Cinepocalypse: Part 2

Cinepocalypse: The Crescent; Housewife

My second day at the festival (actually the festival’s fourth day overall, Sunday, November 5) included screenings of The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Baskin director Can Evrenol.

The Crescent

The Crescent

Canada. Directed by Seth A. Smith. Starring Danika Vandersteen, Woodrow Graves, Terrance Murphy, Britt Loder. 99 minutes.

Canadian filmmaker Seth A. Smith takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns the Infinite into a full-on psychedelic experience with The Crescent, using an artistic technique called “paper marbling” as a symbolic element while lulling the audience into a state of emotional suggestion with dense electronic-ambient soundscapes.

Oh, and there’s a story in there as well. Recently-widowed mother Beth (Danika Vandersteen) and her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) navigate the not-entirely-metaphorical waters of grief at Beth’s mother’s remote seaside house. There they come to the attention of old, creepy Joseph (Terrance Murphy) and young, enigmatic Sam (Britt Loder), representing opposed forces who want to use Beth and Lowen—mostly Lowen—for their own ends.

I could have done without the plot’s development into a supernatural thriller complete with third-act twist, but I don’t think that hurt my overall impression of the film. Even so, I don’t think there are too many other filmmakers out there doing this kind of thing, so I’m in.

Housewife

Housewife

Turkey. Directed by Can Evrenol. Starring Clémentine Poidatz, David Sakurai, Ali Aksöz, Alicia Kapudag, Defne Halman. 82 minutes.

The giallo influence on Can Evrenol’s sophomore effort has been overstated somewhat, but it’s certainly there: primary-color lighting sources abound, and lead Clémentine Poidatz has the look of someone who should really be in a Forzani-Cattet film. The plotline—a young girl watches her mother murder her sister and father, and grows up to gain the attention of a cult called the Umbrella of Love and Mind, two events that are strongly entwined—is 100% pure Modern Weird Fiction, not too far off from a short story Tom Ligotti or Laird Barron might write.

Housewife is as weird and violent as Baskin, but largely not as unsettling: the ULM and its rock-star-ish leader (David Sakurai) are too over-the-top to take seriously (even though I’ve seen video footage of Scientology conferences bearing a resemblance to the ULM seminar we see here). On the plus side, I was impressed by the screenplay’s clever structure.

One other thing—if Clive Barker’s serious about doing that Hellraise remake, Evrenol should be at the top of his wish list to direct.

Next

On Monday, scream king Graham Skipper (The Mind’s EyeBeyond the Gates) steps behind the camera for his directorial début Sequence Break, Canada offers up a zombie-comedy with Dead Shack, and the 33mm Italian-language print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer finally gets its hometown screening.

Cinepocalypse: Part 1

Cinepocalypse: Tragedy Girls; Get My Gun

This November marks the inaugural Cinepocalypse. While it can’t accurately be said to be Chicago’s first film festival dedicated to genre (Willy Atkins’ Chicago Horror and Indie Horror Film Festivals probably deserve that distinction), it does seem to be the first one with major power behind it. Co-organized by one of the minds behind the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival and boasting sponsorship from IFC Midnight, Bloody Disgusting and the AV Club, the basic idea seems to be Fantastic Fest-type fare, with 100% less Devin Feraci. The festival takes over Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theater for eight days, running from November 2 to 9.

And, of course, I’ll be there. I plan to see a dozen films, and as always, I’ll pass my opinions along to you—starting with my Friday screenings, Tragedy Girls and Get My Gun.

Tragedy Girls

Tragedy Girls

United States. Directed by Tyler MacIntyre. Starring Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, Jack Quaid, Kevin Durand, Josh Hutcherson. 90 minutes.

We haven’t had a teen horror movie since…uh, Happy Death Day, I think. I haven’t seen that yet, but don’t judge me; I was busy covering CIFF. Anyway, the dark high school comedy Tragedy Girls stars Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) and Alexandra Shipp (Straight Outta Compton) as the titular Girls, a pair of morbid BFFs with a nascent social media empire. When a serial killer (Kevin Durand) takes up residence in their town, the Girls sieze their chance to boost their numbers by committing a few murders themselves.

