Sins, Dirty Secrets, and Saucy!
By Kristin Battestella
From past rituals and torrid affairs to technological scares and crimes you thought you could hide, this modern quartet is brimming with sinners, sex, and consequences. Yowzah!
Let us Prey – The Scottish setting and British accents of this 2014 creepy starring Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) may be tough for some. The voices are softer than the big sounds, and the dark, saturated picture is tough to see at times. Fortunately, that’s about all the quibbles here thanks to ominous waves, bleak crows, and an abandoned, end of the earth isolation. Despite the dark design, several critical scenes are well lit with either halo brightness, orange purgatory hues, a sickly green patina, or red for violent flashbacks. Female clichés are upended amid this interesting cast of characters – and there is plenty of gray behind the bars and the badge making for some mysterious hit and runs, visions, antagonism, and a twisted parable mood. Suspicious doctoring, eerie fingerprints, ticking clock night shift hours, and talk of Biblical retribution but not necessarily salvation add to the bizarre, in limbo happenings. Snippets of past vices quickly reveal what the audience already suspects of our players, and whether Cunningham’s little black book is full of vengeance for good or ill, we don’t blame him either way. Nice tricks, match strikes, radio call ins, limited technology, and small intimate locales go a long way amid rhythmic editing. There’s action, blood, and violence, but this isn’t bloated with cool of it all visuals or torture porn. Although the script may be nothing new and we know what’s going to happen, the layered references, sardonic irony, and one by one karma is well played and doesn’t underestimate the audience. I almost wish this was a limited series with the not so divine collector Cunningham kicking ass and taking names with each cigarette puff, however this is a fine film as is with no need to cheapen the tale with more. Who’s the right sacred just in all of this? Who’s really a crazy predator? When you think you are one and not the other, does it make a difference? This is a refreshingly adult, R-rated, well thought out and surreal but on point commentary.
Altar – Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) and Matthew Modine (Memphis Belle) renovate a spooky, desolate estate on the English Moors in this 2014 Kickstarter scary full of fog, muted black and white style, and crisp, chilly moods. This family isn’t feeling the “no signal” under construction living for the sake of mom’s work, and Modine looks appropriately Vincent Price-esque as her increasingly tense, creepy, and obsessive American artist husband. Williams’ Mrs. is in over her head before the scares begin, and though she explores, uncovers hidden doors, and takes pictures, Meg isn’t seen doing much actual renovation and this design premise feels unnecessary along with a son who only appears as required by the plot. She also disbelieves their daughter by trying to be down with the hip lingo, deflecting by watching a movie on the iPad, and not wanting tweets about ghosts or dissing of her work reputation online despite her own suspicions. Rather than being a strong, proactive wife and mother, Meg takes a lot of crap from her husband and ends up in need of rescue because she ignores the obligatory superstitious handyman, her own internet research, and the local ghost whisperer. Distorted camera work and spinning panoramas are unnecessary as well, interfering with the innate, ghostly fears and appropriately askew one on one strangers. Seemingly innocent cuts, drops of blood, eerie apparitions, bones cracking, disembodied phones ringing, bugs, and coming alive walls do enough atmosphere building over the 95 minutes, and a one sentence history makes things bemusingly self aware: this bad happened, that bad happened, place should be torn down, fin. Granted, this isn’t anything new and not a whole lot actually happens, but the seventies haunted house movie feeling and overall creepy tone provide a well paced burn to counter the usual horror contrivances like separated family members, lookalike ghosts, and going back into the house because you forgot your car keys – although the asthmatic teen has her cell phone but not her inhaler, talk about priorities! The repeating past events and titular rituals will be expected by wise horror audiences, and some of those haunting details should have been clarified, faults I again suspect are due to having a one in the same writer and director. I feel like I’ve said a lot of negatives yet this one was better than I expected thanks to its not reaching with sex and gore or a trying to be something its not pretentiousness. There’s some same old, same old, but the time remains a pleasing escalation of ghostly possessions.
