and teens to revel in together.

Some of the best moments happen with one lone Realtor in a large, empty and cobwebbed mansion. He needs to go thru all the paperwork he can find there and sell the place very soon. His boss has laid out the facts quite easily to him: sell the property, and fast, or lose your employment with the firm. A widower and a father with obvious concerns about keeping his job, he needs to do whatever he can to get the place sold, to keep food on the table for himself and his boy.

After a few initial spooks on his first visit to the house, which he wrongfully dismisses as imagination, he returns to the place (a chilling trip in itself) to finish his work and spend the night. At which my first question comes up: Are you freaking nuts, dude? Why the hell are you spending a night alone in this cold and creepy mansion which is unquestionably haunted? Do you like the cold sweats? Do you want to pee your pants?

And I'll tell you one thing for certain -- one thing beyond a doubt -- this guy sure stayed in that house a lot longer than I ever could.

In that place, in the dark with only his candles and oil lamps to light the way, he discovers a ghost, maybe two, maybe twenty -- and then a curse, which gets him in big trouble. He has a night of terror in scenes which go on and on, and they are the most fun you can have outside an actual trip to a haunted house.

The scenes of him alone at night in this place, reading letters from the deceased, and getting terrorized by them later are thrilling horror, the kind that starts in subtlety and ends in sheer panic. These scenes go on for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, and had The Woman in Black been a short film with only this, it may have been the best short film made this year.

It's too bad that when the story leaves the mansion and deals with the curse, and the townspeople, and their children that it derails just a bit. It falls into a story that makes little sense, although it retains its gothic power again later on a return trip to the mansion's marsh to dig up a corpse.

I do love a good ghost story -- and The Woman in Black has some excellent scenes -- but it falls just a bit short when using logic to tie up its loose ends.

Still, this is good fodder for October viewing. And cruelly fun, in its ghostly and classical ways.

Watch this film with the lights out. Maybe light a candle and an oil lamp, too.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pontypool. (2008) Bruce McDonald

A brainy film for October Chillers.

In the beginning was the Word... And the Word became flesh... And the darkness didn't understand it...
-John 1

This is one of those films in which the idea itself is its own selling point. The writing is sometimes a little clunky, and the performances here and there are spotty, although both have their own high points at times. But the idea behind this story, it's psyche, or sub-narrative, makes the whole ride incredibly enjoyable -- feeling smart, though it may or may not be.

I'm not going to delve any further than that into the idea of the story itself. The less you know about the idea, the better. I knew nothing about Pontypool going in, only that it was categorized as a horror film and was recommended to me by a friend while I blast thru my October viewings. And I'm glad my friend suggested it, and I'm glad I knew nothing about it (and he didn't tell me anything, and I hadn't even seen a trailer for the film). Had I known anything at all, I may have skipped it, but the experience itself was rather fun.

Three people trapped in a radio station's control room hosting a local Ontario show must observe and report while the town around them crumbles apart. Fans of Romero or the popular TV show "The Walking Dead" might want to take a special interest. I'm not certain it's the same thing as those, but it will appeal to fans of that particular genre*.

This is not really a film with gore, though there are scenes of it here and there. And it's not a roller coaster ride either, where you hold on tight to its ups and downs, afraid it might derail at any moment. Pontypool is a smart film, which might actually work to its detriment. But enjoyable nonetheless.

File under "Better than a b-movie, not quite as thrilling as other horror."

*If the only way to classify Pontypool is in that particular genre, it's quite clever in how it subverts that genre as well.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Lovely Molly. (2011) Eduardo Sánchez

Molly Rides the Horse for October Chillers.

Molly is that girl that got away. The one we'll never understand. The one who makes you smile, but if you look deep in her eyes there's a profound sense of longing and sadness. She's the one with a past, maybe the one with a habit. She's seen her fair share of trouble, maybe even caught a glimpse of a personal hell. She's reserved, mysterious, shifty, enticing. Many men have experienced a gal quite like Molly, but most have been confused when she suddenly slips away.