So of course with a movie like this the major reference point will be Heathers (pay close attention when the Girls reveal the serial killer’s name) and the ’90s works of Kevin Williamson. What makes Heathers work, for me at least, is the fact that even if Winona Ryder’s character isn’t an actual outsider per se she has outsider cred. This means that, number one, she sees the high school social hierarchy for the steaming pile of bullshit it is, and number two, the target audience, whose members probably see themselves as outsiders, have an identification figure.

The Tragedy Girls, on the other hand, are two of the most popular students in their class—they’re cheerleaders, they run the Prom Committee. They pass for normal, and apparently always have, partially because almost all of their classmates are also sociopaths, and partially because everyone in town in any position of real authority is an idiot. They’re don’t want to burn the system down because the system sucks, they want to burn it down because they like burning shit down.

Now, none of this is automatically wrong per se, but since I found myself unable to root for the Tragedy Girls and the one other possible identification character was clearly doomed from the start, I felt adrift. Tragedy Girls is a comedy, and a lot of it is very funny. I liked the sly commentary about how important social media has become in our lives (and I found a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the neo-fascist “alt-right” movement about halfway through the film…at least I hope I did). I liked the visual shout-out to Cannibal Holocaust. I liked all the performances, particularly Hildebrand and Josh Hutcherson as a shallow kid who hilariously pretends to be deep.

But I also noticed I was only laughing along with the audience about half the time. Clearly they were seeing something else in the film I wasn’t.

Get My Gun

Get My Gun

United States. Directed by Brian Darwas. Starring Kate Hoffman, Christy Casey, Rosanne Rubino, William Jousett. 90 minutes.

Roughly three-quarters of the way through Get My Gun, its protagonist Amanda (Kate Hoffman) screams, “How the FUCK is this my life!” By this point, she’s been raped, impregnated by her rapist, and discovered that the woman who’d agreed to adopt Amanda’s unborn child has, shall we say, severe emotional and mental issues. We can reasonably assume things are not going to get better without getting much worse first.

Filmmaker Brian Darwas, alongside co-screenwriter Jennifer Carchietta, cast Get My Gun squarely in the tradition of exploitation classics such as Ms. 45 (and if you want to put the word “classics” in ironic air quotes, add I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller: A Cruel Picture). The overall film doesn’t focus as much on revenge as the opening scenes—which include Amanda clad in a nun’s habit, pointing a shotgun at a creep and demanding he “Get in the fucking car!”—imply. Instead, Darwas and Carchietta just keep throwing shitty situation after shitty situation at her, seeing how much she can take before she finally breaks.

Even with the filmmakers portraying Amanda’s rape as sensitively as possible without losing its intensity, this isn’t an easy watch, and I respect the filmmakers and the cast for their commitment to the material. Hoffman displays extraordinary vulnerability and bravery in her performance. Unfortunately, the introduction of Catherine (the psycho who wants Amanda’s child) sees the film stray too far into slasher-film territory. The script leaves too many gaps between characters: Amanda’s best friend sets up the practical joke which leads to her rape, but this doesn’t change their relationship at all. The final third of the film sees multiple characters gain superheroic abilities to suffer multiple potentially fatal injuries and not only survive, but not suffer any side effects.

I really wanted to like Get My Gun more than I did, but that third act pretty much killed it for me. Oh well.

Next

My next screenings are on Sunday night: the Canadian film The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Turkish director Cam Evrenol (Baskin).

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: In the Fade / Mutafukaz / The Endless

My second “clump” of screenings included one World Cinema entry, In the Fade, and two After Dark offerings, Mutafukaz and The Endless.

Apropos of nothing, I can’t express how good it made me feel to walk up to the Advance Tickets counter at the theater and ask the festival volunteer to sell me a ticket to see Mutafukaz. Mutafukaz!

In the Fade

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Germany/France. Directed by Fatih Akin. 106 minutes.

Here in “Trump’s America,” we’re gradually coming to terms with the realization that the racist, neo-fascist element in our society has spread a lot wider than we wanted to believe. But white supremacist movements are certainly not confined to North America; German writer/director Fatih Akin’s latest effort, In the Fade (German title Aus dem Nichts, or “Out of Nowhere”), takes an unflinching look at the personal cost of racially-motivated domestic terrorism.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the film follows Katja, a German woman whose Turkish husband Nuri and five-year-old son Rocco die in a nail-bomb attack executed by a neo-Nazi couple, as she navigates the waters of grief while seeking justice from the German legal system. Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year for her performance. It’s not hard to see why. While the film delivers many fine performances (especially Denis Moschitto as Katja’s lawyer and Ulrich Tukur as the repentant father of one of the killers), Akin’s screenplay and direction focus squarely on Kruger. She takes the audience through the stages of grief and brings new meaning to phrases like “steely determination.”

