31 Days of Horror: Split

download (1)

Dir. M. Night Shamalayan  (2017)

I was pleasantly surprisd by what seems to be a return to form for M. Night, as he seems to understand the importance of story above the aesthetics of storytelling. The performances by all were top notch, often elevating the minor contrivances of the plot. The story worked well not only as a standalone narrative, but also as a platform for continuing, or rather, creating a franchise from a cult classic among early fans of his work. Where M. Night succeeds in this movie is that there is a complexity to the characters not really seen since Unbreakable, the movie that this acts as a sequel for.

Where Unbreakable was a DC comic in tone, showing the origins of a villainous mastermind, this movie shows the evolution of a man who was tormented to such a degree in life that he has evolved into the ultimate defender of himself and only those he deems righteous or “clean” enough. Which is ironic because of his intention to wreak havoc through his multiple personalities. This is the tone of the older pre-code comics of EC, whose lurid and often supernatural tales seem to be an inspiration for this movie. This is not strictly a horror movie, while it does have many elements of captivity and survival horror, but it is more of a psychological thriller, showing the slow breakdown of a tortured soul who at his core does not want to hurt anyone. However, the fractured personalities that sprang up in defense of itself as a result of the trauma inflicted have other ideas and plans to punish the world at larg. So many interesting ideas at play in the story, and M. Night handles them with surprising depth and a sure hand.

Advertisements

31 Days of Horror: Demon

hero_Demon-2016

Dir. Marcin Wrona  (2015)

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Demon. I had read so many reviews that talked about how palpable the dread was, and how terrifying some of the sequences were. And while those words of praise are not complete rubbish, my experience is that those words were a little bit hyperbolic. Again, not to take away from its qualities, of which there are quite a few, but overall I wasn’t as moved by the movie as many had seemingly been.

There was a sort of palpable tension at times, but it wasn’t really sustained as long as I would have liked. What does work, especially when the tension is supposed to be at its highest, is the effects of the interactions between people. The bride and groom don’t really know each other all that well, as it was a whirlwind courtship, and her father is not all that pleased because he is a well-to-do businessman in the town and is suspicious by nature. He’s also a jackass, which plays into the larger narrative. There are some really great moments in the newlyweds’ home, one gifted by the bride’s father. It has a built-in sense of dread and history that suits the situation and the narrative. And another positive is that the story underplays the “demonic” elements overall, and instead letting the situations play themselves out and cast doubt on what could really be happening.  That type of doubt subtilely sewn into any horror or supernatural narrative works for me because now I’m questioning the reality of the story.  When I do something like that, I’m usually in for a good ride.  I did really enjoy Demon, but I also felt there were some moments that could have been handled better; however, the final product did unsettle me to an acceptable degree.

31 Days of Horror: XX

xx

Dir(s). St. Vincent, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic, and Roxanne Benjamin  (2017)

I want more from these filmmakers, as horror needs more female voices to guide us through the horror landscape. Here is how I enjoyed the different segments: the first entry was one of the better entries, the second was the “worst”, the third was…the third best, and the final installment was the best. The first was great because of its creepiness and unique narrative. The second wasn’t as good because it did have some good moments, but it was dark comedy that fell flat for me; if there is something horrific, I missed it. The third was effective and told a well trod trope of the creature in nature, and it was quick enough, although also a little thin on narrative. The final is the best because, in my opinion, Kusama is the best filmmaker of the bunch and she knows how to wring out tension from a slow burn perspective. I want more horror from these women specifically, and women in general.

Now, I will make this clear about the ratings I gave: even the “worst” is much better than most mainstream fare in horror. This is another title that I feel warrants another viewing. And I don’t buy any arguments that women’s directing style is any different in a negative way, let alone a general sense. Looking at Kusama, her direction is lean, mean, and ferocious. BUT I will concede there is a warmness at times, but that could very well be the material she wrote and what she put into that material. All of the entries have an energy to them that is refreshing. I’m not sure if it is because of the unjustified perceptions about women in horror, and while I don’t buy those perceptions and criticisms, I’m kinda glad they took to them head on because their dedication to genre shows. I need more movies from all of these filmmakers. Now.

31 Days of Horror: Timecrimes a.k.a. Los Cronoscrimenes

images

Dir. Nacho Vigalondo

I cannot believe how much fun this movie is. And I can’t believe that I put off watching it as long as I had. Playing with time and the effects of toying with it is not easy at all. Most often the fatal flaw is forgetting to consider which type of cosmology of time travel is being used. The filmmakers often forget to ask whether they are looking at a multiple worlds theory, a loop, or any iteration of time travel aesthetics. And even more difficult to make work well is when a minor detail pays off in later acts. This movie has all of that in spades.

Timecrimes works well because of the affability and relatability of the the male lead, and how quickly his desperation warps him into a cruel person. And the deaths that he creates at first seem to be unavoidable, the further into the time spiral we go, the more we realize how easily the situations are engineered. They are built from multiple failed attempts at course correction, with multiple versions of the male lead running around causing one situation to spiral out of control. And with each iteration of the lead we see a callousness to the “first” with each attempt at course correction. But, the film succeeds in building tension from a very simple premise that quickly escalates and becomes overly complicated because of very simple and human flaws. And the ending is simple and dark. Which in this case is the most rewarding type of ending.