That's why we're blown away when we hear about her new man. He seems too normal. There's no way he can handle her. A guy with a normal job? A truck driver? What the hell does she see in him? He's no adventurer. He's got no silver spoon. His looks, too. He's only got two little pretty-boy tattoos, and not even a piercing on his face. She is getting married to him? This guy? What the hell?

Molly (Gretchen Lodge, in an unflinching debut performance) and her newlywed husband move into the home she grew up in, now a large empty shell of a place. The house has been vacant since her parents passed away, and might be perfectly suited for the newlyweds to begin their new life together. There are certain things, however, that took place in this house years ago -- things which Molly claims she can't remember -- and these things must have been truly horrific. There is probably a reason Molly blocked these memories.

The couple are awakened on one of their first nights in the home by the blaring of the house alarm. An intruder is in the kitchen. As they wander down the stairs from their bedroom, baseball bat firmly in his hands, they hear bumping sounds coming from the kitchen, which scares them back to their room, where they lock the door and wait for the police.

The cop, who will be called on again, is quite familiar with the house. He's quite familiar, too, with Molly, who he remembers as the little girl that lived there. He sweeps the house with ease; he already knows every room. It's probably a door left open, or neighborhood kids, perhaps. There's no way it could be anything more than that, right?

Before crashing back to sleep, Husband swears he locked that door.

When he leaves on a trip, Molly begins to hear more than just the casual bump in the night. The creaky old house seems to be coming alive, sometimes calling to her by name. She hears a little girl crying. She hears strange whispering sounds. She finds a light turned on in mom and dad's old room. Certain images are beginning to creep her out. In particular, images with horses seem to grab her attention, both the ones still hanging on the wall with the old family pictures, as well as the ones now forming in her head.

Perhaps these images are what pull the trigger that sends Molly from "lovely" to something other. Horse has been her problem, you see.

Director Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project) has constructed a film where the demon is somewhere in the mental mix. Like Pop Skull, which I wrote about yesterday, a movie in which addiction is the new Jason, drugs are the serial killer -- Lovely Molly leaves us debating the very nature of true horror. What's worse? A guy with an axe that chases half-clothed teenagers around? Or a horrifying reality -- a psychological makeup we can't decipher?

As her issues continue to build and Molly gets more freaked out and destructive, her husband and sister see it as a pure drug abuse issue, or maybe mental illness at worst. "I love her, Hannah," Husband tells Molly's sister. "I just don't know how to help her." But what they see as addiction may or may not be the genuine article here... The house is beginning to smell whenever Molly has visions of her dad.

The film sometimes feels like Donnie Darko, but darker and on a very bad trip. Or if David Lynch got to make his own demonic Reality TV show, like Bob from Twin Peaks being an awful, constant presence. It can be seen as straight story (well, kinda) or as some sort of problematic metaphor (more than likely). It's more driven by narrative than the frenetic Pop Skull, but nonetheless cut from the same thematic cloth. The performances turned in are riveting, and Gretchen Lodge as the bi-polar Molly goes in an instant from blushing bride to a hideous creature, seething and writhing in the basement.

Like the girl that got away, this is one that certainly got under my skin.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pop Skull. (2007) Adam Wingard

The drug is the spirit in this convulsive October Chiller.

The first frame in Pop Skull is a still which reads: "WARNING: The following motion picture contains scenes which may not be suitable for individuals diagnosed with epilepsy." The warning might feel like a cheap gimmick, like any still in front of a scary movie which reads Inspired by true events -- but like the warning at the end of Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone, that savage utterance that cried something gruesome this way comes, this warning is founded, and true, and describes an approaching onslaught not suited for the squeamish.

Convulsions? Hell, yeah. And I'm sooo envious of anyone who rode this ride on the silver screen.