In the Fade is a grim and tragic film from start to finish, and in its final moments (some light statistics on racist terrorism in mid-2000s Germany), acknowledges that the only way to get true justice for the Nuris and Roccos of the world is to prevent such acts of terrorism from occurring to begin with. Over here in America, we’re going to have to wrestle with that as well.

Mutafukas

Mutafukaz

France/Japan. Directed by Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume Renard. 90 minutes.

Based on the comics by Guillaume “Run” Renard—who also co-directed and wrote the screenplay—Mutafukaz mashes up anime, West Coast gangsta culture (as seen through a white Parisian’s eyes), Lovecraftian horror, the bande dessinée tradition, and I don’t know what else. Angelino (usually just “Lino”) and the flame-headed Vinz live in squalor in “Dark Meat City” (or maybe “Dead Meat City,” the film’s not entirely clear on that point), a thinly-veiled caricature of mid-’90s L.A. The two—along with their annoying associate Willy, a cowardly talking bat whom no one seems to like much—find themselves at the center of a bizarre alien invasion plot. Which, somehow, also involves a team of luchadores.

It’s overstuffed with ideas but it’s entertaining enough—usually. The action sequences and meta moments aren’t quite as impressive as Renard seems to believe they are. This English-language dub (which may have replaced a subtitled version at the last minute) suffers from bland dialog and awful voice performances. Most of the cast seems to have learned their accents from old Cheech and Chong skits; the main second-string villain sounds like a bad impersonation of a bad impersonation of Sylvester Stallone; even the nominally white characters say “cock-a-roaches.” And the film’s only significant female character—a parody of the stereotypical anime schoolgirl, complete with gratuitous upskirt shots—could have been removed from the plot entirely without much effect, never a good sign.

However, I doubt the target audience will see these as flaws. Mutafukaz could be the next classic animated midnight movie, its posters replacing Akira and Ghost in the Shell in dorm rooms across America.

The Endless

The Endless

United States. Directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. 112 minutes.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the team behind Resolution and Spring, are back with another excursion into cosmic horror and its effects on those who come into contact with the infinite. The Endless stars Moorhead and Benson themselves as a pair of brothers named (wait for it…) Aaron and Justin, who return to the “UFO death cult” they grew up in and escaped a decade earlier. They find that the truth about the cult is much, much weirder than they’d thought.

I have been critical of Moorhead and Benson in the past—Resolution maddened me and Spring, while much better, suffered from some typical indie-cinema issues—but The Endless delivers the goods. The pair understand that the power of cosmic horror comes not from the monster, but from how the monster distorts the world around it. This can be visual—a “freak atmospheric effect” is blamed for doubling the appearance of the moon in the sky—but it’s often psychological as well: think of the rising paranoia in Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Similarly, the brothers’ return to the cult forces them to confront some unpleasant truths about themselves and each other.

The pair use special effects sparingly and subtly, focusing chiefly on character and atmosphere. I was a bit dubious when I learned they play the lead roles, but they do well. The most memorable performance, however, comes from James Jordan as the perpetually angry Shitty Carl, who has perhaps the clearest grasp on what’s going on, and has suffered for it.

While it’s earned a good deal of festival-circuit buzz, it’s a bit early to tell whether The Endless will end up one of the “can’t-miss” horror films of 2017-18. It does share a reliance on atmosphere with It Comes at Night and (going back a couple years) The Witch, so hopefully it will reach those films’ audiences as well. At any rate, highly recommended.

Chicago International Film Festival: Part 1

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Four Hands / Maus / Sicilian Ghost Story

I’m back from the depths to cover some movies from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. As with last year, I’m attending screenings in weekend-oriented clumps. This first clump consists of two films from the After Dark program, Four Hands and Maus, along with Sicilian Ghost Story from the International Feature Competition program.

