Impossible Horror (2017)

I purchased a Blu-ray copy of Impossible Horror mostly as a means of contributing financial support to a podcaster I admire. The film’s director, Justin Decloux, cohosts The Important Cinema Club out of Toronto, where he also programs repertory genre screenings under the Laser Blast Film Society brand. The film arrived with an endearing thank-you note from Decloux’s creative partner Emily Milling, who scored, co-produced, and contributed sound editing on the film (likely among other duties). I’m mentioning all of this to note that Impossible Horror is very much a microbudget backyard production, a modern entry in the Regional Horror canon with all the charms & limitations that descriptor implies. Decloux & Milling briefly appear in the film themselves as side characters among a local community of friends & collaborators (including Important Cinema Club’s other cohost, Will Sloan) as their film’s “backyard” setting expands into the late-night urban streets of Toronto. Taking a gamble on these kinds of no-budget horror cheapies is always a tough sell for anyone outside the local social circles that appear on the screen in that way, but Impossible Horror is overflowing with enough creative ideas & genuine genre fandom that it’s well worth the effort. A 76min, dialogue-light sampler of a wide range of well-staged scares (ghost possessions, cursed VHS tapes, evil dolls, suicide cults, etc.) the film is very careful to not test its audience’s patience. Decloux & Milling are clearly fans of this D.I.Y. end of genre filmmaking themselves. Along with co-writer Nate Wilson, they energetically flood the screen with the ideas & imagery they love to see in these kinds of movies, conscious of just how easily the exercise could slip into tedium if they eased off the gas pedal. The result is surprisingly effective considering the limitations of their means, even if there are instances where they have to prompt the audience to [imagine a bigger budget here].

All this talk of backyard D.I.Y. art productions would normally be extratextual, but Impossible Horror is largely a film about outsider art & for-its-own-sake creativity. Sinking into the emotional slump that follows a devastating romantic breakup, our protagonist finds herself unsure what to do with her sudden influx of alone time beside throwing herself back into long-abandoned creative projects – drawing comics & making films. She first picks up her old video camera out of spite for The Asshole who left it behind in the breakup, but soon finds herself supernaturally compelled to see her new filmmaking project through. Unable to sleep through her heartache & her resentment of The Asshole, she finds herself going on late-night walks in those eerie post-midnight hours when, as Whodini would say, The Freaks come out. Suddenly, the absence of dialogue that comes with living alone is supplanted by a torrent of mysterious, paranoid ramblings from a newfound friend discovered on those late-night walks. Our once-lonely protagonist spends the rest of the film sinking further into her new friend’s own creative project: investigating a phenomenon of ghostly screams that routinely echo in the night and are always accompanied by mysteriously materialized objects – typewriters, VHS cassettes, dildos, hammers, etc. Solving the origin, meaning, and answer to this paranormal puzzle can often feel like trying to work your way through the storyline of a video game after skipping all of the dialogue screens that explain everything. What’s more important is that our protagonist reacts to this confounding experience by obsessively documenting it for an amateur film at the risk of her own safety & sanity. It can be difficult to track what the story is logically doing from minute to minute, but it all ultimately adds up to a Lovecraftian splatter comedy about amateur artists being driven mad by their own creativity. That’s a fitting theme for a no-budget movie made among friends that’s so ambitious in how it doles out its synths, gore, and ghosts that even this long-winded paragraph is only scratching the surface of its full narrative.

It does feel like a little bit of a betrayal to reduce Impossible Horror to its value as a backyard horror production & a nightmare-logic splatter comedy. Usually, horror films on this scale apologize for their limited means by leaning into their camp value, intentionally playing up their “so-bad-it’s good” humor. The earnestness of Impossible Horror is something much braver; its scares, jokes, and practical effects are all genuine attempts to make the best movie possible under the circumstances, all with a surprising success rate. The most poignant scene in the film is a voiceover performance from the protagonist as she shows her new ghost-hunter friend an old short film she made, continually apologizing for its quality in cruel self-deprecation. Every theme explored in the film is on display in full potency in that moment: how we’re haunted by our own past, the never-ending ways we self-harm, the insuppressible urge to keep making outsider amateur art even though putting your own work out in the world is fucking embarrassing. As fans of the microbudget horror genre on its own terms, Decloux & Milling instinctively understand the need to deliver the goods elsewhere, filling the screen with plenty gross-out gore & slapstick gags to entertain fellow fans of the Regional Horror tradition. What sets Impossible Horror apart from most of those self-published films, however, is its earnest, ambitious reach for something greater than a winking-at-the-camera joke. It’s wiling to comment at length about its own limited means, but only in a genuine exploration of how making art on this scale walks a fine line between partying with friends & overworking yourself into a lethal mania. Not everything it hurls at the screen to entertain the audience (and the creators) works, especially not all in tandem, but it does amount to a genuinely satisfying reflection on the nature of loneliness & self-published art in the 2010s. It’s the kind of D.I.Y. art project that’ll make you want to seek out & support more outsider films on its scale & budget, if not make some of your own – perhaps to your own peril.

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

Nothing gets me more hyped up than when a “based on true events” title card appears at the start of a horror movie, so when those words graced the screen at the beginning of The Haunting in Connecticut, I had a slight adrenaline rush. I watched the film for the first time this past weekend during a horror movie marathon with friends, and it was the first title on our watch list. I would later learn that it was wise to watch this one first since it was surprisingly boring for a horror movie “based on true events.”