Pop Skull is a deeply unnerving tour de force in contemporary low-budget filmmaking. With precision cut editing and the creepiest audio dynamics, it shows what a determined young filmmaker can do with 6,000 measly bucks. Like the greats in shoestring cinema (Eraserhead and Pi being the first that leap to mind), it utilizes pulsating imagery and an amplified texture of sound to push the extremes of a surrealist conquest on anyone who gets in its way.

Also similar to the three mentioned films, Pop Skull is the story of a man rattled in the head, unraveling at the seams, ready to uncork like DeNiro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. At any moment either the film or its central character Daniel could lose all ability in distinguishing between hallucinogenic dreams and nightmare reality. The title is somewhat the plot. You never know when this skull will finally pop.

Daniel (Lane Hughes, above, more recently known as Zak in V/H/S) is an over-the-counter pill popper at the end of a long-term relationship. A guitar player with no band and going nowhere fast, Daniel sits sullenly in his parents' basement, either cranking his electric and washing away in the maze of his music, or consuming and zoning out to his purchased pills. Benadryl, Zicam, Coricidin, Dramamine, whatever he can get his hands on are bought daily, while he nervously utters to himself to get out the pharmacy door. He wants what he needs and he needs to get his fix and leave -- hopefully in peace, unquestioned, left to down it all again at night.

He's exercising that right that some of us know, the one we addicts know all too well. We think it's our right to claim our own self-destruction. The mind of an addict is full of endless possibilities which steal our joy, trading a moment's bliss for the robbing of our lives. Like so many addicts, if depression is Daniel's excuse, he's drowning out the loss of his girlfriend and blaming it on her. But the truth is that he, and we, do it no matter the reason. The pills inch their way slowly into the system, and in scenes of haunted intensity, we visit with Daniel's fears, and his terrifying ghosts. Some are imagined, some perhaps very real.

As a child Daniel was told about a murder and double-suicide that took place in his back yard before he moved in. No one knows why two guys would tie up a girl, or why the night ended with the three of them dead. Either the thought of this haunts Daniel, or he is tripping way too hard, because the events seem to unfold when he's using. He is freaked and afraid, but the pattern can't stop. Daniel faces himself all alone with the spirits in his basement -- night after night after endless, horrifying night.

There comes a point in addiction where the hole in your soul becomes the crater that was once your life. The suffering inside you leaks out, only to consume you and swallow you whole. The same blackened eyes that stare into the mirror are the chasm of all that's left; everyone's gone because you pushed or you scared them away. You'll destroy yourself, whether you want to or not, and you might take your loved ones right with you. Pop Skull is very personal to me, as I've lived through many of Daniel's harrowing scenes. I am thankful today that I've found a few ways out.

There's so much truth here to the way addiction works to change our perceptions. There's truth to the visions of ghosts we encounter in our haze. There's truth to the idea that this is a road which leads to misery, with only jail, institutions, or death at the end.

If Pop Skull and its addicted Daniel aren't the very definition of horror, then I honestly don't know what is.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Requiem. (2006) Hans-Christian Schmid

A 2006 German possession film for October Chillers.

What better way to continue rollicking in Halloween horror than a dogme-like film about an exorcism, right?

Requiem is the story of Michaela Klingler, a young and devout German Catholic suffering from epilepsy. The disease held her back a year in high school, but now that she's nineteen she wants to attend University and study like any other college-aged kid, managing the disease on her own.

Away from her small town, in a city for the first time, Michaela quickly makes her first connection in finding an acquaintance from home. She also gets her first boyfriend -- along with her first drinks, her first kiss, her first physical encounter with another. So are the voices in her head and her recurring seizures symptomatic of her going off her pills, or is this demonic oppression due to her entrance into sinful living?

As the studies get harder and end of semester papers are due, life for Michaela slowly spins out of control. The voices are calling her a slut, and have told her to no longer pray or try to touch a crucifix. She wakes up in contorted positions, and feels seizures steal the use of her hands as she desperately tries to type. She begins rejecting her priests and her doctors and even her friends. Everyone's got advice, but no one can walk in her shoes. Perhaps it's easy to understand why she makes her final decision for exorcism, when she's brought home by worried friends and faced with either priests or the institution.