Four Hands

Germany. Directed by Oliver Keinle. 87 minutes.

Oliver Keinle’s Four Hands takes a look at grief and mental illness through the lens of a revenge thriller. Frida-Lovisa Hamann puts in a bravura performance as Sophie, a concert pianist whose protective sister Jessica (Friederike Becht) dies in a random accident days after they receive word that their parents’ murderers are to be released from prison. Shortly afterward, Sophie experiences the first in a series of blackouts during which she seems to be preparing to take vengeance. Of course, doesn’t take Captain Obvious to figure out things aren’t quite that simple.

Unfortunately, the plot veers into standard thriller territory in the third act. Even then, Keinle’s inventive photography and intense performances from Hamann and Becht keep the audience focused, while Christoph Letkowski elevates his role—an almost-extraneous love interest for Sophie—to something essential. And I particularly appreciated the final scene, which somewhat subverts the revenge-movie cliché of violence bringing closure.

It’s not a remarkable film by a long chalk, but its entertainment value outstrips the average film of its genre. Worth a look.

Maus

Maus

Spain. Directed by Yayo Herrero. 90 minutes.

It was William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead and it isn’t even past, and that theme forms the center of Yayo Herrero’s feature début Maus. Alma Terzic stars as Selma (nicknamed “mouse” by her German boyfriend Alex), a Bosnian Muslim who returns to her former homeland for a funeral, the first time she’s been back since the wars of the early-to-mid-’90s. When a broken axle strands Selma and Alex in a vast forest, a pair of Serbian men come to their aid—but Selma doesn’t trust them, and for good reason.

The Bosnian war looms large in the backstory but the concerns of Maus—ethnic violence, violence against women, and misogyny in general—seem particularly topical to me, living as I do in Trump’s America watching the film in the wake of a series of sexual harassment revelations that rocked Hollywood. Even non-violent scenes—particularly ones in which Selma tries to convince Alex not to accept help from the uncouth strangers, only for Alex to dismiss her concerns out-of-hand—loom larger in my memory than they might have a couple of years ago. And note how Terzic, a blonde with the beauty of a western European supermodel, hardly fits the Western stereotype of a Muslim woman.

Herrero shoots almost every scene in close-up, giving the geography an almost nauseous, disorienting feel, and makes great use of the contrast between light, dark, and shadow. Terzic and August Wittgenstein (as Alex) radiate intensity. The Serbian pair, on the other hand, are so underdeveloped as characters that it’s hard to accept apparent attempts at ambiguity. I don’t know what to make of the ending—and judging from other reviews I’ve read, no one else seems to either. And I’m not even sure monster needs to be in the picture, which is why I haven’t bothered to mention it.

Still, when it works—and it works more often than it doesn’t—Maus delivers a powerful blow to the gut. It’s a film you can’t readily forget.

Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story

Italy/France/Switzerland. Directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. 122 minutes.

Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is the 13-year-old son of a Mafia informant, and when he goes missing, and only Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the rebellious classmate who crushes on him, cares much. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza take this premise—inspired by the 1993 disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo—and fashion it into a modern grunge-era fairy tale. The filmmakers wear the influence of Guillermo del Toro on their collective sleeve: the theme of violence directed against children brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. All that’s missing are the monsters…the CGI kind, at least.

The filmmakers give the proceedings a pleasing Gothic atmosphere, making the most of the rural locations: the bucolic village, the eerie forest, the ancient ruins ominously looking over the vast sea. Luna lives in a large house whose facade implies modern construction, but the cellar seems hewed from ancient rocks and sweats moisture like a cave. Luna’s coming-of-age story takes place against the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.

I understand that Grassadonia and Piazza looked for children without acting experience to play Luna, Giuseppe, and their fellow students; such decisions don’t always work, but Jedlikowska, Fernandez, and Corinne Musallari (as Luna’s bestie Loredana) deliver excellent performances. Fernandez nails the tricky art of being cocky without coming off as an ass; Jedlikowska’s teenage stubbornness keeps the audience engaged while driving the story.

I have a lot more I could say about Sicilian Ghost Story that I can’t really fit in a capsule review, so I’ll just cut this off with an enthusiastic “highly recommended” and the sincere hope that audiences embrace it when it gets a proper American release.

