Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Havenhurst--Andrew C. Erin (2016)

Havenhurst (Andrew C. Erin, 2016) expertly wastes excellent horror film talent, like poor Danielle Harris
Ugh, Havenhurst.  Just to be clear, there's absolutely nothing supernatural going on in Andrew C. Erin's apartment horror film, which is the first way that this film so-o-o disappoints.  Ominous shots of a stately, grandiose apartment building in NYC suggest that we are strictly in haunted house territory.  The grisly opening murders (bye, bye Danielle Harris) appear to support this premise, as forces suddenly appear and throw bodies around with supernatural strength.  All I could think is "please, please let this be a malevolent apartment building!"  Meh.  Spoiler--but only for the first half hour.  Only the landlords are malevolent.

After what seems like a fairly promising start, the film shifts its focus to Jackie (played by the always fabulous Julie Benz), a recovering alcoholic sent to Havenhurst after rehab, as it seems to be some kind of commonly used halfway house.  Seriously?  This kind of real estate in NYC, I would pretend to be a recovering addict just to live there.  Not so ironically, Jackie ends up in the exact same building from which her former addict pal Danielle has recently disappeared.  Coincidence?  No such thing in horror films.

The equally wonderful Fionnula Flanagan is also wasted here as Eleanor, Jackie's smarmy new landlord
On her first night at Havenhurst, strange things start to happen in Jackie's apartment.  She hears strange noises--of course.  She lays out a couple of dresses for her "lease signing" with Eleanor (Fionnula Flanagan), her new landlord, and when she comes back from the shower, only one is on the bed--the other dress has clearly been "rejected" and is hanging back in her closet.  I would have been out of there right then, but Jackie also sees the realities of this real estate coup, and signs the lease without reading it.  She just must understand the rules--as long as she's "good," she can live there until she dies.  Breaking the rules earns you an eviction, and eviction = death in this film.  Horrible, gruesome deaths--disembowelment, acid bath, non-consensual cremation, what have you.

Jackie (Julie Benz) and her young, "innocent" neighbor Sarah (Bella Shouse) flee from Eleanor's murderous kids
Meanwhile, Jackie has befriended an innocent girl next door, Sarah, who seems to know what's going on in the building, but as a tween, is pretty helpless to do anything about it.  She just warns Jackie not to break the rules, which is exactly what Jackie does, because she's an intrepid rule breaking heroine who gets herself into all kinds of trouble.  Even Josh Stamberg, as her police detective pal, Tim, cannot seem to save her from her own destructive curiosity.  Jackie deliberately falls off the wagon in order to find out what happened to Danielle, and some of the other "missing" denizens of Havenhurst.

Jackie discovers what's going on in the basement of Havenhurst
So, Ugh, Havenhurst.  Supposedly the film is linked to an actual serial killer case involving H.H. Holmes, a guy in Chicago who killed all these people in the hotel he owned (Ryan Murphy totally ripped this story off for American Horror Story: Hotel).  The film claims that he got his start at Havenhurst, and Eleanor and her horrible children are keeping the tradition alive, killing off anyone who isn't a good person (according to their morals, which are questionable).  Fionnula Flanagan really chews the scenery in this film, but her malevolence is telegraphed from early on.  I was hoping she was part of a Rosemary's Baby type satanic cult, but no such luck.  Instead, viewers find out a half hour in that the entire building is under surveillance, and booby-trapped, and that Eleanor's lovely boys are living in the walls, preying on the "weak."  The one thing I can say for the film is that the ending surprised me; it does not make the film worth seeing, but I didn't see the ending coming, and that's always a plus in my estimation.  Still, Ugh, Havenhurst.  Just don't.

The Abandoned--Eytan Rockaway (2015)

Julia/Streak's journey is rather harrowing in The Abandoned (Eytan Rockaway, 2015)
Why is it that so many creepy haunted spaces were formerly the home/burial ground for an insane asylum?  Julia (Louisa Krause) stumbles upon one in the majestically set "haunted heroine" film The Abandoned (Eytan Rockaway, 2015), encountering the gamut of well-preserved children's drawings, rickety beds covered in mysterious stains, and voices calling to her from every corridor and dank, dark hallway--all the ingredients for some derivative, but unsettling scares.  The film opens with Julia taking a cab to her new job as a night security guard at some gigantic, ornate, and sinister abandoned apartment building.  Spectators learn that she's a "haunted heroine" almost immediately, as she chats with her Mom on her phone; we find out that 1) she has a kid, and 2) she's gotten into some trouble, and this job is her "last chance," and 3) that she has to take her "medication."  Of course.  So, from the film's first moments we should not trust Julia's potentially crazy POV, as we go on this subjective journey with her.

