Tag: horror

Movie Review: The Innocents (1961)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

When I fell in love with The Haunting a few months ago, several people recommended The Innocents, another atmospheric horror movie from the 60s, though with fewer gay undertones and more children. Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, new governess to orphaned children Miles and Flora. Provided for by their wealthy uncle but rarely shown any affection by him, they live in a large country estate with various servants and caretakers. Miss Giddens is instantly smitten with her precocious charges, but feels there is an unfriendly presence in the house. After hearing about the recent deaths of the previous governess and a domineering valet, she becomes convinced that their ghosts have remained on the grounds and are exerting a dangerous influence on the children. Knowing their uncle will not want to be bothered, she sets out to save the souls of Miles and Flora by herself.

With ghastly apparitions and seedy undertones, The Innocents is as much as horror story as it is a twisted morality tale. Miss Giddens- a prim minister’s daughter who delights in the naivete and prepubescent bliss of children- is a force for Christian rectitude. She senses something unholy, some evil brought about by the distasteful sexual escapades of the two dead lovers, and is convinced their ghostly carnal desires are infecting her innocent charges. These kids have seen more than their young eyes deserve, and it’s clear that their experiences have forced them to mature quickly in some ways. How much of that may be the workings of two nefarious ghosts is hard to say, since most of the paranormal activity is only witnessed by Miss Giddens herself, who may just be overwhelmed by prudishness and a sudden (totally understandable) aversion to children. Of course, it all seems very real and I was willing to believe Quint and Miss Jessel were actually haunting this house, especially since their apparitions were pretty damned scary. Miss Jessel’s appearance in the marshes freaked me the fuck out. Their sordid tale and Miss Giddens’ reaction to it oozed spooky scandal, and regardless of the “reality” I was into it.

I loved the melodramatic flare and moody camerawork, the effective use of candle lighting and the antebellum costumes- it is a beautiful film in many ways. It is also unpredictable, and fairly horrific in its conclusion. Its suggestive sexuality is weird and unexpected as the script toys with this idea of promiscuous adults partially inhabiting the bodies of children. While I really appreciated all of these factors, I found I wasn’t wholly absorbed by the film. Maybe it was the pacing, which was too gradual and seemed to miss certain beats, or maybe it was all the unresolved issues. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something that keeps me from all-out loving The Innocents, though I can readily say I was really impressed by it.


Pair This Movie With: Well the aforementioned The Haunting is indeed a good pairing! Also, for more creepy stories with kids and big mansions, there’s The Orphanage and The Others. Finally, for something more film noiry, I feel like Night of the Hunter would be an interesting pairing because of its similar themes of children’s supposed innocence and adult influence.

Movie Review: Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

Seen: On dvd on my projector set-up.

For one reason or another I kept missing this the few times it played near me, so I was glad to have a night off before Thanksgiving when I could finally watch it. Written and directed by Peter Strickland and set in the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio tells the uncanny tale of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an uptight British sound designer who is invited to work on a low-budget horror film in Rome. His talent is obvious, and he sets out making squishy slasher noises with watermelons and lettuce, but he remains uncomfortable with the type of film he’s working on, having had more experience with nature documentaries and the like. Unfamiliar with the language and culture, he is unnerved by his over-friendly but often two-faced coworkers, and fears he will never actually be paid. In his isolation and confusion Gilderoy sinks further into his work, until reality and fiction become blurred.

Berberian Sound Studio first came to my attention through its truly impressive series of posters by Brandon Schaefer and Peter House. The visuals of the film itself certainly live up to its advertising, seeped in over-saturated reds and blues while the camera lingers lovingly over analog recording equipment. The narrative is a little muddled, with scenes beginning and ending in media res and a few dream sequences seamlessly blended in to the main events. Frankly, I found most of the film gripping, completely transfixed by the strange, grungy imagery and Jones’s bizarre performance, and of course the sound design porn. As Gilderoy becomes more affected by the giallo film the overall story becomes more and more disjointed, sputtering in its structure like a scratched record. I couldn’t really tell you exactly what happens, but I know I was totally into it.

What holds me back from all-out loving Berberian Sound Studio is its ending: it’s kind of missing one? It felt like Strickland had written himself into a dead end and wasn’t sure what he actually wanted to say with this film, if he wanted to resolve or explain matters, or make things worse or better. So the movie just… stops. I have no problem with ambiguous or unconventional endings, I’m not saying I need everything to make sense or for loose ends to be wrapped up neatly, but SOME sort of ending would have been nice. The pacing is so off at the end that I had no idea I was at the climax, and so when the credits rolled I wasn’t satisfied- the movie doesn’t feel finished. In a film that otherwise had me so engaged, it was really frustrating to walk away from it with this incomplete feeling. Definitely worth the watch, though, and I’d like to see it again on blu-ray when I get a chance so I can get the full audio/visual effect. Also I have to give mad props to the women voice actors in this movie, who do an impressive amount of screaming. Looks exhausting to me.