Beyond the Gates

Beyond the Gates

Beyond the Gates

United States. Directed by Jackson Stewart, 2016. Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin. 88 minutes.

Over the past few years, throwback horror seems to have sprouted a sub-subgenre of its own, one taking the form’s commitment to retro elements (old-style storylines and plot devices, synth-driven scores) one step further by reproducing the practical-effect goriness of yore: Joe Begos’s The Mind’s Eye, for example, reimagines Scanners as Brian Yuzna might have made it. For some reason, they all seem to star Graham Skipper, who has developed the acting technique of “staring furiously” into something of an art form:

Graham Skipper

Beyond the Gates sees Skipper taking the role of Gordon Hardesty, returning to his hometown to join his brother John (Chase Williamson, John Dies at the End) in sorting out the affairs of their father, a video-store proprietor who disappeared some months earlier. At the store, they find the only clue to their father’s fate: a spooky “VCR board game” named Beyond the Gates, hosted by the cryptic Barbara Crampton. The brothers—along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant, Dexter and Heroes)—soon discover the game serves as a portal to another realm…and now that they’ve started playing, they have no choice but to see the game through to the end.

I can’t deny that the film has a whole heap of flaws. The pacing feels lopsided, with the first act overloaded with too much exposition, taking too long to get to the stuff that we actually care about. The supporting characters receive little in the way to define them beyond cannon fodder. Despite some impressive effects work, the gory bits play out too quickly, while the “gameplay” sequences quickly fall into repetition.

The three leads turn in decent performances in isolation, but have little to no chemistry with each other. In the case of the brothers, estranged for so long they can’t even hug each other without being awkward, this mostly works. It presents more of a problem for Skipper and Grant: their characters need to work through some long-term relationship difficulties but I could barely bring myself to believe the two actors ever met before beginning production on the film. Few of the supporting actors—including Matt Mercer (the Contracted franchise), Justin Welborn (The Signal), and C-list scream queen Sara Malakul Lane—bother to find much depth in their characters beyond “gonna die soon.”

In spite of all this, the production does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. Crampton, playing a bit more flamboyantly than her recent roles in You’re Next and We Are Still Here, dominates her scenes with a curious alluring menace. Another supporting player—Jesse Merlin, as an eccentric antique store owner who knows more about the game than he’s willing to say—steals his two or three brief sequences, playing the character’s camp to the hilt.

Meanwhile, Wojciech Golczewski’s analog-synth score owes little to John Carpenter’s spare pulsing waveforms, choosing instead to evoke the prog-rock stylings of Italian composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti; it’s a bit more interesting as a result. The music combines with director Jackson Stewart’s visuals to give the film a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere, not entirely dissimilar from Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. This doesn’t entirely balance out the problems, but it creates a context in which those problems become somewhat more forgivable.

Which doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend Beyond the Gates; it’s a middling effort that doesn’t get as much right as the audience might hope for. But it works better as a way to kill ninety minutes than it probably should.

Beyond the Gates poster

I Am Not a Serial Killer

I Am Not a Serial Killer

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Billy O’Brien, 2016. Starring Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Christina Baldwin, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucy Lawton, Anna Sundberg. 104 minutes.

We’ve all seen movies or read stories about ordinary folks who suddenly discover they have monsters living in their neighborhood. But how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) finds himself in just such a situation in I Am Not a Serial Killer, the Anglo-Irish adaptation of Dan Wells’s novel. An awkward social misfit, with morbid obsessions (at least partially fueled by the family business of undertaking) and unreliable estranged parents, would have a tough row to hoe in any small-town high school. But John has been diagnosed with clinical sociopathy. Early in the film, he describes most people as being like cardboard boxes: boring—until you open them up and see what’s inside. So he takes great care to keep himself on the straight and narrow. When a serial murderer strikes in his hometown, he naturally finds himself drawn to the mystery. The discovery that his elderly next-door neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible for the killings shocks him enough, but then it turns out kindly old Mr. Crowley isn’t even human…

Sociopathy is a tricky condition to portray in fiction, particularly when developing a character intended, to a large extent, as sympathetic to the audience: it’s hard to relate to a kid when he admits to suppressing an urge to abuse animals, even if you understand that the urge itself is not his fault. But on the surface, John doesn’t seem all that much different from any other misunderstood teenage outcast, which should give most of us a toehold in the task of accepting him as a character we can identify with. Records’s performance is the key to this, and he effectively interprets John’s central internal conflict, between his fascination with Bill Crowley and an intellectual understanding that Crowley poses a threat to John and the people around him—even if John doesn’t have much in the way of emotions for any of those people.