The film is based on the real life 1976 exorcism of Anneliese Michel, the same girl that inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose. While Requiem feels more realist than The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the two feel like they offer similar sketches of the same story. Whereas The Exorcism of Emily Rose functions as a horror film, Requiem tells the story in more of a psychological character study. I mentioned the dogme movement before -- Requiem feels like Breaking the Waves in places. It had that strong, fluid camera work, that somber religious feel, and an incredible actress to pull the whole thing off. No special effects, no faces jumping out of the dark, no spider crawls, no backwards masking. Actress Sandra Hüller is believable simply by the way she fills the role of this troubled girl. Her physical presence on screen stands out. It makes the film.

Much to my delight, I was able to have a bit of back and forth with director Scott Derrickson when comparing the two films. That conversation is found Here.

Cleaned up and reprinted from Halloween (2010).
Requiem is available on Netflix Instant Viewing.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Amer. (2010) Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

 A freaked out October Chiller.

Horror from Belgium, Amer instantly brought to mind two reference points that might be helpful for anyone deciding whether or not to see it.

The first is Kill Bill, which is actually more gruesome and bloodthirsty with its enjoyment of arms and heads cut off and flying through the air, drenching anything close by in the red of its blood. Amer has nothing like those barbaric scenes, although in quick instances it comes close. Where Amer is similar to Tarantino's revenge epic is in its rapid eye edits, its intensely cut visuals which are fascinating as they flicker by, and in its use of unnatural and amplified sound, an incredibly eclectic audio design. When Uma Thurman spins her head or pulls out a sword in Kill Bill, the exaggerated sound effects hail back to early Bruce Lee and 70s Kung Fu flicks; in Amer, when an eye blinks or a corpse is present, or when the victim is struggling in the clutches of her killer, the sound hails back to retro horror, mostly gialli, which the visual stylings reference, too.

The second film that so quickly springs to mind is Ti West's The House of the Devil, a guilty pleasure of mine from 2009. That film paid homage to earlier horror classics in its creepy Halloween-like score, its babysitter left alone in a large house, and Satanism lurking in the back of the script. It was set in the mid-80s and built as if it were made then, using cameras from the era and edited in the exact same fashion as those slasher flicks you saw on HBO as a teen. It's the retro-chic, throwback feel that is similar to Amer, and if you've ever enjoyed a film by Dario Argento, you're destined to love Amer.

The plot is so fucked over it is impossible to coherently describe. If it has more than fifteen lines of dialogue, well, I'll eat my hat. This is a film based strictly on sight and sound. It lives by it and dies by it, and to decipher its plot is somewhat meaningless.

But I can try.

Like the panels in a triptych, the film shows three moments in the life of heroine Ana. (Anton Bitel in his Sight & Sound review wonderfully notes that her three-lettered palindromic name reflects the film's "tripartite cyclical structure.") Each Ana is played by a different actress: Cassandra Forêt as Ana enfant, a scared innocent, perhaps aged eight or nine; hottie Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud as Ana adolescente, mid-teen and ready to sexually burst and challenge (perhaps replace) the old bag mom; and the captivating Marie Bos as Ana Adule, repressed and reacting to everything the first two Ana's have already seen.

After the death of her grandfather, his corpse laid out downstairs, Ana enfant locks herself away in her room, constantly covering the keyhole through which the family housemaid, supposed a witch, gazes in with one ugly eye. Ana eventually grazes downstairs, curious about the corpse, and takes a watch from her grandfather's hand. She breaks off a finger in the process. His eyes open, the housemaid witch reemerges, and Ana is wrapped up in her black shawl, which we see through her eyes.*

Ana adolescente walks into town with her mom. Her burgeoning sexuality is pitted against the fact that her once beautiful mother needs to get the gray out. She is heading in to get her hair dyed. As Ana waits outside with a schoolboy she's too mature for, she wanders from the salon and notices a biker gang outside. She walks provocatively in front of them, her thoughts racing with a rebel teenage eros. Her mom tracks her down and gives her a biting little slap on the face. We're never certain whether her mom is being protective or jealous. The two make their way back home.