Darknet – This 2013 Canadian anthology series jumps right into the First of Six half hour episodes with an internal website design, ominous subway obliviousness, and mysterious keys in a terminal locker leading to more clues. Our young and hip protagonists are often alone, in over their heads, and unaware they are horror subjects, and the seemingly random, intercut mini tales make it tough to grow attached whether our anonymous victims are in the played videos or surfing the visuals in real time. These aren’t characters, just people being scared from scene to scene. Surveillance camera black and white accents the suspense and ironic toppers in each vignette, but the non-linear excuses only provide short term effectiveness. Through the keyhole views, police investigations, voyeurs, and saucy witnesses help rebuild tension in Episode Two, and bickering couples, incessant buzzing, faulty electricity, and erotic treasure maps don’t lead to a happy ending. Whether the stories are creatively connected or not, the disjointed twists aren’t necessarily crafty when the audience is duped into a confusing short attention span structure. Episode Three serves up eerie escorts, homeopathic pills, perilous jaywalking, and worse telephone repairmen – those tasers do come in handy! Despite the lack of logic needed to keep the shockers afloat, the storylines are quite quality along with the desperate prescriptions, kitchen hallucinations, and surgery fears of Show Four. Yes, be suspicious of house call doctors, cryptic contests, and fishy hotline calls! The isolation, blurred camerawork, and disembodied voices go well with the medical horrors, proving the plots here don’t always have to be solely murderous. Cubicle ho hum and new town paranoia also do excellently in the full length story for Episode 5, using the alarming videos within an escalating tale for what ifs instead of the previous plot hole shockers. Ironically, the Finale goes back to hacker games and cheap sex thrills, weakening the killer tapping on the window simmer and turnabout is fair play surprises for a limp finish. A Season Two is in the works, and this kind of instant shock value fits its online Vimeo platform – where the over reliance on technology, messaging, social screens, and scrolling matches the current horror trends. Worse sex and violence can be found on the internet, however, and in five years, that technological steep will compromise all watch-ability. That’s not to say the series isn’t without promise, but its fleeting by design choices over brewing scares is only a fright fix memorable in small doses. Hopefully,the next batch will correct the kinks and notch up the fear.
The Theatre Bizarre – Udo Kier (Shadow of the Vampire) is discomforting in his puppet makeup and makes for a bizarre animatronic host indeed for the “Theatre Guignol” frame story linking this 2011 anthology. Our First tale “The Mother of Toads” is self aware with Lovecraft references, croaking old ladies, reptilian rituals, and disturbing nudity – but the vacationing couple clichés may bore horror viewers expecting oomph. Tale Two “I Love You” escalates from a dramatic break up and bad sex to a painful look at two timing revelations and honest cruelties. Again, the violent reactions are predictable, but the distorted editing is a pleasing accent on the unabashedly R skin and splatter. The Third segment “Wet Dreams” offers a weird therapist, torture devices, and several creative varieties on every man’s fear of uh… dismemberment. Dream analysis blurs the line between conscious moments or imagination, but that abstract also muddles some of the sympathy involved. “The Accident,” however, has pretty scenery, a little girl asking hefty questions, intercut motorcycle fatalities, and upsetting animal scenes. Why do we lie to comfort our children? While such somber may seem out of place here, this vignette isn’t trying to scare but instead relay what is scary to us. Next, rapid life flashing before your eyes editing, back alley stupor, drug fixes, and eerie needles anchor the premise of “Vision Stains.” What if memory collection was within the eye itself? Should it be stolen in a dark violent high disguised as some sort of vigilante justice? The solitary narration makes the structure difficult, but that askew perception is also necessary to the storytelling. Gluttonous decadence, sex meets food sustenance, and avante garde orgies make for some fun fetish extremes for the finale “Sweets,” and director commentaries and lengthy interview features provide more insights. The overall tone, however, does seem sexist on both sides – male directors telling tales about bitches but those gals are apparently justified over such creep dudes. The balance isn’t quite right, and if viewers are going to pick and choose their favorite segments individually, the concepts might have been nice to see in a new Tales from the Crypt style series instead. A lot here is too weird, derivative, and uneven thanks to the unique design, but there is still some choice horror entertainment, too.