Jason Patric is her curmudgeonly paraplegic co-worker Cooper
The first horror that Julia encounters is the grumpy as f*** Cooper (Jason Patric), who has been working as a security guard for quite some time, ruling over a set of surveillance cameras and chasing his coworkers away with rampant hostility.  Yes, he cannot use his legs, which makes him a curious candidate for guard duty, but hey, the film has to make him unhelpful in order to put Julia in serious peril.  The use of a head-cam as Julia walks around gives the film some really unnecessary surveillance footage--making the film even more derivative than it needs to be.  At least Julia isn't a secret ghost hunter, although that fact doesn't make the narrative any less ridiculous.

This mysterious abandoned apartment building looks suspiciously similar to Grand Central Station
The opulent setting of the film's abandoned apartment complex is what makes The Abandoned worth the watch--supposedly it was shot at the Prince George Ballroom in NYC, and some of the sets are pretty breathtaking.  Still, most of the film is shot in dank hallways and boiler rooms barely lit by a flashlight.  Now I love a good, scary hallway, but one really wonders why Julia, on her first night on the job, would decide to break the lock in a forbidden area of the building and go exploring.  Ah, to forward the plot, obviously.

A Heroine isn't truly "Haunted" without malevolent kid ghosts in the mix
As I mentioned earlier, seems that the apartment complex was actually an asylum housing the strangest menagerie of kids with issues, and they really don't like adults.  Mix in some weird poisoned water, neglectful caretakers, and angry ghosts abound.  One silly, but kind of fun scene has Cooper losing control of his wheelchair, as it speeds down the hallway by some kind of "force."  Just when you are truly wondering how Julia and Cooper will get out of this mess, the film switches gears and the ending MAKES NO SENSE.  It garnered a "wait...what?"  As per many desperate horror films, the twist makes you question everything that came before, and then the film SWITCHES BACK, making viewers question the previous ending.  While I can usually posit some type of interpretation (as an expert, natch), this film left me utterly puzzled--as if the filmmakers couldn't decide on an ending either, so let's have two contradictory ones!  The Abandoned is currently streaming on Netflix, and I'm on the fence whether to recommend it or not.  Like The Forest, I would say that there are some really great moments, but they don't make up for a film that really takes a header rather than nailing the landing.  Ooof.

The Sound--Jenna Mattison (2017)

Rose McGowan must fight not to be infected by The Sound (Jenna Mattison, 2017)
Trawling through Amazon looking for "haunted heroines," I came across the quite compelling, women-directed The Sound (Jenna Mattison, 2017), starring the sadly underutilized Rose McGowan.  Rose has recently drawn quite a bit of attention for being a vocal activist against sexual harassment and assault, accusing Harvey "the disgusting pig" Weinstein of rape way before it became a deluge of accounts and spurring a "white, sexual harassment" version of the #MeToo movement.  Admittedly, McGowan's current role in this movement garnered much of my initial interest in the film (that, and that she looks remarkably like Angelina Jolie).  Yet her performance as ghost debunker Kelly Johanson really won me over, and while there are some loopy plot holes here and there, The Sound is a chilling ghost story that rather astutely brings another "haunted heroine" into our midst.  Damn, there certainly is no shortage of these women in horror.  Could there be some link with horror's penchant for unreliable female narrators within cultures where women are rarely trusted or believed?  Coincidence?

