By Kristin Battestella
Because new, retro, foreign, zombies or witches – we all need some more ladies in our horror!
The House of the Devil – Creepy menus, cult statistics, and retro credits start this 2009 blu-ray featuring Jocelin Donahue (The Burrowers), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000). Payphones, eighties rhythms, and old fashioned style add period flair alongside onscreen smoking, maps, feathered hair, and a big old cabinet television showing Night of the Living Dead. Even the giant Walkman and slightly corny music montage and dance about the house has a purpose in the narrative. Church bells, cemeteries, and an imminent eclipse lay the scary foundation, and rather than an opening scare fake-out, writer/director/editor Ti West (The Innkeepers) uses zooms and movement within the camera frame to create viewer intimacy, closing in from the chilly exterior and ominous windows as the suspicious phone calls lead to desperate babysitting jobs, desolate night drives, and a maze-like Victorian manor. Yes, our Samantha is at times very dumb and unaware she is in a horror movies thanks to plot holes a collaborator not wearing so many behind the scenes hats could have clarified. Mistakes and convenient contrivances in the somewhat tacked on final act also break the solitary point of view for the audience’s benefit. However, that finale free for all with ritual candles, hooded robes, and a sudden twist ending is in the seventies splatter spirit, and the simmering, silent build happens naturally over the film. Instead of hollow thrills a minute, the viewer is allowed time to suspect the scary attic, theorize on suspicious photos, and listen for every noise – we know something is supposed to happen but not when. Though this kind of approach may seem boring to some, this innate alone trickle let’s us appreciate the dark basement and the inopportune power outage for when the titular frights do happen. It’s nice to have something different from the mainstream horror trite, too – not to mention an $8 pizza!
Hush – Writer and director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Absentia) and his wife, co-writer, and star Kate Siegel place our deaf-mute author in a pleasant forest cabin for some writing, relaxation, and terror in this 2016 eighty minute Netflix original. Comfort cooking noise fades and unheard laptop tones switch to wild kitchen alarms – immediately establishing the common sounds taken for granted alongside subtitled Sign Language, feeling vibrations for sound, and hearing an author voice in your head brainstorms. Friends speak while they sign, breaking up the quiet for the viewer, and we must pay attention to writing onscreen such as book jackets and manuscript text. Understandably, phone technology and Facetime calls are important, but an over-reliance on gadgets in horror can be tiring and soon dated with wi-fi switches, lost connections, and cut power. Fortunately, the intimate home makes the audience accustomed to the hearing challenges before adding the muffled silence, unseen scares, unheard screams, and instant cyberstalking. Through windows or foreground focus and background action, we have the full perspective when the protagonist doesn’t. It is however a mistake to reveal the crossbow and Bowie knife wielding stalker so completely. We don’t need to know the sociopath motivation nor should the viewer feel for the killer or care if he has any personality, and removing his mask just creates limp assholery. The frightening unknown with footstep vibrations, hands at the window, and approaching shadows creates a better siege, and the mystery of who and why is lost in the contrived lulls and stupid mistakes while Maddie waits around for his taunts instead of fighting back. Why not set something on fire, smoke signal authorities? Having her inner monologue address the situation and the pros or cons in each course of action is also better than breaking Maddie’s point of view and using fake out possibilities. Although it’s a pity millennial viewers wouldn’t watch something that was all silent, the long periods with no dialogue, sound effects, and score crescendos do just fine in accenting these unique dynamics. While not perfect, this tale has enough thriller tense and innate woman alone in peril – and thus proves exactly why I must know where all the windows, entrances, and exits are in a given location and never sit with my back to any of them!
Maggie – Sad voicemails, outbreak news reports, desolate cities, quarantines, and martial law immediately set the bleak outlook for infected daughter Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and her gray bearded father Arnold Schwarzenegger in this 2015 zombie drama. Wait – Arnold? In a drama movie? About zombies? No choppers?! Nope, this is not an action horror movie, and gruesome gurneys, gangrene encounters, and blackened decay are not played for scares. Here the body horrors and social breakdowns go hand in hand – science can’t put a dent into the virus fast enough, and loved ones must wait as the vein discolorations and white out eyes spread toward heightened smells and cannibalistic tendencies. Minimal technology, chopping wood, rustic generators, cassettes, and older horseshoe phones accent the isolated farmhouse as insect buzzing, infected neighbors, and animal dangers mount. Younger siblings are sent away, and step-mom Joely Richardson (Nip/tuck) struggles with her faith, strength of conviction, and the promises they’ve made despite the deadly risks. How does a teenager keep it together when she has nothing better to do but sit around and die? Do you call friends for a last hurrah? This flawed father won’t send his daughter to die in quarantine with strangers, but he can’t give the painful lethal injection at home or make it a quick end, either. Creepy doctor visits amplify the stigmas and paranoia regarding these in between infected, and nice teen moments soon give way to growls and necroambulist changes. Where is the line between siege removal authorities and family compassion? Someone has to take control and there’s no time for sympathy – just the inevitable breakdown of families desperate to stay together. Governator Arnold produced the film sans salary, and the off-type surprise provides heart wrenching results and must see performances. Granted, most audiences probably expected zombie action thrills a minute and there are unnecessary artistic shots, long pauses, and plodding direction at times. However, this is a strong story with hefty goodbye conversations, and it is surprising such realistically upsetting and horrible circumstances rather than horror went unnoticed. Without mainstream box office demands, indie releases are free to tell their story as it needs to be told, and this tearjerker delivers a great spin on the flooded and increasing derivative zombie genre.