Pair This Movie With: The setting and premise reminded me a little of CQ, which would be a nice uplift after the dark tone of this film. Similarly there’s recent release In a World… which offers another look at sound on film, only it’s about voice acting instead of sound effects.

Movie Review: Stridulum (The Visitor) (1979)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, on 35mm.

Well, when Drafthouse Films digs up a weird forgotten movie and pushes it into the cult film sphere, I do generally take note. The Visitor is certainly ripe for cult stardom, a forgotten bit of 70s ultra-weirdness from Italy that inexplicably stars John Huston. Set primarily in Atlanta, GA, the film follows Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail), a single mother who’s beginning to suspect that her daughter Katy (Paige Conner) might just be completely evil. Also, telekinetic. And psychic? Probably. I KNOW this sounds crazy, and Barbara doesn’t want to believe it, but then Katy “accidentally” shoots her in the spine, paralyzing her. And the little angel is showing an awful lot of ‘tude lately. And magic. Meanwhile, an old dude from space (John Huston) is searching for Katy, presumably to kill her to prevent her from taking over the world or whatever. And Barbara’s boyfriend Lance Henriksen is oddly obsessed with getting her pregnant. It’s gonna be a weird few weeks, THAT’S FOR SURE.

Ok. First of all I have to say: this movie is fucking RAD and not in the “ironically funny” way. It’s just a really awesome, bizarre film. At my screening I sat next to two dudes who were obviously there to have a good time, they were ready to laugh, and they guffawed hysterically throughout the entire movie, even though most of it isn’t actually funny. These guys were literally laughing at scene transitions, like they thought it was hilarious that a scene would end and a new one would begin? At first I thought they had never seen a weird movie before, so they were laughing out of surprise, but then I thought maybe they just had never seen a movie at all before and this was a wonderfully novel experience for them. I have no idea, I did not understand where they were coming from, but it was incredibly distracting and made me really angry for most of the running time, and so I feel like I need to watch this again as soon as possible without any loud, laughing idiots in the room.

Anyway. I really dug The Visitor. It’s a fantastic combination of imaginative storytelling, ostentatious visuals, a strong cast, and a dash of off-kilter camp. It’s a bit dated in some of its more psychedelic elements, but of course I loved that, and the effects are honestly impressive. (And there are so many freaky birds! My god, birds are terrifying!) Its remarkable opening shot depicts a hooded figure in an orange desert expanse, with a liquid-smoke sky, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. Then you have this super-fancy house that most of the action takes place in, with a grand staircase, a biomorphic swimming pool, and super modern decor. And sometimes Shelley Winters is snooping around, singing to herself and ever-prepared to be mean to a little girl, which I kind of loved. The soundtrack is dark but kind of fun and synthy, whic is basically the tone of the whole movie.

There are definitely some silly moments- the melodramatic close-ups, the at-times off dubbing- but I was just really into this movie the whole time. It’s a strange story, fusing demon-child paranoia with outer-space mythology, all wrapped up in a “heaven vs hell”-type narrative. It’s a legitimately interesting story, partly because it’s so weird and party because it’s so scary. I was genuinely worried for Barbara, who not only has to put up with a possibly matricidal daughter but also experiences a serious violation to her own body in the bad guys’ quest to get her pregnant so she can produce more telekinetic spawn. I really liked Joanne Nail in the role, she’s sympathetic and vulnerable without being useless, and she anchors the story as all these larger-than-life figures fight it out around her. Paige Conner is the real star, though, slinging around slurs and tearing up her house and staring coolly at everything, and it’s just great. Definitely up there with my favorite evil-child performances. I mean, did you SEE her take out a bunch of bullies at the ice skating rink?

So there you go, The Visitor is amazing. Weird and wonderful and inventive, and I really want to watch it again. Because, like, wtf was happening in that space nursery? Was that Jesus? And what was up with John Huston’s trippy light show? And how the hell did the gun get into Katy’s gift box? Can she willfully transmute matter? Oh man! The possibilities!


Pair This Movie With: Obviously The Bad Seed comes to mind! And I’ve never seen Rosemary’s Baby but probably that too. Or The Omen?