To remind readers, the figure I term "the haunted heroine" is a frequent female character in the horror film genre.  She is a vulnerable, often fragile character suffering from a previous trauma, and the film traces her journey as she interacts with a space that morphs and transforms around her.  This interaction with cinematic space is linked explicitly to the character's subjectivity, as her confusion and disorientation mirrors the space she occupies.  The line between reality and fantasy is hopelessly blurred in these horror films, and the chief concern here is whether the heroine is actually experiencing supernatural occurrences, or if she's just losing her mind.  Often, "science" is used to disprove the existence of ghosts, but the technology used to disprove such things rarely works, and consistently breaks down.  In The Sound, Kelly is a renowned debunker, who analyzes sound waves in order to prove that spirits are just low frequency sound waves affecting the brain, and producing hallucinations, along with headaches, nosebleeds, etc.  Her blog is beloved by denizens of the interweb (rather unrealistic, because as a woman, people/guys would troll the crap out of her).  She actually makes a decent living, as she's invited to cure various people of "ghosts," and she can just hop on a plane to "ghostbust," whether at some distant farmhouse, or in an abandoned Toronto subway station.

Kelly makes a living traveling around convincing people that ghosts do not exist

After a brief scene with genre stalwart Stephen McHattie, in which Kelly points out that his grandson isn't seeing ghosts, but affected by nighttime crop dusting, she then is summoned to Toronto to check out a ghost that seemingly haunts an abandoned subway station.  She expects to be back in Detroit to attend some party with her attentive beau, but things never go according to plan in these films, and she ends up spending the night, riddled with hallucinations as the sound waves take hold.  Her most frequent line: "It's not real, it's not real."

Christopher Lloyd shows up to offer some wisdom and change some lightbulbs
The film is full of some great genre actors who do manage to steal Kelly's thunder.  International treasure Christopher Lloyd adds another horror film to his roster after his incredible performance in I Am Not A Serial Killer (Billy O'Brien, 2016), playing a friendly old coot who mysteriously works for the Toronto Dept. of Transportation in some rather dubious capacity changing lightbulbs in abandoned stations.  Suspicious??  Then there is the absolutely terrific and menacing Michael Eklund as a Detective with really shady motives.  Let's just say that his character reveals the truly tremendous power of low frequency sound waves on the human body!  Finally, Richard Gunn plays Ethan, Kelly's beleaguered husband, who gets way too much screen time chasing after her and ultimately saving her ass (I think).  Oh, also, there are hordes of moths, and perhaps ghosts.

Scary kid ghosts always seem to carry around creepy dolls

As Kelly undergoes an underground "ordeal," the film's narrative reveals in bits and pieces that there's a past traumatic event that motivates Kelly's zeal for ghost debunking.  In black and white flashbacks, we see a young girl's stumbling walk into a forest, clutching a doll very similar to the one above.  Kelly seems to be obsessed with some girl named "Emily," but we only find out who this girl is in the last 10 minutes of the film.  Indeed, the film keeps you guessing, and the incipient disorientation and "lostness" common to these types of films is present in every single frame as we are almost entirely focused through Kelly's skewed perspective.  Sure, there is some crazy, nonsensical stuff here, especially surrounding Eklund's creepy detective, and the omnipresent moths, but on the whole, spectators are rooting for the intrepid Kelly to make it out alive and sane.  Funny, like Nick Murphy's The Awakening (2011) which follows Rebecca Hall's ghost debunker, all The Sound's momentum seems to move toward Kelly's inevitable transformation from a doubter to a believer.  Like Murphy's film, Kelly experiences her own "awakening," as she tries to come to terms with her past; and the film offers one of the few (relatively) happy endings of the genre.  I was pleasantly surprised by The Sound, and since it's directed by a woman as well, I highly recommend you check it out while it's still available for less than a buck on Amazon.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Visions--Kevin Greutert (2015)

Isla Fisher plays the pregnant, and in peril, Evie in Kevin Greutert's Visions (2015)
Ah, pregnancy horror.  After a film like Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo's Inside (2007), any film involving a pregnant woman in peril is going to come off as derivative.  Insert Kevin Greutert's Visions (2015), currently streaming on Netflix, a film indebted to that earlier film with some Lifetime channel haunted house stuff thrown in for good measure.  The film opens with a car accident, and Evie (Isla Fisher) coming to in the hospital with the realization that she killed a baby (she has flashes of a kiddie seat, empty and askew in the road near her wreck).  Cue a title card proclaiming "one year later," and Evie and her husband, David (Anson Mount), have just bought a vineyard in Paso Robles, CA as a way to start over after the earlier accident.  AND Evie is newly pregnant and having a baby of her own!  She's leery of medicating, even though she was on major anti-depressants after "killing a baby," as one probably would be; yet, she starts seeing weird things that suggest that she might be "losing her mind" again, and David, in his typical way, thinks she's losing it too.

