The Power (2021)

Here we have a low-budget British body-possession horror about a religious zealot nurse with a mysterious past and a deeply damaged relationship with human sexuality.  It’s the stylish debut feature from a young woman filmmaker, and it clocks in under 90min.  And somehow I’m not describing Saint Maud???  The Power actually might work especially well for people who wish Saint Maud was more of a straightforward horror film.  For me, they’re about equally great, but The Power‘s definitely a lot more immediately satisfying in delivering the genre goods and a thematic sense of purpose.  The beauty of genre filmmaking is that both can be appreciated for their variations & idiosyncrasies without stepping on each other’s toes.

If nothing else, you can’t fault The Power for not having a knack for spooky atmosphere.  Set during a series of planned power blackouts amidst labor disputes in 1970s London, the film is mostly staged in total darkness – save a few candles, cigarettes, and the red glow of generator lights. Even spookier, it’s entirely contained in a pitch-black hospital, during what the nurses on staff have deemed “The Dark Shift.”  Our protagonist is an adorable, sweet humanitarian who’s immediately tossed into the spooky abyss of The Dark Shift her first day on staff.  Her determination to Do Good and speak her mind in the face of a rigid, long-established bureaucracy immediately puts her in danger as soon as she enters the hospital – especially since her morally righteous prodding uncovers systemic sexual abuses committed by her higher-ups that have long gone unchecked & undisciplined.  The ghostly happenings that result from that shakeup are both a supernatural repetition of that abuse and a means of revenge against it – a tactic foreshadowed by a fellow staffer reading Steven King’s Carrie in her downtime before the mayhem is unleashed.

I was a little worried in its first half that The Power would become a tedious exercise in atmosphere & metaphor.  Once its more traditional haunted hospital scares emerge from the darkness, however, my patience was greatly rewarded.  Its horror genre processing of childhood sexual abuse is just as righteously angry and viscerally upsetting as anything you’ll see in this year’s erratic gross-out The Queen of Black Magic; it’s just a little more careful to establish a main character the audience actually connects with before Going There, so we’re even more affected by her downfall.  Looking beyond the surface details of their parallel thinking & timing, there isn’t much thematic or iconographic overlap between The Power & Saint Maud to make their dual existence redundant.  Both films share a kind of 1970s auteur-horror worship that’s rampant these days but repurpose those same building blocks for entirely different ends.  I’d mostly recommend Saint Maud if you’re looking for a deeply strange, off-putting characters study.  The Power, by contrast, is for when you want an effectively chilling, old-fashioned ghost story.

-Brandon Ledet

His House (2020)

Back in our early days of film blogging (five whole years ago!), I found myself a little baffled by the ecstatic critical reception of the indie horror pic We Are Still Here. It was a decent enough genre exercise, one that indulged in the exact kind of 1970s nostalgia that would make its surface aesthetics immediately attractive to horror nerds. Still, it was excessively faithful to the structure & tropes of A Haunted House Movie to the point where I wasn’t sure what distinguished it as anything special. I wrote: “Every haunted house cliché you can think of makes an appearance in its brief 84-minute runtime. Strange noises spook new homeowners. Photographs move seemingly on their own. An old town of creepy local yokels conspire against haunted newcomers. A skeptical husband doubts his legitimately-spooked wife’s concerns. A séance backfires. A monster appears in the backseat of a moving car. Innocent house guests are possessed by demons. Creepy children get involved. The film even has the nerve to show a baseball slowly rolling down basement stairs. It’s all here.”

I’m looking back to that early Swampflix review because I am once again confronted with a critically beloved indie horror that’s rigorously faithful to the tropes of the haunted house genre. His House does not repeat every single haunted house cliché from We Are Still Here, but it comes pretty damn close. In terms of tone & narrative its payoffs are familiar to that genre tradition going at least as far back as 1927’s proto-Old Dark House horror The Cat and the Canary. However, I did find it much easier to determine what makes this movie special within that larger tradition than I did back when this happened in 2015. When thinking about the going-through-the-motions scares of We Are Still Here, I asked “Are there any ways left for the haunted house genre to surprise us?” His House answers that question decisively, with the same tactic that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used to reinvigorate the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. You’ve seen these exact story beats & jump scares before, but never in this exact cultural context.