In the film, the Campbell family moves into a home to be closer to the hospital where their teenage son, Matthew (Kyle Gallner), is receiving cancer treatment in the form of a clinical trial. They soon discover that the home was once a funeral home, so surprise, surprise, the house is totally haunted. Matthew is the first member of the family to witness supernatural occurrences in the home, but his family thinks it’s a side effect of the clinical trial. They are all eventually forced to face the reality that Matthew is in his right mind.

The Haunting in Connecticut is based on the Snedeker family’s supernatural experiences in home in Southington, Connecticut. The Snedekers really did move into a house that was previously a funeral home run by morticians who were, supposedly, also necromancers. Necromancers in Connecticut, imagine that! The idea of necromancy occurring in a small, all-American town is absolutely terrifying, but the film doesn’t really get into the necromancy aspect of the story all that much, which is completely bonkers to me. This is what makes the story so unique! Now don’t get me wrong, there are some creepy moments that are necromancy related (e.g., box of human eyelids is discovered under an attic floorboard), but there’s just not enough to make the film worthwhile. Instead, it follows the basic haunted house story line: family moves into house with a dark past, one of the family members starts to see ghosts while the rest of the family thinks they’re crazy, the haunting gets more intense as time goes by, and it all comes to a close in a fast-paced, extravagant ending.

There’s really nothing that special about The Haunting in Connecticut. It’s doomed to be lost in the realm of average, not-so-great haunted house movies like The Conjuring and An American Haunting.

-Britnee Lombas

Death Spa (1989)

Within the opening two minutes of Death Spa I was already aware that I was in the presence of trash cinema greatness. The only other film I had previously seen from director Michael Fischer was the uninspired Teen Wolf knockoff My Mom’s a Werewolf (one of three releases he completed in ’89, along with something titled Crack House), so I didn’t expect to fall in love here so easily. Everything there is to love about this deranged supernatural horror is succinctly represented in the opening credits, though, immediately setting a very high expectation for over-the-top schlock being married to intense attention to craft, a dynamic I was delighted to discover the film lives up to. Death Spa is essentially what would happen if Chopping Mall were given the full arthouse, Suspiria treatment, the exact low premise/high execution dichotomy I look for in all my genre cinema. The film opens with an exterior shot of a Los Angeles gym with a lit neon sign that reads “Starbody Health Spa.” Lightning strikes the sign, leaving only the title “d ea th Spa” lit as the camera travels into the cursed building in an ominous tracking shot. Spooky synths & neon lights overwhelm the senses as the camera finds the only soul alive in the gym, a woman dancing alone to rhythmic music that we cannot hear. One gratuitous nudity scene later and she’s being cooked alive by a sauna gone haywire, activated by an off-screen killer. It’s immediately apparent in this opening sequence that Death Spa is exploitative sleaze. It’s also just as apparent that it’s fine art worthy of any pop culture museum that would house it.

The gym is a creepy place, presumably doubly so for women who’re working out alone after hours. Early in its runtime, Death Spa appears to be a shrewd exploration of that common fear, exploiting the vulnerability of publicly navigating a space designed to intensively focus on the human body among a wealth of potentially dangerous strangers. The camera takes on the first-person POV of a slasher film or a giallo, stalking vulnerable women in its neon & spandex health club setting. It even teases potential personal & financial reasons why several suspects would be committing the rampant murders (framed as accidental deaths) that start plaguing the gym. I was totally onboard with the grounded killer-on-the-loose horror teased in Death Spa’s earliest motions, but even more pleased by the deranged absurdity that unfolded instead. It turns out Death Spa isn’t about a psychopathic killer at all, but rather one of my very favorite genre film subjects: Evil Technology. In the film, a vengeful ghost hacks the computer systems of automated gym equipment as a means of real-world vengeance. This is more of a haunted house movie than a slasher, except that the house in question is a health spa with very specific methods for causing lethal damage: rogue weightlifting machines, loose diving boards, flying shower tiles, the aforementioned sauna steam, etc. It even telegraphs a Chekov’s blender gag at the gym’s smoothie bar later echoed in one of my most beloved Evil Technology horrors: Unfriended. There’s very little thought given to the inherent vulnerability of gymnasiums & voyeurism, something that plays like an afterthought at best in the movie’s true mission statement of staging a supernatural horror at a novelty fad location specific to its era. Instead of playing off real-world dread or having its characters at least figure out that a gym with lethally faulty equipment might not be worth their patronage, the movie instead gradually intensifies its computer-ghost mayhem as it builds to a climactic event where many patrons can be locked inside & slaughtered at once: a “Mardi Gras” costume party. In Los Angeles. At a health spa. At night. Insane, but adorably so.

In addition to the lunacy of a ghost hacking automated gym equipment, Death Spa also chooses to reveal the identity of the undead spirit/real world terror through a recurring nightmare of a disabled woman on fire, adding to the film’s menacingly surreal vibe. That nightmare logic is matched by overactive camera work that puts much more care into its movement, angles, and lighting than what’s typically afforded trash cinema of this caliber. That high art cinematography clashes harshly with the bargain bin quality of acting on-hand, with cult cinema vet Ken Foree standing out as the only notable performer. The spooky synth soundtrack also occasionally gives way to an incredibly misguided mouth harp sound effect, turning potentially effective scare scenes into total jokes. While the cast & the soundtrack occasionally show the seams of Death Spa’s budget, though, the film’s commitment to practical gore effects & the sheer lunacy of its plot is more than enough to carry it through. When the ghost hacks a shower head or a blender or romantically whispers to their victim, “Come with me into the inferno. Let’s die together and live forever in Hell,” it’s all but impossible to resist Death Spa’s delirious, over-the-top charms. It didn’t take much for the movie to win me over as an instant fan. Its swirling mix of synths, neon, and self-amused gore was more than enough to steal my trash-gobbling heart at first sight. The true joy of Death Spa, though, is that its cheap thrills don’t stop there. The movie pushes its evil health spa premise to the most ridiculous extreme it can manage on a straight-to-VHS 80s budget, a dedication in effort & craft I wish Fischer had also poured into My Mom’s a Werewolf. In fact, all movies in all genres could stand to be a little more like the heightened absurdity achieved in Death Spa, not just the ones about health craze fads & pissed-off computer-ghosts.