Evie's creepy mannequin would freak anyone out
Hallucinations start in earnest.  Nickels balance en masse on their edge, hooded figures bang on her front door, wine bottles explode, guns suddenly appear, and even mannequins attack, forcing Evie to tumble through a glass door.  As her husband doesn't believe anything she says, or sees, shattering glass seems like the last straw for him, and he and Evie's smarmy doctor, played by Jim Parsons, insist that she goes back on the meds "for her own good."  Meanwhile, fellow expecting mom Sadie (Gillian Jacobs) is Evie's drug free enabler, insisting that Evie knows what is best for her own body, and that she shouldn't let these men tell her what to do!  Of course, with David possibly gaslighting Evie, we side with the pregnant women, and support Evie refusing to take her meds.  Yet some crazy stuff is happening in her house, and Evie's the only one who seems to see it.  Coincidence??

Evie is a quintessential haunted heroine, broken by trauma and haunted by ghosts (maybe)
In previous posts, I've tried to outline some of the chief characteristics of what I term "the Haunted Heroine," a repeated female figure in horror just as ubiquitous as the more well known "Final Girl."  The Haunted Heroine is a fragile and sensitive soul, broken by some traumatic event, and frequently looking to start over in a new house, but seemingly haunted by spirits there.  Yet are there ghosts, or is she just crazy?  On this question the entire narrative hinges, and much of the film has spectators questioning everything our female protagonist sees, says, and believes.  Much of the film is spent rendering her unreliable as hell--all the other characters seem to think she's nuts, so why not spectators too.  Things get so bad for Evie in Visions, that her husband and friends perform an intervention!!  They suck...but not for long, because at that very moment in the narrative, the film's super-predictable climax unfolds, and exactly what you thought would happen, does.  Sigh.

***Spoilers!  Turns out that Evie was partially right.  She is seeing things, but rather than ghosts or spirits, Evie is experiencing premonitions of the future.  Somehow her anti-depressants tamper with her clairvoyance, so it's a good thing she quit them.  The film firmly comes down on the side of "not really crazy" (like Sadie).  Even more strange, every single woman who's lived in this house or on the property has succumbed to visions of the exact same night, when Evie et al. are attacked by the murderously psycho Sadie and her lame boyfriend, what's-his-name.  He's only there to shoot some people on Sadie's orders--and obviously because its fun for him.  I felt really, really badly for Gillian Jacobs when watching this film.  She deserves so much better.  I'm not going to give away the ending, or what happens to Evie, but I will describe the film's last sequence.  A couple are being shown the house by a realtor; "the wife/girlfriend" looks possibly pregnant, and as they pass one of the tables, the nickels (from earlier) seem to magically materialize, all balanced on their edge.  This final sequence makes absolutely no sense, and throws the previous events into question AGAIN, although who knows why???  This film will never have a sequel (I hope).  I appreciate the film for its haunted heroine and her traumatic travails, but I am not recommending this film unless you are looking for totally predictable genre fare with a female lead.  Then, yawn-n-n-n, go for it.

The Tall Man--Pascal Laugier (2012)

 Julia (Jessica Biel) is determined to save the children in The Tall Man (Pascal Laugier, 2012)

Pascal Laugier, known for the incredibly gory "new French extremity" film Martyrs (2008), has gone to a slightly quieter, less messy place with The Tall Man (2012), a film more in line with his earlier supernatural film House of Voices (2004).  In that film, not only was its lead Anna (Virginie Ledoyen) sensitive to ghosts, but also committed to saving the children in what appears to be a nearly abandoned orphanage.  Clearly Laugier abides by this perpetual gendered affinity, bordering on a biological urge, that women and children go together like bread and butter--when frankly, in horror films, hanging out or getting attached to kids clearly only gets women in trouble.  This way leads to madness, indeed.