31 Days of Horror: The Phoenix Tapes ’97

the four ill-fated campers from The Phoenix Tapes '97_0

Dir. Anonymous

This was somewhat interesting and it did one thing that most found footage does not do well – era specific tech and footage presentation. This looked as if it were filmed and presented on Hi8 or similar tech from 1997. It wasn’t miraculously filmed in HiDef 1080p resolution like too many found footage titles are. Some great moments that felt real, and the build up was cool, but the ending was sort of a letdown, considering how some lead up sequences were tense and well executed. Good, but not great.

As stated, the one great achievement is its success with aesthetic presentation and immersion. The era specific degradation of the film quality is so on point that I did pause for just a moment and ponder its origins. But that is the point of found footage – to make it seem plausible that the footage has indeed been found. There is a good wraparound with the “survivor’s family” or in this case the father of a man who was supposedly killed for possessing the footage that we see. It’s a nice touch for the genre and the presentation. However, as also stated, the third act is a let down and a disappointment considering all of the good will built up to that point. It is well worn and trodden, the path of the narrative in the third act. Which I would not have any real problem with, but noting interesting is done with it. This is the same problem that many other recent alien abduction mockumentary, found footage, or general narratives all have in common – painted into a corner within the confines of the genre tropes. The banter between the friends in this movie seems genuine, which also built a solid foundation for believability. But that felt inert and ultimately ineffective in the third act. The rest of the movie is fun and has some interesting ideas that are not executed effectively enough. But still, not a bad way to spend about 90 or so minutes.

31 Days of Horror: WNUF Halloween Special

WNUF_Halloween_Special_Review_3

Dir(s).  Chris LaMartina, James Branscome, and Shawn Jones  (2013)

Prior to watching  WNUF Halloween Special last year around this time, I had heard quite a bit of praise for it. I had also heard how difficult it was to obtain a copy of the film outside of the con circuit, which clearly helped it garner a cult following. And by the time I watched it last year on Shudder, I was ready for the experience. And let it be known that this movie is an exercise in aesthetics, VHS and community cable aesthetics to be specific, and it succeeds because of the amount of detail paid in its production. For those who do not remember the 80’s and its tendency towards hyperbole in its local productions, it was a sight to behold. Oftentimes national affiliate channels in Chicago or New York would produce themed shows for different holidays, and then show movies in between the original programming. Then, they would also have live events, either in-studio or on location. Which brings us to how WNUF starts out, as a live on-location special for a local New York (assumedly fictional) affiliate.

The details are what make this movie. The interstitial commercials that were individually produced and curated specifically for the movie really tie, literally and figuratively, the appeal and feel of the movie. The production was filmed and then reproduced multiple times to give the worn VHS feel and look, capping off the aesthetics over indulgence. And the affiliate channel’s cheesy Halloween banter between the hosts is on target, as is the put upon field host’s frustration with the live event. The story itself is often goofy, but the details of banter and interactions makes it work, as does the staging of the events. It’s a traditional haunted house event with the hopes of finding something supernatural, and it does show something nefarious taking place. This is a rare success of aesthetics building up the effects of the storytelling.

31 Days of Horror: The Alchemist Cookbook

alchemistcookbook-poster

Dir. Joe Potrykus  (2016)

This movie is one of the more off-putting but enjoyable movies that I’ve seen this year. The fact that it’s quirky and slightly off-putting is not a liability, but instead adds to its charm. The main protagonist is not wholly unlikeable but very socially awkward. And the fact that he lives in the middle of nowhere where he is not beholden to societal tropes of how to behave and act towards people. So much so that he is a straight up asshole to his cousin who regularly brings him supplies from the outside world. And the handling of the summoning of an entity, probably Bilal from ancient times, is handled somewhat darkly humorous at times and outright disturbing at others.

The movie works well within its own punk aesthetic, punctuated by selected punk acts on the soundtrack and the protagonist’s favorite and omnipresent Minor Threat shirt. Within this narrative lies the heart of an angry and lonely young man, someone who seems to have been injured and left permanently disabled to a point. He lives off the grid almost completely and relies on his cousin to bring provisions from the outside world, specifically materials for him to conduct various experiments in alchemy. At first it seems that he is just a scientifically curious person. But soon it is shown that not only is he unhinged, but that he has some nefarious intent for his experimentation. This movie has very few fucks to give as to whether the protagonist is considered likable, and it probably works better that he is so unlikable. This makes the viewer work to stay involved, and it’s when the end of the second act comes around that that tenacity pays off for the viewer. And once things kick into high gear, it goes off the rails into absurd territory, all the while keeping its disbelief  secured in reality, which makes it all the more unsettling at times. The finale is grim and ugly, as it should be, which makes this movie as rewarding as it is.