-Brandon Ledet

Kill, Baby, Kill (1966)

I got a fair amount of enjoyment out of the recent Helen Mirren haunted house Gothic horror Winchester that most audiences did not seem to share. It’s a critical reaction that did not really surprise me, as the best example of the Gothic horror in recent memory, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, was also met with an unenthused shrug. I suppose it’s a subgenre that’s grown long out of fashion in the decades since its heyday in the Hammer horror & the Corman-Poe Cycle era of the 1960s, but I’m glad there are at least a few minor modern attempts to keep its undead spirit ”alive.” It’s foolish to maintain a tradition without looking back to the heights that make its practice worthwhile, though, which is partly why I felt compelled to seek out Mario Bava’s Gothic horror classic Kill, Baby, Kill for the first time. Like Roger Corman’s intensely colorful nightmare The Masque of the Read Death, Kill, Baby, Kill is an over-the-top stylistic indulgence that plays beautifully into the heightened atmosphere of the Gothic horror template, making the genre appear as ripe for directorial experimentation as any slasher, space horror, or psychedelic subgenre you could name. Bava brings to the Gothic horror the same aesthetic obsessions that helped define the giallo as a medium in films like Blood & Black Lace and carved out the atmospheric space horror vibes later perfected in Alien with Planet of the Vampires. Kill, Baby, Kill is not his first or best-known experiment in the genre; Black Sunday might be the premiere example there. It is likely his most intensely colorful & idiosyncratically personal, though. It also stands as proof that the Gothic horror can be done exceptionally well on a miniscule budget, further encouragement for keeping the tradition alive.

Kill, Baby, Kill was afforded a much smaller production budget than Bava was used to working with by the mid-60s. A critically acclaimed director with most of his best works already behind him, Bava found himself in the unusual position of running short on funding & working with an incomplete script mid-shoot, making it a miracle that Kill, Baby, Kill was ever completed at all. Reportedly, the director’s crew completed the shoot partially unpaid for their efforts, out of respect for his art. You’d never be able to tell anything was out of the ordinary, though, as the Gothic horror template is very forgiving to low-budget enterprises. All you really need to pull one off convincingly is an old, spooky set and creative imagination for how to achieve a ghostly atmosphere. Bava worked around his limited resources through inventive, practical techniques: setting most of the story in an accessible European castle; creating distorted imagery in-camera via panes of glass; employing a seesaw where he couldn’t afford a camera crane, etc. A lesser director on the same time & budgetary constraints would’ve delivered an incomprehensible, glaringly incomplete mess (see: the infamous Roger Corman cheapie The Terror), but Bava pulls through by sheer will. Some of the most violent, jarring details of the film are his intense giallo lighting choices and the rapid zoom-ins & whip-pans to character’s stone-cold faces. He even fudged his ability to properly cast the ghost girl central to the movie’s plot on time & on budget by dressing the son of an employee in femme clothing. You’d never notice that production detail if you were never told—partly because young children are essentially genderless, but also because Bava finds a way to make it work. Kill, Baby, Kill is a kind of low-budget alchemy that turns shitty production conditions into horror classic gold.

Like most Gothic horror tales, Kill, Baby, Kill is a traditional ghost story about a haunted manor. In this case, the ghost of a little girl terrorizes an 18th century European village that’s deeply rooted in Old World superstitions. In a Dracula-style plot, an outsider doctor is called into town to perform an autopsy on the ghost’s latest victim, disregarding the locals’ warnings that the practice will only exacerbate the ghost’s curse. Of course, his rational view of the world is proven to be ineffective as the ghost’s attacks on the townspeople only get increasingly worse and he starts seeing her spooky visage himself. It’s not an especially novel plot and its mysterious twists aren’t nearly as compelling as its aesthetic interests—something the Gothic horror shares with the giallo genre that Bava helped pioneer. Kill, Baby, Kill is less interested in the ghost story’s potential metaphor as an expression of unresolved trauma or even its own premise of New World logic bucking against Old World wisdom than it is in crafting a beautiful image. Delicate child shoes & white lace dangle from a tree swing outside a graveyard to the sound of playful laughter. Creepy doll faces superimpose over twisting spiral staircases. The doctor erotically peers in on a witch’s homeopathic flogging ritual. A silver coin is pulled from a dead woman’s heart. (Is that last one already a giallo title?) Kill, Baby, Kill leaves an impression through intensely artificial lighting & imagery and then rapidly zooms in to single out an isolated detail as a kind of unconventional jump scare. I never fully bought the significance of the ghost girl’s vengeance on her townspeople victims. I did, however, get a huge kick out of watching her play with her creepy dolls and menacingly peer into the villagers’ windows, freaking everybody out. I imagine Bava’s own interests were on a similar wavelength.