The Tall Man opens with a girl's voice, local resident Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), describing how something "bad," something "evil," has come to the broken down town of Cold Rock, WA.  Children seem to be disappearing. The narrative begins with Julia Denning (Jessica Biel), bleeding and battered, having glass removed from her face, as a lawman asks how she is, and informs her that he's still searching for the boy and the other children.  Cryptic!!  Then an intertitle informs viewers that we've jumped to 36 hours earlier, and we'll find out how all this bloody mayhem has come to pass.  The film proceeds to follow Julia, a young widowed nurse trying to keep the working-class townspeople of Cold Rock healthy.  She's got her work cut out, as the film reveals in sweeping pans and tracking shots, as well as Jenny's voiceover, the poverty and economic devastation that has hit the area after its coal mines are shut down, and jobs disappear.  What's left in Cold Rock is a bunch of struggling people trying to keep afloat as their little ones vanish. These disappearances are attributed to a mysterious "Tall Man" whom people claim to have seen numerous times, yet not clearly enough to either catch him or perceive him as anything other than a mythical "boogeyman."

The Law, including genre regular Stephen McHattie and Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), are ineffectual
Lieutenant Dodd (Stephen McHattie) and Sheriff Chestnut (William B. Davis) are stumped as to these disappearances, but we largely see events unfold through Julia's eyes, as she is the film's protagonist and point-of-identification.  Alas, as in most horror films led by female protagonists, she cannot be necessarily trusted, and not everything is as it appears.  While "the town" mourns their missing, they simultaneously are grateful if their child is not snatched. Unsurprisingly, Julia is not immune to these events, and the Tall Man sneaks into her house one night and snatches her son, David, knocking out and tying up the babysitter Christine (Eve Harlow).  Like an industrious woman in horror with a missing child, Julia goes after the abductor full throttle, hanging on to the back door of the van while being dragged by a moving vehicle.  She survives a vicious dog attack and disables the vehicle in a tension-filled battle.  She even successfully tracks the kidnapper through the woods, only to collapse in pain in the road, soon to be rescued by Lieutenant Dodd.  He takes her to the local diner, and asks the townspeople to help her, but they are all acting really weird, whispering behind her back and giving her suspicious looks.  In waitress Trish's back room, she spots a photo of her son centered in some kind of shrine, surrounded by candles. What is going on?  Are we looking at some "wicker man" shenanigans, and is the town into ritual child sacrifice?  If Julia's lived in town for a while, wouldn't she have figured out what's up earlier? Well, I'll tell you, but you have been duly informed that there are ***spoilers ahead.

Julia is captured by the Tall Man, helpless to rescue her son
As I mentioned earlier, Julia is extremely resourceful.  I would rely on her in a pinch during either a home invasion or a zombie apocalypse.  She sneaks into the Sheriff's backseat as he leads her to where her child is hidden, and then she confronts the kidnapper, who is none other than Mrs. Johnson?? (Connie Wheeler), a woman who is missing her own child as well.  In fact, she insists that in this upside down world, Julia has actually kidnapped her child, and she narrates a montage of past events that renders this plot possibility utterly believable.  So, at the film's 2/3 point, spectators are now led to question everything we know about Julia, and re-examine all the events that have occurred thus far.  In support of this new perspective, Julia's son, David (Jakob Davies) seems not that interested in leaving with her. So, wait?!  Who is David's "real" mother?  Well, when we find out, that's when the whole film goes pear shaped, even if it still maintains a good deal of tension.

David (Jakob Davies) seems afraid of Julia
***Spoilers!!  As Julia snatches the kid and takes him back to her house, the film makes clear that not only is David not her kid, but that she and Christine have been giving the town's children to "The Tall Man" for quite a while now.  He appears to reside somewhere in the basement, and kids go down there, but they never come back up.  Is Julia feeding him??   Here, it's important to explain a side plot where Jenny takes center stage.  Jenny is Tracy's daughter, and she and her abusive boyfriend, Steven, continue to make bad choices that direly affect her two children, Carol (whom Steven impregnates) and Jenny, who gets slapped around one too many times.  In her case, Jenny begs Julia to contact the Tall Man so that he can intervene.  And he eventually does.