Movie Review: Brain Damage (1988)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

At this year’s Coolidge Corner Horror Marathon I had to skip out of the last film, Brain Damage, a Frank Henenlotter film I’d been meaning to see for a while, so I resolved to make it next on my netflix queue. The cult director’s sophomore feature, it follows the misadventures of Brian (Rick Hearst), a young man who unwittingly finds himself playing host to a parasitic worm creature known as Aylmer. This mythical beast injects an addictive substance directly into his victims’ brains, and it causes an intense, psychedelic euphoria. But Aylmer himself feeds on human brains, and manipulates his hosts into finding him food. Brian is at first unaware of his new friend’s hunger for human parts, but by the time he finds out what’s happening he’s in too deep to pull away. His girlfriend and brother worry over his strange mood swings and sudden misanthropy, but he doesn’t want them sucked into Aylmer’s cycle of drugs and murder. Meanwhile, Aylmer’s former owners- now sick with withdrawal- are searching for him.

A little bit dark, a little bit funny, and largely just gross, Brain Damage wasn’t quite the head-trip I was hoping for. It was underwhelming as a whole, to be honest, and I felt like Henenlotter didn’t have enough story to fill out the running time, but could have fleshed out some of his ideas more. I also didn’t love how Aylmer was done- his voice was annoying and I felt like he was supposed to be funnier than he actually was? Maybe a different voice actor would have worked better, or stronger dialogue. That being said, it’s an impressively original low budget horror, with DIY special effects that made me lose my appetite, which I assume was the point. I loved the trippy drug-fueled sequences, the weird premise, and the gooey over the top kills, though the oral sex scene was too ridiculous even for me. It’s a silly movie overall, naturally, but it maintains a gritty aesthetic and a slightly dark tone throughout. This balancing of camp horror and drug addiction is not always successful, though, which might be why I thought the film was a bit dull overall. NOT BAD just not as good as I wanted it to be?

Loved the Basket Case nod, though. I haven’t even seen that one yet (I know, I know, I will) but I totally got the reference! And I love the idea that these films all take place in the same world. Maybe Frankenhooker‘s wandering around there somewhere off-camera.


Pair This Movie With: The whole thing is kind of a gritty, gooey update to Little Shop of Horrors, or any film with that familiar premise. I of course will heartily recommend the 1986 musical (especially the director’s cut!) as a pairing.

Movie Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

It was hard for me to believe that something as ridiculous and terrible as The Wicker Man remake came out of what many considered to be a top-notch horror film, but nevertheless I had high hopes for the original Wicker Man. Set entirely on a remote Scottish island, the film follows police detective Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) as he looks into the disappearance of a young girl. He finds the small island community of Summerisle to be a weird, weird place, where everyone is constantly getting naked for no reason and singing all the time and committing blasphemy or whatever, plus they all lie blatantly about the missing girl. Within a few days Sgt Howie is no further along in his investigation and essentially trapped there, gradually becoming convinced the islanders are planning a human sacrifice as part of their May Day pagan rituals.

This film is pretty bizarre, mostly in how it merges various genre elements into a somewhat mis-matched whole, but for the most part it works as an oddball thriller. It is very much a product of its time, a blatant commentary on the danger of cults when they had a much stronger presence in the mainstream consciousness. It is a dark but almost quaint story today, with Howie’s exaggerated morality and blustering religious outrage making him a ridiculous figure, and certainly not a sympathetic one. He’s also not a very good detective, never stopping to ponder why a letter was sent to him about a missing girl whose mother denies her existence. What makes The Wicker Man stand out is its memorably strange imagery and nihilistic plotting, and the charismatic performance of Christopher Lee as the devious Lord Summerisle. Also the music, since this is almost a musical and that was just not expected! Folksy tunes and ancient ballads and such.

This is an example of expectations vs reality, a common problem I experience when viewing acclaimed films. This is billed as a horror movie, and I was excited to see yet another highly-recommended horror film I’d missed, but I honestly don’t see what makes this horror. It’s not just that it’s not scary, but it doesn’t try to be scary. I viewed it as a straight mystery/thriller with some surreal visuals but no supernatural or slasher or other horror-type elements. I kept expecting something scary or truly horrific to happen and so I was kind of underwhelmed, but maybe I’m just not shocked by an asshole being burned alive by hippie pagans. It didn’t bother me. Also I know there are different versions of this movie and I don’t think I saw the full cut, it’s whatever netflix sent me. Anyway I did like The Wicker Man, but I to sort of had to change how I was watching it when I realized it wasn’t what I’d anticipated. It’s a wonderfully eccentric film and I loved how unapologetic it was in its weirdness. Howie has no idea what’s going on, and I didn’t have much of a better idea, but for the most part the movie didn’t really care anyway.


Pair This Movie With: Umm another movie about cults, I guess? I haven’t seen too many, but can recommend Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Master, and Suspiria.