The remarkable thing about Kill, Baby Kill’s scrappy resilience as a seemingly doomed project is that it isn’t even a cult classic that was reevaluated after the fact. Critics were willing to gush about Bava’s directorial touch in the film immediately upon its release. You can feel its influence trickling down through projects as varied as FearDotCom (which also features a white lace-dressed ghost girl playing with a white rubber ball) and The Love Witch (which boasts very similar witch costuming, just with better eye makeup). Kill, Baby, Kill is Mario Bava at his best, intensifying the effect of every creepy doll, ghost girl jump scare, and witchcraft ritual as best he can in any given frame. The only things holding the movie back from perfection are a slashed budget and a lackadaisical sense of pacing. It’s genre heights like these that make the efforts of a Winchester or a Marrowbone worthwhile in keeping the Gothic horror tradition alive, even if they aren’t as well appreciated in their time. Any director hoping to visually experiment within an extremely limited budget can look to this film as inspiration for how to establish a memorable atmosphere on the cheap. All you need is an interesting location, a vague story about a ghost, and strong personal aesthetic. Having a crew that’s willing to starve for you is likely also a plus.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghost Stories (2018)

It can be amazing how much an ambitious, go-for-broke ending can raise a horror film out of genre-faithful tedium. Every now and then a potentially so-so horror film like The Boy, Marrowbone, or The House on Sorority Row will go so deliriously off the rails in its final stretch that its conclusion will elevate the entire middling picture that unfolded before it to a retroactive artistic high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull that trick off as well as the cheapo British horror anthology Ghost Stories. For most of its runtime, Ghost Stories pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. As its individual pieces start lining up into a clear, distinct gestalt, the film devolves into a playfully bizarre, sinister mindfuck. Ghost Stories had me shrugging off its minor charms as a cheekily funny horror anthology for nearly 2/3rds of its runtime, and then somehow turned the experience around in its final half hour to make me reconsider it as one of the more cleverly conceived genre films I’ve seen all year.

Adapted from a stage play by the same name, Ghost Stories is about an “arrogant & disrespectful” celebrity skeptic with “modern disregard for the spiritual life,” who’s achieved minor fame as the host of the (fictional) television show Psychic Cheats. His life’s work is called into question when his aging hero, another famous skeptic who he’s been worshiping since he was a child, reveals himself to now be a true believer in the paranormal. The older skeptic offers a challenge to the younger one in the form of three unsolved case files he could not himself prove to be hoaxes. Anchored by recognizable Brits Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and The End of the Fucking World’s Alex Lawther, these three case files are laid out in rigidly segmented vignettes that slowly chip away at the younger skeptic’s sense of reality. Their stories of psych ward hauntings, ghostly apparitions, and woodland demons are a little too toothless in their shocks & gore to leave much of an impression individually. However, as strange, menacing details build up & recur around the skeptic as he investigates the cases, a cold undercurrent beneath the film’s deceptively well-behaved horror anthology surface begins to pick up strength & speed. By the end of the film, the individual case stories cease to matter as a much more sinister narrative builds around the details lurking at the edge of the frame.

As a genre, horror is built on the foundation of disruption. Whether supernaturally or via a real-world force, there must be a break in the daily routine of reality for a film to qualify as horror in the first place. Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith. That kind of patience is not going to work for everyone. Without the distraction-free environment of a movie theater, I can see many VOD viewers walking away from Ghost Stories mid-film or scrolling through social media throughout, feeling like they’ve already seen everything it has to offer before. The ending only works if you stick with the film’s minor visual details and moments of unexplained pause, affording it patience & attention. It’s a glorious, surprisingly heady prank of a conclusion, though, one of the best horror film turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Marrowbone (2018)

It’s difficult to gauge how wide of an appeal the straight-to-VOD sleeper Marrowbone might hold for a contemporary audience. As an obedient participation in the tropes of the Gothic horror genre as a cinematic tradition, the film starts off with a slight disadvantage in its aesthetic’s commercial appeal. As demonstrated by del Toro’s Crimson Peak, the modern Gothic horror is often dismissed & unacknowledged even when it’s done exactly right, so a much cheaper, small-scale production like Marrowbone doesn’t have much of a chance to make an impression. To make things harder on itself, the film also adopts a distinctly literary, romantic tone that invites more cynical audiences to not take its emotional core seriously, the exact same way the tragically undervalued Never Let Me Go undercut its own potential commercial appeal as a sci-fi genre picture. For fans of the Gothic horror as an onscreen tradition, Marrowbone offers a wonderful corrective to the year’s other major offering in that genre, Winchester (which I’m saying as the only person in the world who got a kick out of Winchester). It’s an oddly romantic, admirably deranged entry into the modern ghost story canon. It’s frustrating for the already-converted to know that the film’s unhinged charms will be met with more shrugs than enthusiasm on the contemporary pop culture landscape, but its choice of genre at least lends it to feeling somewhat timeless, even if not an instant modern hit.