Jenny's life with her "third mother" does not seem too bad
More spoilers**  At film's end we discover that Julia has sacrificed herself, and taken the rap for The Tall Man, so that he can continue to "save" children from their poverty-stricken and violent circumstances.  Turns out that Julia and her not dead husband have been snatching children from their homes in Cold Rock and providing them with new families that are more fitting (white, wealthy, nurturing).  Playing judge and jury for some supposed "secret organization" that resettles kids into better homes, the Tall Man "snatches" Jenny and brings her to a wealthy older woman's abode, where she appears to live a rather cushy life, far away from her abusive former life.

The Tall Man works because spectators only get the full picture in the film's last 10 minutes.  Up until that point, our imagination fills in the blanks, and the narrative's twists and turns are not too predictable.  I was waiting for the Tall Man's big reveal, imagining all sorts of diabolical half-human creatures crunching on kiddie bones in the basement.  I admit to some degree of disappointment when we find out what's actually going on, as it SUCKS to have Julia rotting away in some prison (with a possible death penalty sentence), a martyr to the "save the children" cause.  The film is smartly ambiguous enough that its "message" is not such a clear read.  Yes, the relocated children appear to have a better life, but why does this white guy get to make this decision?  What exactly is the organization for which he works as "child snatcher?" Jenny's voiceover brackets the film, as she too questions whether her new life is "for the best."  The film is open enough to let spectators ultimately decide, but really, this film does not do the poor and working-class any favors.  The Tall Man is currently streaming on Netflix, and worth giving a whirl, even as it reinforces some of the worst myths about poverty and the working class (and its narrative is limited largely to white people.)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Dearest Sister--Mattie Do (2016)

Blind Ana is haunted by spirits in Mattie Do's sophomore feature Dearest Sister (2016)
Streaming on Shudder, Mattie Do's Dearest Sister is an unsettling and atmospheric slow burn horror that highlights class differences in Laotian culture in a rather stark and horrifying manner.  Do is Laos' first female director, and has so far worked exclusively in the horror genre.  Dearest Sister was Laos' first ever submission for the foreign language Academy award, and tells a very female-oriented story--one where male characters are more props then actual fleshed out characters.  Kind of refreshing.

Nok, Ana's cousin, becomes tempted by pleasures that money can bring
Dearest Sister focuses on village girl Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya), who is shuttled off by her poverty-stricken parents to Lao capital Vientiane, to become a paid companion to her "city" cousin, Ana (Vilouna Phetmany), whose sight is rapidly deteriorating and needs help.  Despite Ana's increasing disability, she has done well for herself, with a handsome white Estonian dude, Jakob, as her devoted husband, and two servants to take care of her home.  Nok is not completely considered "family" by Ana, but not really a servant either, so she's trapped in a kind of liminal space between the two roles.  Unsurprisingly, the servants really resent the hell out of Nok because of it, while Anna is a raging jerk who treats both her servants and Nok like crap.  Ergo the servants move the furniture around just to mess with Ana, and everyone only pretends to get along when Jakob is home.

Ana's ability to see ghosts, and premonitions of death, inadvertently turn her into a cash cow
Nok susses out rather quickly that while Ana is losing her sight, she's gaining another kind of sense--she sees ghosts and spirits.  Even though Ana is initially rather cruel and dismissive of Nok, she gradually becomes closer to her companion, and Nok comforts her through her ghostly encounters.  During these spectral moments, Ana recites three numbers (told to her by the spirits she sees), and on a whim, Nok uses the numbers to play the lottery, and wins big a couple of times.  This largesse (of which Ana is oblivious) allows Nok entree into consumer culture.  Instead of sending money home, she buys a new smart phone, a dress, dies her hair, has drinks at a fine restaurant--trying to fit into the culture, and tempted by its pleasures.  She still helps Ana, but nevertheless takes advantage of the young woman's affliction.  Ana's servants do not take kindly to Nok's sudden influx of cash, and steal from both Ana and Nok at every turn.  The film implies that they have been employed by Ana and Jacob for quite some time, and the wealth gap in play becomes more intolerable as Nok rises in Ana's estimation.  Of course, Nok can play the lottery only so often without all parties becoming increasingly suspicious.  Ana's discovery of Nok's deception is simultaneous with an expensive surgery she gets in Thailand to restore her eyesight--one that may get rid of her "ghost sight" for good.  As Jakob takes off on yet another business trip, Ana and Nok are left alone together during Ana's recovery, and things seriously unravel from there.