His House repurposes the basic components of A Haunted House Movie by recontextualizing them within a Sudanese refugee story, something I’d be surprised to learn has been done before. Two Sudanese victims of civil war (Sope Dirisu & Wunmi Mosaku) seek asylum in England, where they’re treated like prisoners on parole before they’re fully allowed to assimilate into the culture of their new “home.” They’re restricted by the government in where they can work, how they can publicly behave, who they can associate with and, most importantly, where they can live. The shitty, vermin-infested apartment they’re assigned by the government isn’t haunted by the colonialist crimes of their new homeland, but rather by the horrors that they narrowly escaped in their journey to asylum. Fellow refugees who didn’t complete the voyage violently haunt the couple, both as an expression of general survivor’s guilt and as revenge for undignified betrayals they committed along the way out of desperate self-preservation. They arrive in England with everything they own in a couple gnarled trash bags, hopeful that the horrors of their journey are behind them. Instead, their recent past haunts them in vicious, unrelenting stabs; and they’re expected to smile through the pain when in public so as to appear affable to their new, xenophobic neighbors.

To be clear, His House is not only thrilling for its purposeful application of Haunted House tropes to a newfound metaphor. Its scares are genuinely, consistently effective throughout, offering up some of this year’s most memorably creepy horror imagery as the couple is tormented by visible, persistent ghosts. It’s just that applying those traditional scares to a clear thematic anchor really does set the film apart from fellow traditional Haunted House exercises like We Are Still Here. I never had to ask myself what the purpose of repeating & reshaping those well-worn genre tropes was here, because the film is open & explicit about what it’s doing from the start. I don’t know that it’s one of my personal favorite horror titles of 2020 or anything, but I do understand its thematic purpose & critical reception this time around. At the very least, it’s got to be one of the best films to date that addresses the cultural horrors of Brexit-era immigration bigotry. It’s right alongside Paddington 2 in that regard, at least in terms of delivering something much more emotionally & thematically potent than what you’d expect given the recency of its subject and the familiarity of its genre’s tones & tropes. Unlike Paddington 2, however, it’s also scary as fuck.

-Brandon Ledet

The Changeling (1980)

Most movie nerds participate in some kind of annual ritual every October, whether it be attempting to cram in (at least) 31 new-to-them horror films over the course of the month or just slightly, generally shifting their viewing habits towards #spookycontent. My own personal project this year was to clear out my stack of unwatched horror DVD & Blu-ray purchases that have been gathering dust since last Shocktober, something I unexpectedly accomplished halfway into the month. That kind of single-genre overload can be a fun, celebratory way to commemorate one of the calendar’s best holidays (second only to Mardi Gras), but it also has a way of flattening the distinguishing details of individual titles. Catching up with a somber, stylistically restrained classic during these annual horror binges is always somewhat risky, as they’re often drowned out by the zanier, more attention-grabbing films you bookend them with. All of that is to say that I finally watched the beloved ghost story The Changeling this month and I did not get much out of the experience. Despite its reputation, I found it merely okay.

A lonely music professor—played with a severe grimace by George C. Scott—grieves a recent tragedy in his family by renting out an Old Dark House near the university where he works and haunting its hallways all by his lonesome. While sulking around this echoing, dusty Gothic palace, he uncovers another familial tragedy from decades past: the murder of a young disabled boy whose ghost becomes his roommate and partner in crime. The professor may not be able to heal the wounds of the abrupt tragedy that wrecked his own family life, but he can at least distract himself from the pain by pursuing justice for this drowned ghost-boy. The resulting vigilante mission is one of somber self-reflection and unexpected political intrigue, pitting the pitiful old man against corrupt politicians and the even more intimidating biddies of The Historical Preservation Society. A few haunting images of underwater phantasma, flaming staircases, and animated wheelchairs occasionally cut through the oppressively quiet, lonely misery that hangs over the house, but for the most part everything remains excessively morbid & low-key.

The other canonized title that The Changeling reminded me of the most was The Exorcist. That may read as a high compliment, but what I mean is that I found it an admirable drama but a boring horror film, unable to see the Exquisite Classic it is in others’ eyes. Weirdly enough, I do get a huge kick out of The Exorcist III, which also stars George C Scott. Go figure. It’s possible that had I seen The Changeling outside of the annual cram-session horror binge of Shocktober rituals, it might have made more of an impact. However, I can’t make too many excuses for it in that context, considering that my favorite new-to-me discovery this month was the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which isn’t exactly a gag-a-minute riot. Regardless, The Changeling is a film I can’t muster much enthusiasm for outside discussing it in terms of this year’s Halloween season viewing docket. In that spirit, here’s a picture of what my to-watch stack looked like at the start of the season and a best-to-worst ranked list of how much I enjoyed each title.