Although it’s set in 1960s small-town America, it’d be understandable to mistake much of Marrowbone for 19th Century Europe. Its haunted house narrative and feral children aesthetic feels like the lore of 1800s peasants, which makes the occasional intrusion of recognizable modernity almost surreal. The most frequent representation of this modernity is a girl-next-door sweetheart played by Anya Taylor-Joy. In her introduction she’s teased to be a kind of woodland witch (appropriately enough), but it turns out she’s just a darling small-town librarian with an A+ 1960s wardrobe. Her calm provincial life is upturned by the arrival of a small English emigrant family (including familiar faces Charlie Heaton, George MacKay, and Mia Goth) who are obviously in the process of escaping a troubled past. This is one of those immigrant stories where American is framed as a cure-all reset button meant to heals old wounds in a battered family’s identity. The past continues to haunt them, though—at first figuratively, then literally in the form of a ghost that stalks the attic of their new home. As the hauntings worsen, the family becomes more reclusive, never leaving the house to venture into town. Only the sweetheart librarian and her petty, jealous suitor have any interest in the goings-on of the cursed home, the family’s mysterious past, and the well-being of the four children who’re left to face their demons alone within that insular space. It does not go well.

Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped. There’s also a delicately tragic sense of romance that guides the picture’s overall tone, both in the librarian’s love life and in the children-fending-for-themselves literary imagination. If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the Gothic horror genre, these aesthetic details and the film’s bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. The tempered response to both Crimson Peak & Winchester suggest that will be the case for many viewers. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though, the kind of tangible detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity. It’s a shame that tradition isn’t currently profitable, but we’ll eventually come back around to it as a culture and Marrowbone will still be oddly, wonderfully unhinged in its menacing details.

-Brandon Ledet

Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018)

I admire the Mexican indie horror Tigers Are Not Afraid for laying all its cards on the table before it even displays its title. Onscreen text explains that drug cartel violence has effectively left many Mexican cities “ghost towns,” with countless orphaned children left behind by the abducted & the murdered. Then, a classroom of children are assigned to write their own fairy tales as a creative writing exercise, just before that classroom itself is disrupted by gang violence & gunfire. In these opening moments we’re introduced to nearly everything the film has on its mind as a post-del Toro dark fairy tale about young kids navigating the seemingly empty streets cleared out by oppressive drug cartels. The “ghost town” descriptor from the opening text is made literal as the vengeful spirits of the cartels’ victims haunt the orphaned children & their deteriorating urban environments to the point where drug wars feel like an ancient, eternal Evil with no perceptible beginning or end. Tigers Are Not Afraid announces this grim scenario upfront in clear terms, but that does little to demystify the moment-to-moment discoveries of its horrific details. Hearing about it & dwelling in its consequences are two entirely different experiences.

Children not only carelessly play near dead bodies in the streets, but are literally followed home by the resulting blood, which moves with intent & apparent sentience. Recalling the fend-for-yourselves childhood narratives of George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project, and Nobody Knows, the parentless social structures established here sketch out a world where the only adults around are teachers & murderous drug dealers. Then the teachers disappear. The remaining kids are left alone in their own fight for survival against the villainous Huascas gang. Haunted by the ghosts of the dead (sometimes even the ghosts of their own families) as they call out for revenge, the kids find a balance between remaining under the killer cartel’s radar and re-establishing a semblance of justice in the world by striking back. Tales of cannibalism, Satanic rituals, magic wishes, and shapeshifting tigers complicate their understanding of the conflict, but their main concern is daily survival. An unorthodox domesticity emerges among the children in the rubble as they nomadically shift from one squat to the next, just outside the cartel’s reach. The ghosts of the dead call out for a climactic showdown between the warring factions, which is exceedingly dangerous, seeing how the children are outnumbered & outgunned.

While Tigers Are Not Afraid declares its entire dark fairy tale ghost story about drug cartels conceit upfront, it still leaves plenty of room to surprise in its details. Images of skateboards, rooftop dance parties, animated graffiti, pianos in flames, and ghosts seemingly made entirely of darkness establish an otherworldly urban aesthetic entirely unique to the picture. The film is also admirably committed to its own sense of brutality, threatening to destroy young children by bullet or by ghost without blinking an eye. Anyone especially in love with similar past works like The Devil’s Backbone or The City of Lost Children should find a lot worthwhile here, though there’s a specificity to the Mexican drug cartel context that saves the film from feeling strictly like an echo of former glories. The movie reveals few surprises in the execution of its initial premise except maybe the depths of its brutality, its willingness to incorporate conventional ghost movie scares into its fairy tale tone, and its commentary on how political corruption makes its grim world possible. I suppose its obedience to ghost story & dark fairy tale tropes elsewhere is what makes it a genre picture to begin with, but it finds plenty opportunity in its details to establish its own magical, nightmarish space.

-Brandon Ledet

Ringu (1998), Suicide Club (2002), and the Horrors of the Technological Myth

The opening dialogue of the 1998 horror genre game-changer Ringu is an urban legend, a Candyman-style recitation of the now-iconic curse that drives the film’s plot. At a casual slumber party, two teenage girls discuss a cursed VHS tape that, once watched, will kill its viewer in a week’s time. The scene starts playful, but once the reality of the tape’s existence is accepted the tone turns sinister. In the dead silence of their now-terrified mood, a landline phone rings loudly in an abrupt, bloodless scare. It’s difficult to see now in the 2010s exactly how monumental of a shift Ringu was on the horror landscape. Along with the found footage-pioneering The Blair Witch Project, Ringu helped usher in a new era of horror that shifted away from the previous decades of stale slasher rehashes & sequels towards a then-fresh aesthetic built on atmosphere & folklore instead of a mad, masked killer. Ringu’s success (and the success of its Gore Verbinski-directed American remake, The Ring) is often credited for sparking the “J-horror” wave of the early 2000s, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for inspiring a wave of technophobic horror works that adapted the concerns of earlier films like Videodrome to the culture of the digital age. The Grudge, Pulse, and Dark Water are perhaps the most notable properties directly inspired by the Cursed Technology folklore of RIngu, but I think few movies pushed its aesthetic into as weird & wild of a place as our current Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club.