The gore in Dearest Sister is subtle, but its suspense is pretty acute
Mattie Do does a remarkable job of creating sympathetic portraits of these complicated, and at times, unlikeable female characters, and the women who play Ana and Nok convince us to care for them through their nuanced performances.  Unlike many horror films, these two women are our sole identification points--we only see through their POV.  Throughout the film, one roots for Nok, even when she makes quite a few questionable decisions, and spectators feel for Ana, empathizing with her loneliness, fear, and vulnerability.  The only clearcut villains are Ana's servants, but viewers can still feel a smattering of understanding as to what drives their resentment and final acts of cruelty.  The film emphasizes above all that rampant economic inequalities can turn women against each other in the most insidious ways, and that the endearment "dearest sister" can shift into a bitter curse.  Visually, the film is rather low-key with hand-held camerawork and a definite low-budget vibe, but the performances and the film's sharp script allow it to rise above its budgetary limitations.  This film is a fine example of a woman director developing a distinctive and expressive voice.  Definitely worth checking out!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Woodshock--Kate and Laura Mulleavy (2017)

Kirsten Dunst stars as the enigmatic Theresa in Kate and Laura Mulleavy's Woodshock (2017)
"What have you done, Theresa?  What have you done?" These ominous words end one of the most beautiful and intriguing trailers I've seen in recent years, for fashion designers' Kate and Laura Mulleavy's debut film Woodshock (2017).  After I saw this trailer, I wanted to see this film in all its experimental, superimpositioned glory with such a desperate longing; yet alas, nothing that wondrously weird and non-mainstream was going to play in a theater anywhere near me.  Then Amazon came to my rescue (as it so often does), streaming it for the pretty pennies of my Prime membership, and giving the film a larger viewership than it might never receive otherwise.  Still, I'm ambivalent about Theresa, this particular "haunted heroine," as the film's ambiguities coupled with its distinctive visual style are indeed gorgeously compelling, but perhaps even too oblique for me--a critic who wholeheartedly embraces style and narrative complexity over clarity and substance.  Nevertheless, I'm still working over this film, turning it over in my mind, days after viewing it.

Theresa must repeatedly face herself, wracked by guilt and grief, in Woodshock
Woodshock follows a grief-stricken Theresa, as she copes with the aftermath of assisting her mother's suicide after a bout with what appears to be an extremely drawn out and painful illness.  (I'm not really spoiling anything here--this plot point is revealed in the trailer and in the film's first 5 minutes).  Gradually, she attempts to get "back to life," and returns to her job at a marijuana dispensary, where she works with the rather unstable Keith (Pilou Asbaek), and doles out dosages to medical marijuana recipients Johnny (Jack Kilmer) and Ed (Steph DuVall).  She also gets her steady beau, woodcutter Nick (Joe Cole), to move in with her, but is apparently haunted by her mother's passing and her role in it, as her relationship with her mother's room and bed suggests.  An accident with some dosed marijuana sends Theresa over the edge, and she spirals into a strange world, a somnambulist stumbling around in her life.  As the film evolves, her guilt and grief seem to propel her toward taking her own life, as she starts to make a series of poor decisions that place her in a mental state distinctly at odds with reality.  Theresa is an excellent unreliable narrator, and the film's horror aspects evolve into a harrowing journey where one tries to discern what actually has happened (as in filmic events), and what's unfolding inside her head--the classic "haunted heroine of horror" paradox.

Shades of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (2011)
The Mulleavy siblings are mostly known for their fantastic and ethereal designs for fashion house Rodarte, and their visual aesthetic is on hand throughout this mysterious meditation on grief.  I'm still on the fence regarding the symbolic importance of the film's title, or it's gloriously wooded setting, where majestic redwoods seem otherworldly and almost CGI in their ridiculous majesty as they dwarf Theresa when she wanders amongst them in her Rodarte negligee.  The sisters reveal Theresa's inner unraveling through a series of layered superimpositions and shots that move hesitantly through her home, emphasizing the fraught relationship she has to her personal space--even though she seems to sleep/dream walk through every other setting as well.  Woodshock comes across as very heavy-hearted, and when it moves into nightmare territory, the shift is jarring but unsurprising, as Theresa's mental state is always ephemeral and uncertain (and that's not just from the pot she's smoking).

