W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Druids Druids Everywhere (2020)

For the first half hour of Druids Druids Everywhere, I thought I had finally hit a wall with my enjoyment of Matt Farley’s backyard horror comedies. Now that I’m nearly a dozen feature films into his staggering catalog, it’s not like there’s much left to discover anyway. This past year I’ve found myself looking under every unturned rock in the Motern Cinematic Universe looking for Matt Farley movies that slipped by me a couple summers ago when I was at the heights of my Motern madness. It’s mostly been worth the effort! While not as heavily promoted or discussed as cult-gathering Motern Classics like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, both Obtuse Todd & The Paperboy offered some of the most sublimely inane moments of understated comedy in any Matt Farley work I’ve seen to date. Then, Druids Druids Everywhere shook my faith in the entire endeavor. Was it possible that Farley (along with longtime collaborator Charles Roxburgh) had made a movie even I, a hopeless devotee, couldn’t enjoy? It was scary; then it got better.

Originally intended to be the fourth & final entry into Farley & Roxburg’s “Druid Cycle”, Druids Druids Everywhere was always going to be a for-fans-only proposition. To fully appreciate their crazed commitment to the long-running bit of the Druid Saga, you’d not only have to already be under the spell of their greatest non-druid hits like Local Legends and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, but also to have seen the pre-requisite druid titles Adventures in Cruben Country, Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy and, the crown jewel of the series, Druid Gladiator Clone. That’s a lot of homework, especially for a no-budget comedy about a druid cult. It makes sense, then, that they decided to shelve the film in 2014 without ever officially releasing it, if not only to avoid scaring off new audiences who might have stumbled into it as their very first Motern experience. In the six years since that decision to shelve the film, though, public demand for Motern Content has only gotten louder, making Druids Druids Everywhere a Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail for the few dozen freaks who’ve seen all the other Druid Saga films and maintained enthusiasm for more. And now it’s finally been released as an extra feature on the recent (excellent) Gold Ninja Video release of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. I wish I could report that it was fully worth the wait.

To put it as simply as possible, the first act of Druids Druids Everywhere suffers what I’ll call The Adam Sandler Problem. Recalling the most annoying, soul-draining performances in Sandler’s cursed oeuvre, Matt Farley starts the film speaking in a painfully unfunny Voice that threatens to tank the whole enterprise if he sticks to it the entire runtime. It’s not exactly Little Nicky-level bad, but it’s not far off. Thankfully, he eventually drops the Voice (and its accompanying Spirit Halloween Store fake beard) and teams up with Roxburgh to rid the New England woods of the druid cult that’s been haunting them for four movies solid. Immediately, Druids Druids Everywhere feels like classic Motern, with extensive straight-faced gags involving evil clouds, home-cooked cans of Spaghetti-Os, and cargo pockets stuffed with magical dirt. The back half of Druids Druids Everywhere is rewardingly funny, but you have to suffer through some pretty dire schtick to get there. But, let’s face it, if you’ve gotten this far into the Motern catalog you’re going to be willing to put in the effort.

All the underplayed absurdism & recurring goofball players Motern fans love eventually bubble to the surface in this movie’s final act. If you’re already a Motern convert, it’s genuinely just a joy to dick around the woods with Farley, Roxburgh, and company MVP Kevin McGee for 90min. I doubt anyone who’s not already a fan would find much of value here, or likely even make it past the fake beard & Adam Sandler Voice intro in the first place. They knew that when they made the film, though, and it’s honestly generous of them to release it now anyway just so hopelessly curious nerds like myself could complete the Druid Saga and feel at rest. Sure, this is for-fans-only, but if you’re a Motern fan all you really need is moments of recognition to point at the screen at such classic Matt Farley Bits as walking!, ranting!, and playing basketball!. Please refer to the ranked Motern hierarchy below to determine whether you’re ready to enjoy such a low-key, but warmly familiar indulgence.
Must-See Motern Classics
Local Legends
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!
Monsters, Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas
Second-Tier Motern Gems
Slingshot Cops
Freaky Farley
Druid Gladiator Clone
For-Fans-Only Motern Charmers
The Paperboy
Obtuse Todd
Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy
Adventures in Cruben Country
Druids Druids Everywhere

-Brandon Ledet

Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Box (2020)

Black Box is the story of Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a man suffering from amnesia following severe injury in a car crash that also claimed the life of his wife. He struggles with keeping up with the basics, like eating breakfast, making dinner, turning off the coffee pot, and picking up his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) after school. Although he wants to go back to work as a photojournalist, his editor (Gretchen Koerner) gently rejects his new portfolio, citing both budget cuts and that his work doesn’t have the spark that it used to. After receiving nothing but negative prognoses for the return of his memories from multiple doctors, he’s not very optimistic when his doctor brother Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) recommends he see a noted specialist, Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), who works in the same hospital as Gary. Brooks, through a combination of hypnotherapy and virtual reality brainwave augmentation, tells Nolan that there is hope to retrieve his seemingly-lost years with his wife and daughter. As Nolan starts to go deeper into the titular black box, however, what gets pulled out of his subconscious doesn’t seem to match the life he’s living now. Was he someone else once? Was Nolan once the person who could have done the things that he now remembers? 