  1. The Haunting (1963)
  2. The Descent (2005)
  3. Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)
  4. Millennium (1989)
  5. Limbo (1991)
  6. The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)
  7. The Strangler of the Swamp (1946)
  8. Pacific Heights (1990)
  9. Pumpkinhead (1988)
  10. Holy Virgin Vs. The Evil Dead (1991)
  11. Body Snatchers (1993)
  12. The Changeling (1980)

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunting (1963)

The 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is, in a word, a masterpiece. Even with its sterling reputation preceding it, I was shocked to immediately recognize it as such, as its genre and its source material are so overly familiar half a century later that I assumed I’d be numb to its wonders. Jackson’s novel has been both directly adapted and mined for indirect inspiration so many times over that I was skeptical there was anything left to discover in its pages. This MGM-distributed realization of that well-tread source material is also a by-the-books participation in the Old Dark House tradition that was intensely oversaturated in its own era even beyond adaptations of Jackson’s work. And yet I was impressed, captivated, and chilled from start to end – even more reenergized by this traditionalist approach to Jackson’s milieu than I was by Josephine Decker’s revisionist biopic Shirley earlier this year, something I did not at all expect.

It helps that former Val Lewton-collaborator Robert Wise directs the absolute shit out of this movie. The Haunting is shot in early Panavision on what had to be intimidatingly clunky equipment, but you wouldn’t know that judging by how incredibly active the camera is. Even in the opening sequence that explains the history of how the central haunted house “was born bad”, Wise pummels the audience with overachieving visuals. The camera swoops in ghostly, seemingly handheld maneuvers. It tumbles down the stairs in dizzying thuds. It emphasizes its format’s already drastically wide aspect ratio with fish-eye lenses out of a 1990s skateboarding video, drinking in as much ornate detail of the haunted house set as it can possibly cram down its gullet. Much of the in-the-moment action of The Haunting consists of people calmly talking in chilly, hollow rooms, but the film’s visual language is explosively alive throughout – matching the way the environment itself is quiet but teeming with ghosts.

I’m surprised this film isn’t brought up more often when people are heaping praise on classics like Psycho & Carnival of Souls in particular. It could be that its bulked-up budget scale obscures the common ground it shares with those leaner works, but it achieves a similarly eerie mood, especially in mapping out the inner life of its central, doomed protagonist, Eleanore. In a lot of ways, The Haunting is a seduction story. Eleanore is wooed by Hill House both in a romantic sense (its ghosts often play matchmaker between her and other visiting guests of various genders & vital stats) and in a residential sense. She begins the film haunted by her own mediocrity and her lack of a place in the world—dismissed by everyone around her (give or take her lesbian roommate) as a nervous, difficult woman—but the house accepts her flaws and all, beckoning for her to become a permanent fixture among the resident ghosts. It’s an unusually internal, intangible struggle for a genre built around haunted house scares – a delicate, elegant approach to horror that matches the care Wise takes with the film’s visual delights.

The Haunting is impressively smart, funny, and direct about even its touchiest themes (lesbian desire, generational depression, suicidal ideation) while remaining consistently gorgeous & creepy throughout. I’d be shocked to learn that there’s a more effectively scary G-rated horror film out there; and if there were, I doubt it’s this visually imaginative or exquisitely staged. This is clearly the pinnacle of the Old Dark House tradition. The only question is how many other Best Of __ horror lists it belongs at the top of.

-Brandon Ledet

Impetigore (2020)

The Indonesian ghost story Impetigore shocked me, chilled me, and left me guessing where its story was headed until its very last minute. That’s an extremely rare quality to find in a modern horror film, especially one that sticks this close to the tones & conventions of its genre. In an ideal, perfectly-functioning movie industry, Impetigore would be the kind of well-funded horror flick that hits wide theatrical release regularly: handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the traumatizing shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play. Instead, it’s an international export that premiered to mildly positive reviews at this year’s Sundance before quietly finding its way to streaming on Shudder with little fanfare. Impetigore should be an industry norm. Instead, it’s a minor miracle.