I don’t believe it’s possible to truly, genuinely participate in modern mythmaking without including technology in the text. Ringu smartly fulfills that requirement by focusing on technology that’s just barely outdated: VHS cassettes, cable access television, Polaroid cameras, and landline telephones are all just barely-obsolete technologies that the film uses to establish the world of its televised curse. It also mixes in traditionalist concepts like vengeful ghosts & clairvoyant visions to match this new Evil Technology folklore with a sense of dark, old world magic. Suicide Club distorts this method drastically in the way most post-Ringu technophobia horrors tend to, by making its Evil Technology current. For all its strange pondering on the crepiness of cults, pop idols, cheerful children, and kawaii culture, Suicide Club is at its heart a movie about the evils of the internet. Released at a time when the internet was young & sparse, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the eeriness of haunted websites and the danger of anonymous message boards. The traditionalist technophobic lore of Ringu is an idea picked up from works like Videodrome and (going way further back) The Yellow King: the idea that viewing or hearing something cursed could be lethal. Most technology-obsessed horrors that followed in Ringu’s wake echoed that same pattern, killing its victims by exposing them to lethal websites. The basement-level trash pic FearDotCom even featured the tagline “Want to see a killer website?” to drive the point home. Suicide Club pushes the idea much further, disorienting its audience by emphasizing the way Online Discourse has “disconnected” us from our “selves” and using the internet to spread a killer idea instead of a killer website. The curse that spreads through the internet in Suicide Club is a philosophical question, dangerous information that can be passed on through new technology in just a few key strokes. By now, the technology on display in the film is just as outdated as anything was in Ringu, but that dissociative, information-spreading aspect of the internet remains creepily relevant.

Surely, the most iconic image in Ringu is its money shot of a wet-haired ghost girl climbing out of a television set to claim her final victim in the film’s closing minutes. Like Blair Witch, Ringu strayed from the traditional trills of a body count horror to focus more on atmosphere & folklore, so the emergence of this TV static ghost is a one-time affair. The ghost’s victims tend to die open-mouthed, as if in shock, their bodes discovered after the fact. Suicide Club is a much gorier movie, even opening with a scare of over fifty high school students jumping onto train tracks in a mass suicide pact, coating the screen in rivers of blood. Where Ringu lingers on the imagery of spooky technology, filtering the occultist images of its vengeful ghost girl through the digital camcorder grain of a VHS tape, Suicide Club mostly uses the internet as a conduit for its killer, suicide-inspiring philosophy. Given its more hyperactive, gore-minded style of horror, I’d understand if some people would bristle at my suggestion that the films should even be compared. Whenever I doubt Suicide Club’s direct lineage form Ringu, though, I just think back to its trailer. The ad focuses in on a creepy fax machine in the film’s hospital setting. Like with the spooky technology on display in Ringu, the fax machine is kind of an obsolete redundancy in the film, set in the early days of email. The ad pushes the connection even further, though, including cutting room floor imagery of long, wet, black hair emerging from the machine and stretching across the floor. The only way the image could have been closer to Ringu’s most iconic moment is if the fax machine were instead a computer monitor or a television set. For all its myth-minded tonal seriousness, Ringu also ends with a thumping, dance music club track over its closing credits, which isn’t all that different than the incongruous J-pop soundtrack that clashes with Suicide Club’s horrific indulgences in gore. Suicide Club isn’t as faithful to Ringu’s aesthetic as other technology-obsessed J-horror releases that it inspired, but the two films are inextricably linked in my mind.

I don’t understand the widely-held belief that the American remake of Ringu is somehow better than the Japanese original. Gore Verbinski certainly has a slick, distinctly cinematic eye and there’s a sensational scene involving suicidal horses that raises the energy level, but there’s nothing especially innovative about the picture. Ringu is much scrappier & more adventurous, looking for new, modernist modes of horror mythmaking on a bargain budget. It’s only a step above Blair Witch in that way, attacking an ambitious idea through drastically limited means, something The Ring could never claim. However, I do believe Suicide Club successfully picked up the better aspects of Ringu (particularly its technophobic version of modern mythmaking in a horror context) and pushed them into weirder, more ambitions places far surpassing the limited imagination of its inspiration. Ringu is a traditionalist, folklore-minded work in which ghosts invade our modern spaces through slightly outdated technology. Suicide Club, by contrast, is a wildly kaleidoscopic work of blood-soaked mayhem in which then-current technology is a conduit for unknowable, unstoppable evil. Even though I prefer the no-fucks-given audacity of the latter aesthetic, I do majorly respect Ringu for inspiring it. In case you couldn’t tell from my last two Movie of the Month selections, Suicide Club & Unfriended, I’m a huge fan of technophobic, internet-obsessed horror and I can’t imagine that subgenre existing in its current state without the guiding hand of Ringu (or the camcorder technology obsession of The Blair Witch Project, its American cousin).

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002), and last week’s look at its unexpected Danish counterpart, Bridgend (2015).