Ana Adule returns years later to the villa where all this began. The home is dilapidated now, no one has been here or lived here for years. Ana fantasizes about the taxi driver who drives her there and some locals that take her boxes outside the home's gates. The film from this place completely explodes. One, perhaps two killers are stalking Ana, and at least one will kill her by the film's end.

The film is sexually provocative, but unlike much of contemporary horror, not a whole lot of skin is shown. You might find it here or there, but it doesn't need to be shown. It's embedded into the psyche of every element.

In moments along the way, one tone of pure color stands out and is nearly blinding. Red, green, and blue are predominant, and when they're used they seem to go on for minutes at a time. I cannot describe the creepiness of these scenes, nor can I describe the alarming mood of the sound. Like Lynch at his best, Amer influences mostly through suggestion. You're on the edge of your seat and don't always know why. Then, like Rob Zombie -- but for only seconds at a time -- you are fully introduced to the spectrum of horror that abounds.

The film is excessive, over the top, overflowing with references to Italian horror, and writhing as if possessed with atonal image and sound. It is not for the faint of heart, but not prone to the gore of, say, Suspiria. There are moments that it's all just too much to take in, and I'd be open to those who said their mind began to wander.

But it is moody more than anything, and the mood is salient terror, with a suspense that builds to a tragic climax which leaves you desirous to experience it again.

*Note the three references to eyes in that paragraph. Not since Un Chien Andalou in 1929 has an eye been so fearfully relayed. (And I just realized that Buñuel's startling plot-less short could be another apt reference for Amer.)

Cleaned up and reprinted from EUFF Screenings (2011).
Amer is available on DVD thru Netflix.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bride of Frankenstein. (1935) James Whale

An Image of Human Truth for October Chillers.

Four years passed between Frankenstein and its first sequel, but the story picks up on the same savage night of the supposed destruction of the creature, in a fiery inferno sending his soul back to hell.

Then again, we 21st century media-savvy types (which is pretty much everyone, more or less) know that no creature dies in a first film, no matter how much its makers want you to believe it -- no matter how hot the burning mill, no matter how many citizens saw the structure burn to ashes. We of course know that no alien, no mummy, no Jason or Freddy or Michael will be dead when the credits have left a first film's screen. You can't have a second Creature Feature if you haven't got a creature to feature.

There is genius found in moments of Bride of Frankenstein. I love how they kept the creature alive, escaping the tormenting flames in a mote below the mill. And the final act is any film lover's delight.

I also thoroughly enjoy something as simple and fun as the opening credits, which piggyback off Frankenstein's use of "?" for The Monster, using "?" once again for The Bride. There are so many moments where Bride of Frankenstein gives its all in being just as good as the original, you've got to love it for its heart alone.

Author Mary Shelley, played by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays the impressionable Bride in the outstanding final chapter), sits cozily indoors with a couple of highbrow if not caricatured gentlemen, the wind whistling and the thunder crashing outside. One of the men, claiming the status of "England's greatest sinner," considers how warm and safe it is inside the house, while an angry Jehovah viciously thunders outside. "How beautifully dramatic," he says. "The crudest savage exhibition of nature at her worst without, and we... within..." He claims his head is unbowed to the thundering God outside. But who would fear a supposed God if kicking back by a comfy fire was all it took to protect you from his wrath?

The men talk highly of the creepy chills of Mary's original Frankenstein story. They narrate over images of the film (blogged about Here), a brief recap for the sake of the audience's memory from four years before. (There were no television premiers or TiVo in 1935.) They implore Mary to share the rest of the story, so she launches into the sequel, the story of the creation of the Bride. It's an almost perfect beginning to the film.