Charmaine Bingwa and Donald Watkins also star in this sci-fi thriller from first time feature director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, who also shares a writing credit with Stephen Herman. Both men have experience with several shorts, and it’s not immediately apparent that this is their first feature. It does feel a little slight in places, and it’s not a surprise when Jason Blum’s Executive Producer credit shows up in the early credits, as this feels very much like a slightly off-brand episode of Black Mirror, which is an appellation that could also be applied to some of the more sci-fi slanted episodes of Into the Dark, like All That We Destroy or Culture Shock, but with a sensibility that’s more in the realm of Bloodride. This works better than any of those, however, as it never feels like a TV show, but it does exist in the realm of the near-future speculative fiction indie realm that features pictures like Marjorie Prime.

Between the time that I first started writing this review and picking it back up to complete it, I reread the Wikipedia page for it, and wouldn’t you know, there’s a reason it feels so much like Into the Dark: it’s an “installment in the anthological Welcome to the Blumhouse film series.” Still, it’s worth noting that Into the Dark has still produced multiple films that are actually quite good, and one of them (New Year, New You) even made it into my best of 2019 list. Like New Year, New You, Black Box uses its “smallness” as an asset instead of fighting the smaller budget and trying to make something outside of its grasp, creating a world in which the stakes are personal and rooted in internal struggles with the worst elements of our nature. The twist that centers the film comes very late in the game, but it’s well-seeded with just the right amount of foreshadowing, and there’s still sufficient screen time in the movie’s relatively lean 100 minutes that follow that reveal to let us explore the implications of what we’ve learned and the ethics of what our lead has to do next. But one of the ways that Black Box spins its humble budget of straw into passable onscreen gold is in its cleverness.

For instance, the representative mind world inside the box features a frightening creature in human form but which moves with distinctly inhuman noises (like the cracking of bones) and motions (crabwalking in the upward bow yoga pose); this is accomplished by the hiring of contortionist Troy James for the role, but instead of attempting to CGI a different face onto him, every face in the dream world is initially blurred Ringu style. This is incorporated into the narrative as part of the process, as the blurry face represents an incomplete memory for Nolan to reconstruct. A lesser movie would try to do something more complex and ultimately overcomplicate things, but by leaning into the limitations, Black Box turns them from flaws into strengths. 

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the film because writing around the twist is always a little tricky. In films like this one, that’s often the main drawing point, and my lifetime love of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone proves that I’m always on board for it, as long as the twist is good. This one’s a little more complex than normal, and it requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but you’d have to be a real taskmaster for realism to be unwilling to go along with this one. It’s not the strongest one I’ve ever seen in this type of film, but as someone who has the unfortunate writer’s tendency to try and guess the next twist instead of letting the work take me on a journey, this was one in which I couldn’t guess the twist, and that’s always a plus. Luckily, Black Box doesn’t depend solely on that twist, as it becomes a different story afterward, about what the reframing of what has happened so far and what could happen next is a pivot that changes the film but doesn’t muddy it at all, which would be a feat for even a more experienced director. Its only real crime is that it lacks a truly cinematic eye, which is clearly a matter of budget in this case and not behind-the-camera crew. It remains to be seen how many pies Jason Blum can stick his thumb into, and Into the Dark has already run thin in a few places, but you wouldn’t know it from Black Box

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Lagniappe Podcast: Doctor Sleep (2019)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss Mike Flanagan’s epic The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, which strives to bridge the gap between Stephen King & Stanley Kubrick’s disparate versions of the original.

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

– Mark “Boomer” Redmond & Brandon Ledet

Possessor (2020)

The most often repeated observation about actor Andrea Riseborough is that she loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable.  Among other examples, Riseborough’s turns as the titular metalhead loner in Mandy, the titular grifter in Nancy, and the daughter of the titular dictator in The Death of Stalin are all so distinctly unique in both performance and physicality that it might not even occur to you that the same actor was cast across the roles.  That chameleonic quality might be frustrating for Riseborough’s professional need for name recognition, but it is fascinating to watch in terms of pure excellence in craft.  It’s also, I assume, a major factor in why she was cast as the lead of Brandon Cronenberg’s latest feature, Possessor, which seemingly took note of her absence of persona and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror around it about the loss of Identity.  A damn good one too.