-Brandon Ledet

Winchester (2018)

The writer-director duo The Spierig Brothers tend to hit the same genre film sweet spot for me that Mike Flanagan’s work seems to for other people. They’re churning out formulaic genre pictures that do little to innovate in terms of visual craft or structural narrative, but still endear themselves to me despite my better judgement. Their vampire picture Daybreakers and (even more so) their time travel mystery thriller Predestination are clearly their most accomplished works to date, but I’m always at least intrigued by whatever latest project they have cooking, no matter how generic. I even allowed their involvement in the latest Saw sequel to trick me into revisiting that franchise for the first time in over a decade, God help me. The genre du jour for The Spierig Brothers is a haunted house horror with unearned pretensions of being a historical drama. You’d think that a period film starring Helen Mirren and “inspired by actual events” could elevate itself above the usual Spierig Brothers mold, but Winchester instead glides by as yet another by-the-books genre exercise from the duo, for better or for worse. Anyone looking for a show-stopping performance from Mirren or some historical insight into the troubled times of the real-life Mrs. Winchester are likely to leave the film frustrated. Instead, the Spierig boys bend those potentially extraordinary elements to their genre faithful will, delivering pretty much what you’d expect based on their past efforts: a well-behaved haunted house picture that somehow entertains despite its instant familiarity.

Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, a wealthy 1900’s widow & heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. Mirroring rumors of her mental instability in real life, her mental health is being questioned in the film by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to drive her out of her business & her fortune. The lynchpin in their argument against her sanity is a bizarre mansion she keeps under constant, ever-shifting construction, another real life detail. In the film, the Winchester house is described as “a gargantuan, seven-story structure with no apparent rhyme or reason” to its design, an M.C. Escher-esque 3D jigsaw puzzle that requires construction crews to work 24/7 to keep up with Sarah Winchester’s instructions. Mudbound’s Jason Clarke co-stars as a laudanum-addicted doctor/alcoholic hired by the Winchester company to legally assess the widow’s mental health as a guest in her bizarre home. Since this is a PG-13 horror film instead of an Oscar-minded biopic, however, that investigation shifts to instead determining whether the unexpected spooky beings the doctor encounters there are laudanum-induced hallucinations or a collective of malicious ghosts. Spoiler: it’s ghosts. Once “the difference between illusion & reality” is broken down, the doctor and the widow team up to calm the house’s ghosts, for whom the widow builds an ever-expanding labyrinth of rooms for them to haunt & feel at home in. The usual balance struck in “the house that spirits built” is violently disturbed by a slowly-approaching supernatural event, something much more potentially catastrophic than a lost fortune or a laudanum addiction, two conflicts that fall by the wayside. It all wraps up pretty much how you would expect it to, with very few surprises along the way.

Judging by the weirdly unenthused response to Guillermo del Toro’s similar, but far more masterful Crimson Peak, I doubt many audiences will fall head over heels for this simplistic gothic horror throwback. You’d have to be really stoked about watching Helen Mirren glide down spooky hallways in Helena Bonham Carter drag to enthusiastically love this movie; any personal affinity for haunted house horror or real-life insight into the bizarre case of the Winchester house is not going to cut it on its own. This is a very talky, muted haunted house movie where two too-good-for-this-shit actors discuss at length the value of gun control and the practice of locking ghosts in boxes. Even for all its exploitation of a real-life tragedy & total waste of an Oscar-winning actor, however, Winchester at least has the decency to search for a moral center & a thematic point of view. The ghosts in the film are described to be “spirits killed by the rifle,” and Sarah Winchester’s agitated mental state is framed as guilt from profiting from gun violence, a theme that obviously holds modern significance (and, again, mirrors legends & rumors surrounding the real-life heiress). The way that theme expresses itself through machine-like jump scares, creepy possessed children, and endless exterior shots of a spooky house may not be the most morally delicate approach to adapting the Winchester story, but fans of mainstream horror should be well-accustomed to that kind of exploitative tackiness by now.

The Spierig Brothers did little to pay attention to how the genre tropes of a haunted house picture might distort or trivialize the story of a real-life widow with a tragic history of mental health struggles. Instead, they filtered the Sarah Winchester curio through a one-size-fits-all ghost story lens, with all the minor thrills, chills, and PG-13 kills that accompany it. It’s not likely to win over new fans to their genre-faithful, utilitarian brand, but it’s still a continuation of their pattern of making well-behaved, but surprisingly entertaining pictures out of formulas we’ve already seen repeated hundreds of times before.

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Much like the NFL, WWE, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, Disney has always had a knack for obsessively promoting & examining its own legacy. It wasn’t until the past few years that the insanely massive media conglomerate owned every single major player intellectual property imaginable, but judging by the way the company has publicly patted itself on the back since its inception, you’d think that was the case for decades. One of the more amusingly tacky ways this self-celebration has manifested itself is in Disney pop culture media’s synergy with the brand’s amusement parks – Disneyland, Disney World, and beyond. I totally understand the appeal, both for creator & consumer, of turning Disney’s most popular properties into theme park rides fans can physically visit & interact with. By the late 90s, though, that wasn’t enough for Disney’s insatiable need to publicly glorify itself. In the last two decades the company has begun to make movies based on its theme park rides in an an absurd act of reverse engineering. This started small enough with a Disney Channel made-for-TV original starring a late-in-his-career Steve Guttenberg, but eventually ballooned into a five feature film series starring one of the world’s most famous (and most despicable) movie stars, Johnny Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean series has been the biggest financial payoff in Disney’s gamble to market its theme park attractions on the big screen (recent diminished returns notwithstanding) and there have been a couple great Disney Ride films accidentally made along the way (Tower of Terror & Tomorrowland, namely), but for the most part people (mainly critics) have not been buying what Disney had been selling in those films: itself.