Almost, because as her story emerges there's an immediate disconnect from the original, quite noticeable within seconds. The medium of filmmaking changed quickly in four years, the times obviously persuading director James Whale to stuff oodles of musical score in the background. It's interminable presence is constantly noticeable, a never-ending standout out like a splinter in one's thumb. It nulls the tension so easily relayed without filler in the original film.

The writing and dialogue are so dark and crisp that seeing it 80 years later and complaining about the score seems unfair. But the problems don't end with the score. We're immediately introduced to a side character, Minnie, played by Una O'Connor, used mostly for comedic effect. She is agonizingly horrible, not funny for a moment. She brings camp to a film that wishes to reject her and her whiny voice and its shrieking screams. She is truly the most awful thing in Bride of Frankenstein, and watching her made me think the person responsible for casting her hadn't seen the original. Then I found out James Whale casted her.

There's but one line that may have worked for O'Connor as a decent foreshadowing to the rest of the story: "Oh what a terrible wedding night!" she cries, in regard to the botched wedding plans of Dr. Frankenstein and his bride. But after the brittle scream that escaped the woman just moments before this interesting sentence, all you wish is that the creature had killed her when he had the chance.

The film is a much bigger production than the original, but missteps like these keep killing it when it almost gains a foothold on tension.

Bride of Frankenstein desperately tries to deal with the same gripping religious themes the first film took on, and if these particular scenes were viewed on their own they might be as meaningful and powerful as they were there. But in the context here, with attempts at humor included (and a ridiculous scene of miniature royalty in jars, only there for a 1935 special effect), scenes of the creature tied to a stake and mocked like Jesus on the cross, or of him partaking in a sort of bread and wine communion with a blind old man he calls "Friend," are short-lived, momentary, mixing horror and camp horribly and accomplishing neither one.

Bride of Frankenstein follows two basic story lines until that final, superbly cinematic moment at the film's end. The first is the creature itself, captured and kept in a dungeon in shackles, easily escaping, and left to wander the countryside until meeting the blind old man. He's generally in trouble with all mankind until once again meeting up with his insane maker.

The parallel story follows Dr. Frankenstein, who at the beginning claimed to his would-be bride he'd had enough of trying to be a mad scientist: "I've been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life." But then he's lured by a colleague, the similarly crazed Dr. Pretorius, and the two carve out the ultimate plan for a race of living creations. A female version of the creature is a necessary first step, and hopefully the two will like each other.

With the grande finale culminating in the creatures, the psychosexual, symbolic gender relations and the tensions therein, I kept wondering if the film would have worked a bit better as a short film, or perhaps by simply adding this story to the original. But that is not the answer. The films each suit their length at 70 and 75 minutes respectively, and the idea of putting the bride in the original would have ruined what is already a masterpiece.

The bottom line regarding Bride of Frankenstein is that it was either over-developed, or just plain developed wrong, even though there are moments, particularly in its end, that are triumphant.

It's a mish-mash. A hodgepodge. A motley assortment that shifts between genius and utter stupidity. But it brought us one of history's most perfectly climactic moments when the Bride is finally and awfully revealed.

Sometimes you have to wade through the gunk to get to the cinematic gusto.

Reprinted from A Black and White February (2011).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Frankenstein. (1931) James Whale

An October Chillers Delight.

I haven't seen Frankenstein in decades, probably not since I was a prepubescent freckle-faced punk. The last time I saw it was most likely on the Saturday afternoon Son of Svengoolie show, on WFLD Chicago. It would have aired sometime in the early eighties, probably having commercial breaks featuring Svengoolie himself, the weirdo/host-in-a-coffin who had rubber chickens whipped at him every weekend and continually made references to Berwyn. (audio: "BEHR-winnn!")

Screenings like these, fun as they may be, unfortunately do more damage than good to the general perception of a film like Frankenstein. I always knew the novel, first published by Mary Shelley in 1818, was more significant than shows like Svengoolie and their like deserved. But having not seen the original film as an adult, I didn't realize what an achievement the story is on screen. It's not just a classic novel -- it's a classic in cinema, a film that obviously set a high standard not just for horror, but for motion picture Story.