Bill himself proves to have more depth and complexity than your average movie critter. Lloyd delivers one of the best performances of his recent career in the role, subtly balancing Crowley’s harmless-old-timer exterior with a gradual creeping menace…and some other unexpected facets. The special effects work—with creature design provided by Toby “the bratty baby brother in Labyrinth” Froud—takes a minimalist approach, reminding us how specifically human a monster Bill is.

The strength of the character study doesn’t prevent the plot from going down a fairly predictable, X-Files-reminiscent path late in the game, but luckily the production has other cards up its sleeve to make up for that. The screenplay puts enough focus on John’s dysfunctional family dynamics to give the Cleaver household a genuine lived-in feeling. Director Billy O’Brien makes good use of his wintry rural Minnesota locations, giving the visuals a chilly vibe appropriate to the lead character’s psyche. Laura Fraser (as John’s mother April) seems to have carved herself a niche playing highly strung single moms (see also The Sisterhood of Night and her work as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle on Breaking Bad); her performance is solid, if not revelatory. Fine performances also come from Dee Noah (as Bill’s wife Kay), Anna Sundberg (as John’s sister Lauren), and Karl Geary (as John’s therapist).

Thought-provoking and quietly unsettling, I Am Not a Serial Killer delivers a fresh and unconventional take on the “monster next door” trope.

I Am Not a Serial Killer poster

Blood in the Snow 2016

Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2016

Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser star in CAPTURE KILL RELEASE

Capture Kill Release (directors: Nick McAnulty & Brian Allan Stewart) may be yet another found-footage horror movie in a world that doesn’t need any more of them, but at least it’s a good one. Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser shine in this tale of a young couple making their own snuff movie. This is what House of 100 Eyes could have been had it been done right.

It wasn’t really my thing, but I heartily recommend Holy Hell (director: Ryan LaPlante) to all fans of outrageous, over-the-top, Troma-style gross-out horror-comedies. LaPlante stars as a mild-mannered priest who takes up the path of holy vengeance after barely surviving a night at the mercy of a clan of twisted, depraved freaks. If nothing else, where else are you going to find a gun battle between a man of the cloth and a drag queen in a kitten mask?

The Sublet (director: John Ainslie) finds an engaged couple with a toddler son taking up residence in a creepy apartment with a sinister past. This modern-day riff on The Haunting of Hill House gets a lot right, including a fine performance from lead actress Tiana Nori, but the story fails to come together in a satisfying way, and the film feels like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Ruth Wilson stars in I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

Canada/United States. Directed by Oz Perkins, 2016. Starring Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss. 87 minutes.

If you’re here, reading this, I reckon you’ve probably heard of Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t, long story short: writer from the 1940s and ’50s, chiefly of contemporary gothic stories and novels. In 1959 she published The Haunting of Hill House, which established the modern-day version of the Bad Place trope: it might not necessarily be haunted, not per se, but it definitely gets into your head and twists your thoughts around until you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Stephen King dedicated his novel Firestarter to her memory, observing that she “never needed to raise her voice.” Shirley Jackson didn’t do jump-scares. What she did was get under your skin, build a nest, and lay eggs.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (whose title itself suggests another Jackson work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) has the Hill House-iest haunted house storyline since, if not the actual Hill House, at least since The Shining. 28-year-old hospice nurse Lily arrives at the house at the end of Teacup Road to care for the aging and senile Iris Blum. Iris, once a successful horror writer, seems to think that Lily is actually Polly, the subject of her novel The Lady in the Walls. Or maybe it’s not really a novel. The house at the end of Teacup Road hides many secrets, the most important of which is who Polly really is.

As I watched Pretty Thing, I couldn’t go five minutes without thinking about Steve King’s dedication. Writer/director Osgood “Oz” Perkins paces the film slowly and deliberately, laying on the atmosphere with a trowel. He deploys very few shocks of any kind, and no jump-scares. He complements the proceedings with Julie Kirkwood’s lyrical cinematography and an unsettling ambient score provided by his brother Elvis. Skin, nest, eggs. If Jackson never raised her voice, Perkins spends the film whispering.