Theresa's relationship to her surroundings is sometimes as one, and sometimes at odds
Unlike, Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronfsky, 2000), Woodshock's increasingly unsettling visuals do not add up to the ultimate "Just Say No" film, and I felt throughout the film an empathy toward Theresa's suffering and confusion.  When things get bloody, they look pretty gorgeous, but the film's almost non-existent narrative structure at times veers away to other characters and other locations, unnecessarily troubling our identification with Theresa's experiences in order to give viewers some context.  Yet all that context gets tossed aside at film's end, and we are left with not really knowing what the hell actually happened in the film.  "What have you done, Theresa?" seems like a pretty appropriate question, and I'm still not sure.  While I'm a big fan of ambiguity, I was even left with a "huh" after all was said and done.  I still recommend the film, especially if you are an Amazon Prime customer; why not take the film for a spin?  This moody piece is pretty and pretty damn weird, made by two incredibly talented women directors.  The film doesn't neatly fit into the horror genre, but definitely plays enough with its tropes to satisfy those viewers who like their films to take them to dark and gorgeous places.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Forest--Jason Zada (2016)

Jason Zada's 2016 film The Forest had some incredible potential, as its spooky poster suggests--although the image of nooses hanging from the trees misses the point of the suicide forest's symbolic importance and goes straight for dumb Hollywood literalism.  No subtlety here.  The film follows Sara (Nathalie Dormer) as she travels to Japan in search of her identical twin, Jess, who has disappeared in Japan's famous "suicide forest" on Mount Fuji.  Sara has her share of "fish out of water" outsider encounters once she reaches Japan, including a hokey moment where her sushi is delivered alive and wriggling at a Tokyo bar.  She also seems haunted by the memory of her parents' death, supposedly in a drunk driving car crash right outside their front door when she and Jess were just kids.  Jess was the unlucky twin who saw the bodies, marking her forever as the screw-up that Sara rushes to protect/clean up after.  In many ways, Sara is a quintessential "haunted heroine," plagued by an early childhood trauma that haunts her present, even as she travels to far flung locales.  Yet, the haunted space that Sara must traverse is one of lush, natural beauty, rather than the unhomely home.

Sara wanders...and wanders...and wanders around the Suicide forest, searching for her sister
Many horror films make the most of a forest setting, effectively conveying a sense of acute "lostness" as urban/suburban characters stumble along in an unfamiliar milieu.  The Blair Witch Project comes immediately to mind, and The Forest employs some of the same shaky hand-held camera work to ill effect.  Sara is repeatedly told by a bevy of English speakers (since she cannot be bothered to even learn to say hello in Japanese) that she should not stray from "the path" in the forest, yet in the most typical horror film fashion, she does so immediately.  Even with advice from a hunky guy she picks up at a bar and a trusted guide he enlists to help her, she spends most of the film running around aimlessly, calling her sister's name, and encountering a series of dopey, nonsensical jump scares supposedly representing the angry spirits housed in said forest.  The film became so incredibly tedious after a time, that I chose to get up to deal with the laundry instead of nodding off.  Nothing remotely scary here.

Sara starts "seeing things" with more frequency as the spell of the forest takes hold
Unfortunately, the film's split personality--shifting constantly between female subjective psychological horror and scary Japanese ghost horror--allows neither approach to really succeed.  Sara and Jess's traumatic past (who exactly saw something nasty in the basement?) creates a rather compelling narrative, and speaks to the heartbreak and acute mental distress that drives Sara to embark on this journey in the first place.  Yet, her personal horrors do not match up with the stream of gray-streaked ghost faces popping up at inopportune moments throughout the film, shrieking at her for no apparent reason other than she's in this forest.  Indeed, the film leeches out any respect for Japanese folklore or the symbolic significance that this forest has for many people, making it just another space in which dumb Americans can get lost.  The ending of this film is such utter nonsense, that I'm tempted to just spoil it for everyone. Alas, I don't write those kind of reviews, and maybe this film was wrested away from the director somehow and turned into this sloppy mess which we can now watch at home.  Here's hoping.  If you are a Nathalie Dormer fan, I highly recommend the sadly canceled The Fades instead.