It starts with a concise, conceptually brilliant cold open in which a highway tollbooth employee is stalked and eventually hunted in her glass cuboid prison by a machete-wielding maniac. Before he raises his weapon for the deathblow, the crazed killer complains in a reasonable, weary tone, “We don’t want what your family left behind. Please take it away.” That short-story slasher intro then opens up to a much wider, richer tale of an intergenerational curse. A young, desperate woman treks back to her seemingly well-to-do family’s isolated village, hoping to reclaim any generational wealth she may have left behind when she was whisked away to the big city as a child. It turns out her family’s domineering presence in the village is represented by more than just a large house & a fear-inciting name. It also lingers in the form of a vicious curse that torments & disfigures each new generation of the community, so that whatever exploitative evils they committed in the past continue to haunt the present in an active, malicious cycle.

Reductively speaking, Impetigore offers an on-the-surface metaphor about the persistent evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth. However, the rules & origins of its ghostly curse mutate & self-complicate often enough that it doesn’t feel lazily considered or over-simplified. That’s rare in a modern horror film, where each plot development is typically expected to hold some metaphorical Meaning in a 1:1 allegory. Impetigore’s relationship with Extreme Gore freak-outs is similarly distinctive in the modern horror landscape – walking a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in the grotesque details of its cruelty. This is a film that weaponizes your imagination against you for maximum dread, then somehow exceeds the worst-case-scenario imagery you conjure instead of shying away from the discomfort (often by depicting horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said). It’s also a movie that features several traditional Indonesian puppet shows, just in case you’re not already thoroughly entertained.

I very much wish Impetigore weren’t exceptional, that its handsomely executed but appropriately bleak grotesqueries were just another shock-of-the-day horror. As is, it feels like a role model for how well-funded modern horror should look & operate – offering a glimpse of a better, more fucked-up cinematic landscape. It is exceptional, and it should be celebrated as such.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the haunted house creeper A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and where it fits in with the modern wave of internationally exported Korean genre films.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Mark “Boomer” Redmond & Brandon Ledet

Host (2020)

I’ve already spilled gallons of digital ink praising high-concept horror films about The Evils of The Internet and how technology is going to kill us all. I promise it’s not a bit. I’m genuinely enamored with movies that fully commit to an Online Horror gimmick, especially the ones that hone in on a specific app or social media platform for a temporal anchor (Skype in Unfriended, OnlyFans in Cam, CandyCrush in #horror, Snapchat in Sickhouse, Facebook timelines in Friend Request, etc.). The argument against the Online Horror gimmick is that it makes these films feel instantly dated, which I’d contend is more of a virtue than a fault. We spend so much of our modern lives online, navigating virtual spaces, that it feels outright dishonest that contemporary cinema would not reflect that digitized reality. Yet, it seems only gimmicky horror films are the ones brave enough to truthfully document & preserve our daily “lived” experience. They’re no more dated than Citizen Kane was for capturing the media mogul megalomania of contemporary figures like William Randolph Hearst or Casablanca was for reflecting America’s selfish isolationism in the earliest days of WWII. Evil Internet novelty horrors capture the moods & textures of our current era, where most of our lives play out in the eerie spaces beyond touchscreens & keyboards.

In that context, the new Shudder original Host is likely to remain one of the most vital, honest films released this year. Written, filmed, edited, and released in the months since the world went into lockdown for the current COVID-19 pandemic, Host is an instantly dated horror film and damn proud of it. Like the real-time Skype session gimmick of Unfriended (and plenty of other online found footage horrors besides), the film is staged as a fictional hour-long Zoom meeting. It’s a digital space many of us have had to become quickly acquainted with in recent months as working remotely has become more of a norm. Host smartly builds a lot of its scares around Zoom-specific quirks like the eeriness of lag time, the obscured view of pixilation, the uncanny-valley creepiness of artificial backgrounds & facial-recognition filters, and the feedback echo of a user logging into the same meeting on two separate devices. Its end credits are even scrolled through as a Zoom Participants list, which is a wonderfully thorough commitment to the premise. Other COVID-era details like a character scrambling to put on a face mask before fleeing out of their apartment or a young couple in quarantine becoming increasingly frustrated with each other’s constant presence drives home the nowness of the film even further for a shockingly unnerving experience. A decade from now (assuming we’re all alive a decade from now), this will be a priceless cultural time capsule of what life has been like this incredibly bizarre year. Of course, watching it while those wounds are still fresh only makes it more perversely fun & horrific in the interim.