The first few attempts to adapt a Disney park theme ride for the big screen were meek acts of testing the waters. The 1997 Tower of Terror film was made for broadcast television. The 2000 space adventure Mission to Mars somehow nabbed a big name director (Brian De Palma, of all people) and went into wide theatrical release, but was based on a long-forgotten ride that had closed almost a decade before the film’s release. The ill-conceived (but oddly fascinating) 2002 Country Bears movie was marketed only for the smallest of children, to whom we shovel irredeemable garbage on an annual basis (i.e. Minions, The Emoji Movie, etc.). It wasn’t until the 2003 Eddie Murphy horror comedy The Haunted Mansion that Disney released a major motion picture meant to appeal to the entire family that was based on one of its currently visitable theme park attractions. The Haunted Mansion was an interesting experiment in the way it asked loyal fans of the Disney brand to fall in love with a feature-length advertisement for its own product: a haunted house “dark ride” you could visit at any one of its major theme parks. The experiment succeeded commercially, (rightfully) failed critically, and openly participated in the dual nature of Art & Commerce that always plagues the movie industry, although typically in a more hushed tone. Directed by nobody workman Rob Minkoff, who also helmed The Lion King & Stuart Little with an equal absence of passion, The Haunted Mansion is no more vibrantly alive than any of the CG spectres that torment Murphy’s family in its haunted house plot. The movie plays like a series of boardroom decisions that spiraled out of control into a family-friendly horror comedy that is neither funny nor scary and feels about as genuine in its genre nerdery as The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Just about the only interesting thing about The Haunted Mansion is its pioneering nature as a feature-length advertisement of a currently-operational Disney Park ride, the lowest of artistic ambitions.

Eddie Murphy stars as a money-obsessed Business Dad who spends too much time trying to grow his real estate business and too little effort connecting with his wife & kids. This stock Kids’ Movie Conflict is complicated when he interrupts his family’s vacation to check out a potential property purchase, the titular haunted mansion. The plot doesn’t develop much from there, besides the gradual reveals of every inhabitant of the home being a ghost with unfinished business who failed to cross over to the other side. The ghostly lord of the home mistakes Murphy’s wife for a long-lost love of his own, who can be seen in various oil paintings throughout the mansion, another Stock Movie Conflict employed by countless vampire & ghost pictures. Given that the ghostly home owner & his various ghost servants are white people from a bygone century, this interracial romance angle raises a few interesting questions about the racial dynamics of the house’s past, questions the movie isn’t interested in exploring. Instead, Murphy has to hurry to both prevent the most handsome, wealthy ghost from “getting jiggy with” his wife (kill me) and to save his kids from the other supernatural threats crawling all over the home: spiders, skeletons, a surprisingly effective Terrence Stamp. The rest of the ghostly cast is rounded out by the comic relief of the always-welcome Wallace Shawn & a Jambi-type performance from Jennifer Tilly. Will Eddie Murphy have time to save both of his children’s lives and prevent his wife from getting sexually assaulted by a handsome ghost? My guess is that you already know the answer, but are coming up short with a reason to care, which is more than fair.

Plot is not nearly as significant here as recreating the holographic ghosts & ghouls of the Disney theme park ride source material, which the movie actually does fairly well. The introductory title cards feel like a haunted house initiation, warning “Welcome, foolish mortals . . .” before recreating the ballroom of dancing ghosts that constitute the theme park ride’s centerpiece. Besides the CG ghosts that recall the live action Casper movie in tone, The Haunted Mansion also employs special effects master Rick Baker to provide some tangible atmosphere. A Harryhausen skeleton army & swarms of threatening spiders look especially great, with other haunted house effects like Videodrome-esque breathing walls, a Billy Bones-style zombie, and visual references to suicide by hanging tilting the story towards genuine horror. Singing barber shop quartet statue busts (an integral part of the ride) and a musical instrument seance straight out of an Ed Wood film (Night of the Ghouls, to be specific) are much more in line with a cutesy, safe-feeling horror comedy vibe, which is totally fine given the film’s nature as a cynically commercial Disney property. Terrence Stamp’s presence as an evil, ghostly butler cuts to the core of what’s wrong with the film at large. He’s genuinely creepy on a scene to scene basis, but often has to pause his schtick to deal with Eddie Murphy, who aims to annoy at every possible turn. At one point, Stamp even bellows, “If I have to listen to another word from that insufferable fool, I believe I’m going to burst,” which was the one line that got a legitimate laugh out of me. Listening to Murphy run lame bits about whacking spiders with magazines & ghosts “getting jiggy with” his wife into the ground for minutes at a time completely poisons any atmospheric mood or comedic ambition built by Baker, Shawn, Tilly, or Stamp. Murphy simply isn’t funny, which is a major problem considering how much screen time he’s allowed to devour.

Guillermo del Toro has stated publicly that he’d love to remake this film without the Eddie Murphy angle and, after Crimson Peak, it feels as if he already did. It’s easy to see what the director may have connected with on its basic level of being a haunted house dark ride attraction adapted into a feature. The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite Disney World rides, but I have no real problems or reservations with the way it’s been adapted to the screen, personally. How could I? The idea of believing your own hype so completely that you think your theme park attractions deserve a The Movie! version is so absurd that it’s kind of a miracle every single one of these Disney Ride movies isn’t as much of an artistic failure as The Haunted Mansion turned out to be. If it weren’t for the success of the Pirates debut just a few months later this could’ve been the end of the Disney Ride movie as we know it today, a fate that would’ve been very much deserved.

-Brandon Ledet