Riseborough stars as a near-future corporate assassin who hacks into unsuspecting marks’ bodies to pin her public executions on them, avoiding arrest and collecting massive bounties.  We catch up with the assassin one too many missions into this grotesque routine, losing her grip on her own persona as the borders blur between her host bodies and her original self.  Much of the film involves an especially disastrous mission where she cannot escape the host body she intends to assassinate a Jeff Bezos-type Big-Tech Asshole with, trapped inside his dirtbag son-in-law and becoming increasingly violent the longer she loses herself in the role.  The two dueling personae inside that one shared meatbag start to fight for control in increasingly upsetting ways, represented onscreen through surrealistic melting wax figures & video art freak-outs.  It’s a fight between actors Riseborough & host-body Christopher Abbott to take over as protagonist just as much as it is a fight between assassin & unsuspecting scapegoat.  Both performers are spectacularly upsetting as they squirm uncomfortably inside their own warring bodies, but it’s a struggle that speaks directly to Riseborough’s reputation as a chameleonic actor in particular.

Brandon Cronenberg does little to avoid the inevitable comparisons to his father’s previous triumphs here.  As the assassin’s bloodlust for grotesque, pointless cruelty escalates, the film’s genre shifts from pure sci-fi thriller to outright surrealist body horror in the Cronenberg family tradition.  Casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as the assassin’s handler and using plug & play brain ports as the company’s means to hack into host bodies at least serve as direct acknowledgements of this cinematic inheritance, directly referencing the iconography of eXistenZ in particular.  There’s plenty of modernization & innovation at play here that elevates Possessor above mere tracing-paper ditto work, though.  The horrors of the Jeff Bezos-funded surveillance state that completely obliterates the boundaries of privacy & autonomy to the point of hacking into our goddamn bodies feels distinctly of-the-moment and a worthy application of the body horror tropes that David Cronenberg helped pioneer.  There’s so much about Possessor that’s unique to our current, nightmarishly inane hellscape, including casual use of the term “cuck queen” and non-stop onscreen vaping.  It’s indebted to body horror classics of the past, but not at all tangled up in attempts to recreate them.

It’d be outrageous to claim that Possessor is about Andrea Riseborough’s eerie absence of a solid persona.  On a conceptual level, this is clearly a film that’s most interested in the identity & autonomy we’ve all given up in our march towards a corporate data-mining hell future.  Casting Riseborough in that central role of a professional impersonator who can’t hold onto her original persona as she loses herself in her assignments can’t help but feel like a deliberate, knowing choice, though.  It builds off her established reputation as an actor in fascinating, terrifying ways, which adds additional depth to the bodily & technophobic grotesqueries that drive the plot otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #124 of The Swampflix Podcast: Black Christmas Blowout w/ We Love to Watch

Welcome to Episode #124 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by Aaron Armstrong and Pete Moran of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss all three versions of the Yuletide slasher classic Black Christmas. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & The We Love to Watch Boys

 

The Night Stalker (1972)


It’s that time of year again: every time you turn on the television, A Christmas Story is playing. I don’t have cable and haven’t in something like six years, and I don’t even think I’ve been in a place that did have cable in over a year (although given that I’ve barely left the house in nine months, that figure is bound to be skewed), but even without access to TNT or TBS, I know that right now, as I write this (although perhaps not as you read it), Alfie is deciphering an advertisement for Ovaltine hidden in his Little Orphan Annie program, or he’s turning in his thesis about what a responsible gun owner he would be, or saying something that’s similar to “fudge” as lug nuts scatter in the road. But this Christmas season, I’m asking you to think about my favorite Darren McGavin role, which is much greater than “father obsessed with a sexy lamp.” I want to tell you about Carl Kolchak, the unlikeliest vampire slayer.

The Night Stalker was a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC in 1972. It was a ratings smash, prompting a sequel telefilm, The Night Strangler, which in turn led to the creation of one-season wonder TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (confusing, I know, as the titular night stalker of the first film is the villain), which I’ve sung the praises of in a few different episodes of the lagniappe podcast with Brandon. Kolchak was an early influence on the genre of mysterious urban fantasy/sci-fi on television, although I don’t think it would fall very easily into that category (think X-Files, not Dresden Files*). What it is, above all things really, is a noir, with all of the tropes of the 1940s adapted for a trashier 1970s world: it’s ambiguous as to whether Kolchak’s girlfriend is a prostitute or a showgirl (or both), the traditional noir voiceover is here embodied by Kolchak’s omnipresent journalistic dictaphone narration, etc. And did I mention that the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Carl Kolchak is employed as a reporter by the Daily News, operating out of Las Vegas, albeit reluctantly according to his long-suffering editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), who claims that Kolchak’s continued unlikely employment is owed solely to a soft spot on the part of the paper’s owner. As we later learn when Kolchak is talking to his girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley), he’s been fired twice in Chicago, once in New York, twice on the West Coast, and, somehow, he was fired from three different papers in Boston. Whatever the journalistic equivalent of an ambulance chaser is, that’s Carl Kolchak, and although “sleaze” isn’t the right word for what he’s got, he cuts a particularly slovenly figure in his powder blue seersucker jacket and straw porkpie hat. He spends his evenings driving from crime scene to crime scene as directed by the police scanner, often arriving at the same time as backup, and he’s forever throwing himself right into the middle of the action with his camera with no regard for his own safety. He’s a complete disaster, and I love him.