Story-wise, there’s not much going on here that hasn’t already been accomplished in Unfriended (or Unfriended 2: Dark Web or Searching or The Den or so on). If anything, this is basically just a kinder, gentler Unfriended with genuinely likeable characters. That doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement on the formula, but it at least opens it up to a different flavor palate. A group of college-age women gather in a Zoom meeting for an online séance led by a spiritual guide who becomes disconnected mid-call, leaving them vulnerable to whatever ghosts or demons they may have conjured in the process. They’re generally likeable kids, and their only sin, really, is not taking the idea of an online séance very seriously (a sentiment likely shared by most of the film’s audience), which results in supernatural backlash from spirits on the other side of barrier between realms. Once the spirits start punishing these women for their careless indulgences in sarcasm & edgelord humor (they seem to be particularly miffed about a tasteless suicide joke), the movie mostly devolves into a series of haunted house gags where each Zoom participant is snuffed out one by one. The scares are impressively staged, combining practical & computerized effects to really stretch how much can be collaboratively achieved in a social-distance lockdown. And, honestly, it’s impressive that anything was achieved at all, considering how difficult it’s been to complete simple tasks and function as a human being in recent months.

Perhaps the most COVID-aware aspect of Host is that it’s only an hour long, which graciously accommodates how scattered & limited our attention spans have been since the world stopped in its tracks. Even if you’re not fully convinced that this kind of high-gimmick novelty horror about The Evils of The Internet is worthy of your attention, that hour-long commitment is such a small ask. It’s unlikely that we’ll see another feature film this year that so directly, accurately captures what life is like right now, and I’m honestly not shocked that my beloved Online Horror subgenre was the engine that got us there. It’s perfectly suited for that kind of of-the-moment documentation, with plenty of other entertaining payoffs besides.

-Brandon Ledet

Extra Ordinary (2020)

It was only a matter of time before Taika Waititi’s brand of sweet, understated humor started registering as a direct influence on other comedic media. I already felt that influence last year on the minor Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers (which was produced by Waititi and featured several of his regular collaborators), but this year’s Extra Ordinary feels like evidence that it’s now reaching out even further into the ether. Borrowing a humble, reserved approach to the horror comedy genre that Waititi previously explored in What We Do in the Shadows, Extra Ordinary is an absurdly polite, underplayed farce about ghost hunters in small-town Ireland. It’s not quite as comedically successful as Waititi’s modern-day vampire comedy (nor the What We Do in the Shadows TV show, nor its closest competitor Los Espookys), but it does nail the lowkey charm that made it such a success. This is an adorably sweet, character-driven comedy about relatable people dealing with a seemingly insurmountable crisis they don’t deserve to suffer; that crisis just happens to involve demons, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena.

A meek, reclusive driving instructor with a past as a paranormal medium (Maeve Higgins) is drawn out of her shell to help stop a washed-up rock star (Will Forte) from completing a Satanic sacrifice that would revive his career. The ghosts she encounters along the way are mostly pretty mundane, taking the shape of animated electrical appliances, squawking birds, and a domestically abusive, chain-smoking housewife. She reluctantly gets back into the rhythm of interacting with these apparitions for the sake of saving her nemesis’s intended virgin sacrifice. That sounds like a heroic cause in the abstract, but the process mostly involves making her equally shy love interest vomit up a semen-like ectoplasm after briefly engaging each ghost in a polite chat. Even the Satanic ritual at the climax is undercut from achieving anything genuinely Cool or Horrific by mundane interruptions like minor traffic accidents, bickering couples, and Chinese food delivery. It’s an extremely silly, absurd movie when considered in totality, but in the moment everything is so aggressively pleasant that its cartoonish qualities don’t immediately register.

It takes a minute for Extra Ordinary’s sense of humor to fully heat up, by which I mean that it takes the audience a minute to adjust to its characters’ peculiarly muted wavelengths. The film is plenty funny once it builds that momentum, though, and it eventually stages a hugely satisfying farcical payoff in its final Satanic showdown that makes everything that preceded feel like a movie-long setup to a remarkably solid punchline. It traffics in grotesque, horrific scenarios involving demonic possessions, domestic abuse, and paranormal sex fluids, but the characters who navigate them are so quietly sweet that you hardly notice how harsh or over-the-top the whole thing feels from afar. It’s close enough to the Waititi formula that you recognize the influence, but specific enough in its own characterizations that it succeeds at being its own distinct thing. It’s also the kind of comedy that likely rewards repeat viewings, since it centers remarkably sweet characters you can’t help but want to spend more time with once you get to know them.

-Brandon Ledet