The Field Guide to Evil (2019)

In theory, I understand the thinking behind programming a horror anthology like The Field Guide to Evil in the late-night slot at an arthouse theater or on the festival circuit. This is a format typically populated by 80-minute creature feature showcases, where a few like-minded directors put in wildly different short films only tied together by a flimsy wraparound. They’re an excuse to sample different tones & onscreen monsters in bite-sized horror morsels. The classic horror anthology in a genre film nerd party in that way, so it makes sense to relegate them to the late-night slot when those freaks (us) tend to come out. The Field Guide to Evil is a different beast entirely, though. At nearly two hours and often academic in tone, this is a film that would benefit from the sober light of the afternoon rather than the rowdy eeriness of a midnight screening. It’s too long, too dry, and too tonally consistent to satisfy the usual criteria of a fun, breezy horror anthology – which means a lot of festival goers & late night partiers are going to fight the urge to doze off midway through the picture, through no fault of the film’s. It’s just an experience that requires a little alertness in a proper atmosphere.

Whereas most horror anthologies are harshly criticized for being wildly inconsistent in quality & tone from segment to segment, it’s that very variation that gives the format an inherent sense of excitement. Featuring nine filmmakers from eight different countries, you’d think that The Filed Guide to Evil would traffic in that traditional inconsistency, but it’s a very cohesive, evenly curated piece – almost to a fault. The central, unifying conceit of the collection is clear in a way few anthologies are: some of the most exciting new filmmakers in the horror genre (all veterans of Fantastic Film Fest) are gathered to adapt folklore tales from their home countries in any way they see fit. Cautionary tales about djinns, goblins, demons, and witches vary only slightly across national borders, establishing a kind of Brothers Grimm collection for the “elevated horror” era. As an international horror folklore omnibus, the entirety of Field Guide recalls recent genre outliers like The Witch, November, and Tale of Tales, titles that look back to the fantasies & moralistic norms of the past to terrify audiences & diagnose societal ills of the present. The atmosphere, imagery, and academic discussion that arise from that end of the horror filmmaking spectrum can fascinate in the way they stir up an old-world sense of dread. However, it’s also a storytelling mode that requires a little patience & a lot of forgiveness for abrupt, obscured conclusions – which can be very trying at this length with this overwhelming wealth of contributors, especially at a late hour.

As a voracious horror nerd who feels absolutely spoiled by the wealth of talent & #content out there in the current landscape, I found plenty to be excited by in this picture’s impressive lineup of filmmakers. Any anthology that manages to feature contributions from Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy), Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure), Veronika Franz, and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) is automatically going to have my attention. I suspect my biases there determined most of my preferences for individual vignettes. Those specific contributors’ segments were all clear favorites for me, while filmmakers I knew nothing about or whose work I don’t appreciate as much (Baskin’s Can Evrenol, to name names) left me a little cold . . and very sleepy. Strickland’s concluding segment was a particular must-see standout, one that reimagines German Expressionist horror filmmaking in a new, vibrantly psychedelic light I felt lucky to catch on the big screen. I was so deliriously exhausted by the time that conclusion arrived, however, that I feel like I owe it a bright-eyed sober rewatch over a morning coffee to fully soak it in. It’s a dark blessing that this anthology was released on VOD the same weekend as it hit arthouse theaters; most venues are going to be tempted to screen it in a late-hour cult movie slot that does its slow, peculiar rhythms a disservice. As is, I was thrilled by individual images & ideas on display in this horror folklore collection, but too exhausted by its late-night time slot to recall it vividly; it lingers in my mind only as a half-remembered nightmare. I’m hoping I can remedy that dilemma soon with an early morning revisit on my couch.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lure (2017)

Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty. This debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

Two young mermaid sisters, Golden & Silver, join us legged folk on land after curiously spying on some drunken revelers from just under the surface of the water at a cityside beach. Fascinated with the mermaids’ siren song duet & apparent ability to temporarily sprout legs (but no human genitalia, much to everyone’s dismay), the beach-side drunks adopt the sisters into their band: an adult-themed nightclub act that sounds something like synthpop act Berlin gone disco. Soon they’re the most popular act at any disco burlesque in all of Warsaw, first providing the backing track for other topless performers and then quickly becoming topless performers themselves. The club makes no effort to hide the fact that these are fantastical creatures, making their gigantic, muscular mermaid tails a central part of the act. The problems that break up this sexed-up reverie arise when Silver & Golden aren’t performing. One falls in love with a human, both grow frustrated with their over-controlling band mates, and neither are sure what to make of Triton, who leads a similar life on land fronting a wildly popular punk band at a nearby club. All of these conflicts come to a head the way they also did in Poland’s last significant international horror release, Demon: through a drunken wedding celebration that ends much, much later into the night than it should.

It’s possible that some of the cultural significance of themes lurking just under the surface of The Lure might be going over my head as an American outsider (a concern I also had with Demon, to be honest). Inscrutable dialogue like, “Do you live in some old monkey’s ear?” occasionally threw me off-balance in that way, but that open-for-interpretation oddness lends itself well to the universality of pop music lyrics’ subjectivity. Lines like, “Bitter tastes can be delicious,” “We’re all gloomy as hell,” and “Put your hand deep inside me and drag me to shore,” cut through the language barrier of the pop lyrics translations to feel significant despite their enigmatic nature. This dynamic also plays well into how the sisters relate to the outside world in ways we don’t fully understand as an audience of land-walkers. Sometimes their dolphin-noise communication between one another is subtitled for our benefit, but often we’re left completely in the dark. This not only maintains the suspense of whether Golden or Silver are about to strike out in another act of animalistic, flesh-eating violence (or equally animalistic acts of sexual perversion), but also supports the film’s necessary distinction of their unknowable inhumanity. As Triton puts it, “We are not human. We are just on vacation here.” Any tragedy that befalls the mermaids or the humans who desire to interact with them is a direct result of losing track of that basic truth, which is an easy enough narrative through-line to hold onto, even if some of the details in the phrasing present a communicative struggle.

Of course, the lure of The Lure isn’t entirely dependent on the film’s dialogue or thematic weight. From a filmmaking standpoint, my favorite aspect of the movie is just its value as a stunning collection of sights & sounds. Every scene in the film looks either like a music video dream sequence or a flashlight-illuminated crime scene. The costuming & old school musical sound stage imagery is impeccable. Its The Knife-esque synths & vocal distortions had me tapping my foot for the entire length of the runtime. I could ramble on forever praising The Lure for the way it handles themes like the infantilization & casual dismissal of women after their commodification loses potency or its admirably blasé attitudes toward bisexuality or feminist revenge narratives. That kind of highfalutin critical praise would be somewhat dishonest to what I most fell in love with in the film, however. Smoczyńska’s major accomplishment is in how she captures the grand scale spectacle of a Baz Luhrmann musical within the context of a slick, modern horror film that’s both comically light on its feet and chillingly brutal in its gore-heavy cruelty. It’s an incredible love-at-first-sight debut that already has me willing to give the director a lifetime pass just one entry into her career.

-Brandon Ledet