Our feature opens with the murder of a swing-shift casino cashier as she walks home alone at night, which turns out to be only the first in a string of slayings—and exsanguinations—of young women, all at the hands of someone oddly strong. Things get even weirder when a hospital is robbed of its entire blood supply, and the local law enforcement briefs the press with the news that the latest victim of the serial killer was bitten on her neck, that the body was completely emptied of blood, and that there was human saliva in and around the wound. Kolchak tries to file a piece with “vampire killer” in the headline, and although he makes it clear in the body of the article that there’s simply a killer on the loose who’s suffering from the delusion that he’s a vampire, Vincenzo refuses to print it. It’s only when Gail starts to express concern that Carl might end up running afoul of a real life vampire that he starts to consider this as a possibility, which is further cemented when Carl arrives at the scene of a second blood bank burglary in process and watches a man fight off nearly a dozen cops and shrug off multiple gunshots.

The Night Stalker clocks in at 72 short minutes, which I must assume is an average length for TV movies of that era, and it’s a perfect little time capsule of mishmashed genres and tones that come together in an unlikely, brassy symphony. What I love about Kolchak, the show, is that our title character occupies a world in which every single person that he encounters is shockingly hostile, from fellow reporters to every LEO that crosses his path to random citizens who happen to be on the same sidewalk. Carl Kolchak is a walking magnet for two things: supernatural weirdness and people on the verge of boiling over, and it really gives the impression that every person in an urban environment in the early seventies was a ticking time bomb. The broad strokes of the show that is to come exists here in this early feature form: Vincenzo will carry over into the show (albeit as the editor of the International New Service based out of Chicago, were the series was set), and Kolchak’s stable of informants are here in a primordial version as well: the coroner with the big mouth, the switchboard operator with the weakness for a Whitman’s sampler, Bernie the FBI buddy with who’s willing to give the benefit of the doubt—you know, the usual suspects.

It’s not hard to see why this was so successful as a telefilm, or why it had potential as a franchise. I mean, a TV movie of the week where two sweaty, middle-aged men, one with a potbelly, defeating a vampire isn’t necessarily such stuff that dreams are made on, but despite what one must assume was a fairly minimal budget, there are several great action sequences. Although the climactic defeat of the undead is fun, I was very impressed by the hospital scene in which vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) fights off a several hospital employees, including one orderly being thrown out of an upper floor window in some nice stunt work for the time, followed by a shockingly well-executed bit of automotive choreography as several police cars and even a motorcycle cop glide around in an alley.

Other than the increased budget (you’re not gonna see Kolchak going Baja across lanes of traffic in the show, or an intense six-car ballet like you do here, and the occasional defenestration, such as in the opening of “The Trevi Collection,” creates the action through editing, not practical effects), there’s one other thing that the film has over the show, which is that its presumption of finality allows the film to fully commit to having a bleak, noir ending. We see, multiple times, that modern (or at least contemporary, as this was produced fifty years ago) police forces are just as incapable of defending the neon-filled oasis of Vegas from an old world vampire as a Transylvanian village, and they’re hopelessly outmatched despite their manpower and firearms. This makes for an interesting backdrop, as each skeptic is forced to accept the reality of the situation, and Kolchak shares his knowledge with law enforcement. In the end, however, despite the authorities’ full understanding of the situation, they use the threat of an arrest for homicide of Skorzeny to run Kolchak out of town permanently. His bags are delivered directly to the D.A.’s office where his lawkeeping nemeses wave a warrant in his face, present him with the supernatural-free article that they’ll be running instead of his correct piece, and tell him not to bother trying to reach Gail, as they’ve already ejected her from Vegas as an “undesirable element.” It’s a grim conclusion for our newspaperman, who has seen the truth and had it denied by the powers that be, and we close on his recollection of the events with the narration telling us that Carl and Gail never found each other again.

Of course, as an audience, we know that Kolchak will have many** more adventures, but it’s a fittingly depressing final note for our hero, all things considered. Ironically, had this not done so well, this would have been Kolchak’s end, and while I’m glad it wasn’t, had this been all the Kolchak that the world was given, it would still be solid.

*I’m just kidding. No one thinks about The Dresden Files.

**Well, one season’s worth.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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