…or maybe it’s actually mumbling. I’m not going to lie to you, I think most people are going to hate it. I said before that Perkins paces the film slow; it might be more accurate to say that what little plot there is could fit in a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone—the ’60s version—with little to no abridgment. Ruth Wilson, playing Lily, spends much of the film slowly wandering from room to room, occasionally pausing to deliver a poetic soliloquy: “It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched, even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw…” Melodramatic, yes, but Wilson makes it work. Meanwhile, it takes Lucy Boynton (as Polly) multiple flashbacks just to complete the action of turning her head, and Paula Prentiss (Iris Blum) works on perfecting her vacant stare. I’d say she nails it.

Now, I will gleefully admit I love stuff like this: I get everything I like about Kubrick and Tarkovsky (lovely wide shots, slow pacing, music that makes my stomach churn) in just half the time. It’s a win-win! Other viewers, who prefer movies in which things actually happen are likely to reach the end credits wondering what all the fuss is about. That is, if they don’t suddenly discover they fell asleep halfway through the second act.

And that’s fine: I can’t blame anyone for being bored by this movie; it’s about slow people doing slow things very slowly, until they stop doing them. But I did find it pretty and poetic, almost like watching a morbid, gothic dance. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House isn’t going to be something I want to watch every day, but I’m glad it exists.

Capsule Reviews: October 2016

First off:

Now that we have that taken care of…

Submitted for your approval, please find capsule reviews of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau and William Friedkin’s obscure early-’90s horror effort The Guardian.

Continue reading “Capsule Reviews: October 2016”

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

As promised, here are my capsule reviews of the two films I saw during the second half of CIFF 2016: Prevenge, a particularly dark horror-comedy written and directed by Alice Lowe, and Amok, a brutal crime drama set at a rough boarding school for orphaned boys.

Prevenge

Prevenge

United Kingdom, 2016. Directed by Alice Lowe. 88 minutes.

Culture probably fetishizes pregnancy more than any other concept, but when you think about it, it is a rather odd thing to carry the larval form of a complete stranger inside your body for the better part of a year, while it throws your internal chemistry all out of whack. (My friend John Bruni—I can’t tell you how many NSFW things are on the other side of that link, so consider yourself warned—used to sell bumper stickers that read It’s a Parasite, Not a Choice, a play on a classic anti-abortion slogan.)

Alice Lowe, the British writer/actress partly responsible for the awesome Sightseers, subverts the mystique of motherhood in her feature directorial début, Prevenge. Lowe (who was herself pregnant during the film’s production) directs herself in the lead role of Ruth, a single expectant mother and spree killer spurred on by the voice of her unborn child. As with Sightseers, Lowe deals in a specifically uncomfortable brand of dark comedy, playing with the audience’s sympathies as we learn more about Ruth and her motives and her victims become progressively less nasty. It’s a tough balance, and Lowe doesn’t always get it right, but when Prevenge works (and it works more often than not) the gallows humor and churning unease feed into each other for a unique frisson.

Amok

Amok

Macedonia, 2016. Directed by Vardan Tozija. 102 minutes.

Writer/director Vardan Tozija tells a familiar story in Amok, but that familiarity doesn’t dilute its power. Set in a rough-and-tumble subculture centered around an “adoption center,” a Brutalist monstrosity where orphaned teenage boys (nicknamed “rats”) live and are educated, the film follows its troubled—but essentially sympathetic, up to a point—protagonist Filip as he consistently runs afoul of a series of corrupt, exploitative, or indifferent authority figures. When a corrupt police detective finally pushes him too far, Filip strikes back the only way he knows how: with violence.

There’s only one way this story can end, but Amok isn’t so much predictable as it is tragic. Tozija brings a savage realism to an environment where even a high-school teacher has to be able to kick literal ass just to survive day-to-day. Actor Martin Gjorgoski gives Filip a dead-eyed stare that makes the character more terrifying than most horror-movie monsters. The moral of the story is clear: if you give the young and marginalized nothing to live for except violence, don’t be surprised when they deal violence in return.