Picnic at Hanging Rock – The Criterion blu-ray has almost two hours more features discussing this 1975 Australian spooky drama based on the Joan Lindsay novel about schoolgirls gone missing in 1900. The innocent white lace and valentine wishes are soon to be ill foreboding thanks to eerie music and budding whispers. These girls tighten each others corsets in parallel shots with mirrors, BFF poetry, latent suggestions, and repression abound. The seventies breezy fits the late Victoria ruffles, hats, and parasols – gloves are permitted to be removed for this excursion! Capable Aussie help and buttoned up British elite mark a strong class divide, and pretty mountain vistas, wild vegetation, and rocky mazes contrast the lovely yet out of place English manor. Straightforward, controlled camerawork captures the society at home, but surreal, swooning outdoor panoramas invoke Bermuda Triangle suggestions alongside dreamy voiceovers, rolling cloud rumbles, and red symbolism. Insects, reptiles, swans, disturbed bird migrations, fickle horses, watches stopping at noon – the metaphysical or transcendental signs imply something beyond mere coming of age and sexual awakening. Trance like magnetic lures radiating from the titular nooks and crannies stir these Gibson Girl naps, and askew slow motion reflects this layered beauty meets danger. The enchanting blonde, the nerdy girl with glasses, an awkward brunette, and the complaining chubby girl – standard horror stereotypes today – all talk as if they are up to something naughty with self-aware doomed to die chats before scandalously removing their shoes and stockings. A flirty French teacher, the severe math teacher in red reciting lava flow build up and volcano rising statistics with an uncomfortable kinky – we don’t see what happens. However, hearing the screams and watching the resulting hysterics make it creepier. Incomplete searches, Victorian speculation, and unreliable witnesses muddle the investigation, but most importantly, doctors assure the survivors are still chaste. Such delicate interrogations and polite society leave newspapers and angry townsfolk wondering while the school faces its own fallout with withdrawals, unpaid terms, drinking, and guilt. Yes, there’s some artistic license with absent families, poor forensics, and missing evidence ignored. Surprising connections, however, and good twists in the final forty minutes keep this damn disturbing – and it’s all done without gore or effects. The innate power of suggestion, period restraints, and our own social expectations drum up all kinds of unknown possibilities, and I don’t know how anyone doesn’t consider this a horror movie.
The Witch – We don’t get many Puritan period pieces anymore much less ninety minutes plus of simmering 17th century horror as seen in this 2015 festival darling. Big hats, white collars, thee versus thou court room arguments, and family banishments immediately establish the ye olde alongside natural lighting and authentic thatch buildings for a rural, simplistic ambiance. Unfortunately, such exile to these empty, harsh, unyielding lands turns devotions to desperation with gray crops, bloody eggs, abductions, and babies in peril raising tensions in the humble hovel. Spooky forests, fireside red lighting, blood, nudity, ravens, and primal rituals suggest a dark underbelly only partially seen with hazy splices, shadows, and moonlight. The screen is occasionally all black and certain scenes are very tough to see, but such visual bewitching adds to the folktale surreal. Personal, intimate prayers are addressed directly to the camera, and we feel for Anya Taylor-Joy (Atlantis) as Thomasin when she apologizes for her sin of playing on the Sabbath. The scripture heavy dialogue and religious names are fittingly period yet remain understandable as coming of age children question how an innocent baby can be guilty of sin. Both parents’ faces are shadowed with hats, dirt, and impurity, yet snapping mom Kate Dickie (Red Road) gives Thomasin all the difficult work. Increasing dog problems, ram troubles, and creepy rabbits contribute to the toughness – the young twins chant oldeth nursery songs to the goats and claim there is a witch at work, but dad Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones) isn’t totally forthcoming with his grief, hopeless trading, and family pressures. The isolated, starving couple argues, debating on sending the children away as the strain, zealousness, and fears mount. Ominous lantern light, alluring witchcraft, and almost ritualistic in itself bloodlettings stir the finger pointing hysterics while great performances hit home the wild bed fits and exorcism-esque prayers. Somebody has to be blamed. Where do you get help when evil would take advantage of such hypocrisy and social failings? It’s easy to imagine the fantastic or confuse apparitions of the dead as angels when the devil answers your pleas instead of Grace. Maybe one has to be familiar with Puritan history or Biblical texts to fully appreciate the struggles and references here. However, contemporary audiences should realize that there’s more to the horror film genre than today’s rinse repeat wham bam boo gore. Although a brighter picture would have been nice, the genuine designs here are much more pleasing than any digital overkill. Doubt, what you don’t see, and the power of suggestion escalate the horrors with maniacal laughter, screams, and one scary voice leading to a deliriously delicious finale. Why aren’t these niche indies that do film making right really the mainstream cinema?
Don’t forget you can read more of our Feminine Horror recommendations in the Horror Addicts Guide to Life!