Described by Shelley, both as the author and a written-in character in Bride of Frankenstein, as, "A moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God," the opening scenes of Frankenstein are immediately concerned with a religious milieu much larger than an average monster movie: sin, death and the grave, the grim reaper, the cross, robbing the grave, and taking an executed man down from a cross. From there, the film compares and contrasts science and faith (spread across the film in many obvious references); immortality and the end-all mystery of death
(Dr. Frankenstein cries at one point, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"); creation vs. recreation (is Dr. Frankenstein a creation, too? Does his Creator have an opinion on his creation?); and nature vs. nurturing (the switching of the brains, not present in the book but added into the movie, reminds us of just how little we've learned in the past eighty years about the brain and how it functions). Each of these themes are transcendent. They transcend the boundaries of time. You find themes like this in much great literature throughout history. Is it any wonder this story has been around for 190 years? How many other monster movies have come and gone since Frankenstein was originally brought to the screen?

The idea, too, that this is a monster movie intrigues me when I consider who or what the real monster might be. Is it the creator or the created? Is it the stirred up mob with their fiery torches and barking dogs, chasing an ugly, newborn giant in the woods, trapped in mob mentality, aiming their venom at the wrong object?

Does a monster even see itself as a monster -- does it recognize how it's seen? A speechless brute in this film, Frankenstein's creation can't speak for himself. But in Bride of Frankenstein, he does learn to speak in small words and phrases (contrary to the original book, where he went on for pages in philosophical musings). One of the first words the creature learns is, "Friend."

Frankenstein is a story about a blundering humanity that would rather worry about the afterlife or chase fear than connect. It's incredible how relevant this theme still fits today. In a two-party system with a judgmental church, The Monster remains that thing on which you project your worries and your fears.

With stunning cinematography that moves and brings the creature to life, and a musical approach closer to silent cinema than modern scares, Frankenstein's remarkable achievement in tension comes close to rivaling that of Murnau's Nosferatu, of the silent era. Though Orlock might be seen as a creature of blood and death and Frankenstein's Monster might be seen as a creature of death and the brain, both creatures revolve around temptations to become immortal, the idea that it is possible to be like God. Both creatures reflect the first lie told to man, their stories using thousands year-old themes, as old as the third chapter in the Book of Genesis.

I had no idea the film was this important in the canon of horror, nor could I have ever known what a great film it is even outside its genre classification. I'm glad I revisited it as an adult. I've found a new classic that I love.

Reprinted from A Black and White February (2011).

October Chillers.

October Chillers.

My, my. I have truly missed my little blog...

... and I can think of no better time to revive FILMSWEEP than this: October, the month of ghouls and ghosts.

In recent years, the importance of horror has brought on several layers of new meaning to me. But searching for meaning in this particular genre is kind of like digging for a steak in a bucket of innards. 

You might get lucky. You might find something worth chewing on. But more than likely, you're gonna have to fry whatever you find to well-done.

It is my hope over the next month to talk about a few films I've grown quite fond of, and a few of the underlying reasons lurking just beneath that new sense of fondness.

I'll be dragging a few flicks from the archives, films like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and Amer. These should get things properly rolling again here at FILMSWEEP. And then we'll dive into more recent viewings, films I've been thinking about as potential "chillers" for this soul-sucking month. 

We'll talk about two new films out in theaters right now (The Possession and Sinister).

And then there are two in particular I can't wait to introduce into the mix - Pop Skull and Lovely Molly... These reek of unrestrained psychological horror at its finest, blending themes of addiction and loss with a descent into madness which only addiction and loss can bring. They inherently resonate with the word "horror," as I understand it, from the skeletons in my own closet and the opinions I've formed in coming out.

Life is a series of horrors. Faith stares those horrors in the face. Freedom is found in overcoming the horrific obstacles we hurdle in this unfolding tragedy we call life.

Happy October, horror film lovers. Let's have some ghoulish viewing fun.