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

Baskin (2016)

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The Turkish horror film Baskin knows how to craft a disturbing image & a depraved scenario, but is that enough of a foundation for an entire feature film? Without much of a story to tell the production winds up feeling like an HD home video of a trip to a haunted house, not at all like a narrative feature. This problem is further compounded when you’re forced to carpool to said haunted house with a gang of overgrown dude bro bully cops. The five interchangeable police officers who are tortured & destroyed by Baskin’s haunted house creations aren’t necessarily portrayed as sympathetic. In fact, they’re quite despicably abusive. However, after long enough exposure to their shitty macho jokes about bestiality & trans sex workers the film starts to take on the same one-of-the-guys locker room vibes that sunk the similarly visually-promising Witchin’ & Bitchin’. The characters are just as repugnant as they are uninteresting, but the film seems to think hanging out with them is enough of a narrative lead-up for a trip to a haunted house full of Hellish freaks when the truth is it makes the whole enterprise feel like a waste of time. There’s nothing accomplished in Baskin that couldn’t be conveyed in a still image, which is a huge problem.

The cocktail napkin plot sends the cops on a call to a remote, out of the city area, where they encounter some demonic, Event Horizon type shit, essentially entering the gates of Hell by careless mistake. The vile imagery of their Hell on Earth experience can range from beautiful (including a heavenly shot of God-sized hands plunging into water to save a drowning man, recalling the German Expressionist horror The Hands of Orlac) to despicable (eye-gouging & rape). The film tries to tack on a meaning in the depravity with some kind of Martyrs-esque philosophy about the spiritual transcendence of extreme pain, but it’s all very vague & never registers as anything more than aimlessly grotesque. Baskin is obviously proud of the demons & demonic lairs it built for the production by hand & those details indeed look great, but I get the feeling they’d be better experienced at a GWAR concert or an off-the-highway, Halloween season attraction in a warehouse. There’s not enough narrative or tonal effort here to justify a feature length film experience.

That’s not to say that the film can’t be scary. Baskin finds terror in simple, straightforward imagery. Its stark lighting & disembodied hands call back to the best of the giallo genre. Its flashlight-driven haunted house aesthetic reminds me of long gone teenage years of “urban exploring” in locations like abandoned pools & hospitals. There’s some interesting dialogue in the last act about how “you can carry Hell with you at all times; you can carry it inside you” and the film’s overall conceit about literally entering Hell opens it up to some sublimely surreal moments. There’s just not enough going on here to make its overall nastiness & cruelty worthwhile. After watching this year’s horror anthology Southbound achieve the same pull-the-rug-from-under-you terror of an unexpected trip to Hell, Baskin fails while reaching for (and without matching its grotesque cruelty for easy discomfort), this film feels more than a little useless.

There’s enough imagery in Baskin to promise that first time director Can Evernol might make some truly memorable horror pictures down the line, but that imagery is much better enjoyed as a scroll through Google image search results than as a painful 100 minute struggle through toxic bully personalities, dead still pacing, and demonic sexual assault. And if he never masters the craft of cinema, he at least has a future in the seasonal work of constructing haunted houses. Baskin isn’t successful as a feature film, but it’d make for a killer resume for that line of work.

-Brandon Ledet