Apostle (2018)

Netflix has been cranking out phenomenal original horror series and movies this year, most notably The Ritual, which is easily one of the greatest horror films to come out in 2018. Just this past Friday, Netflix also released the period horror film Apostle just in time for Halloween, and it did not disappoint. The first half of Apostle is very tame and mysterious, and the latter half spirals into blood-soaked insanity. I absolutely loved it.

It’s sometime in the early 20th century, and Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), is on a mission to save his sister from a pagan cult that kidnapped her for ransom. He travels to a remote island populated only by cult members and goes incognito as a follower. The cult elements in Apostle are a slight nod to The Wicker Man, as the cult members are seemingly average folk inhabiting an isolated island, but the cult in question is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a horror movie. They worship a Goddess that inhabits the island, and they essentially keep her prisoner and feed her human blood to give her enough energy to produce crops from the islands tainted soil. The cult leader, Malcolm (Michael Sheen), discovered her and claims to be her prophet, and just like any narcissistic douchebag that gets a taste of power, he starts to lose his grip on reality. Everything essentially goes to hell in a handbasket when Prophet Malcolm is overthrown by a psychotic cult member, and Thomas is caught up in the brutal carnage while trying to get his sister off of the crazy cult island.

What I loved most about Apostle, other than the badass bloodthirsty Goddess, is that there is a tragic Romeo and Juliet type love story between two young cult members in the midst of all the madness. Honestly, Romeo and Juliet had it easy compared to what happens to these two. There’s just something about forbidden love within a cult that really holds my attention.

Apostle is visually stunning and just so damn unique. I truly hope it gets the recognition it so rightly deserves from the horror community and goes down in genre movie history as a “cult” classic.

-Britnee Lombas

The Babysitter (2017)

McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. His unmeasured, over-enthused music video tackiness is perhaps only suitable (or even tolerable) when delivering easy-to-digest, winking at the camera genre thrills at under 90min of violent, over-sexed pop media. I never would have supposed that horror comedy would be the sweet spot that forgave McG’s many, many sins against good taste, but The Babysitter proves just that.

A young, bullied nerd stays awake past his bedtime to spy on his older, cooler, hotter babysitter and discovers that she’s the ringleader of a Satanic blood cult. If this premise sounds like it should have been pitched 30 years ago, don’t worry; McG & writer Brian Duffield pretend as if they’re still operating in a socially & politically tacky 80s horror climate. The Babysitter relies heavily on the high school clique archetypes, lipstick lesbian make-outs, and (most despicably) racial caricature of ancient pop media as a launching point for its gore-soaked horror humor. The morality of this backwards mindset can be periodically icky, but the cartoon energy of the production design and the crazy-eyed performance from Samara Weaving as the titular hot girl villain (which is like a high school age version of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn interpretation) make the occasional bad taste squirm worthwhile. The idea of prurient curiosity from a young nerd spying on their perfect, ideal babysitter in hopes for sexual discovery instead leading him to becoming a targeted witness of a Satanic blood ritual is a solid hook, one McG bizarrely reduces to a gory music video remix of Home Alone. The Babysitter somehow even presents subtle themes about the anxieties of oncoming puberty & sexual awakening in the midst of its gory sugar rush eccentricity, especially in how its older, hornier teenage Satanists look through the eyes of its petrified junior high nerd protagonist. Those themes just aren’t very deep or tastefully executed. That’s not the McG way.

If you can look past its stubbornly dated moral center and eye-bleeding Cat in the Hat production design, The Babysitter works fairly well as a trashy horror comedy for the Riverdale age (just with some Family Guy touches unfortunately peppered in for flavor). The way it turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors is a great backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies. The film could’ve used more screentime exploring the sex & Satanic ritual aspects of its teen villain occultists, but there’s something endearingly perverse about the way McG devolves the premise into Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists instead. The bright colors, eccentric camera work, onscreen text, and lack of moral self-awareness are befitting of a children’s film from decades in the past, but also work surprisingly well in a trashy, direct-to-streaming horror comedy context. McG might have finally found his niche — his tacky, cavity-causing, shamefully amusing niche.

-Brandon Ledet

A Dark Song (2017)

A lot of the reason why we’re experiencing such a rich indie horror boom in recent years is that there’s a concrete methodology to producing a solid, inexpensive horror film that can, in turn, make a tidy, near-guaranteed profit. Small scale horror scenarios confined to cheap, insular locations with intimate, no-name casts are like little assembly line machines with a set-in-stone order to how they can deliver the most immediate effect while keeping overhead in check. What’s so striking about the Irish indie A Dark Song is how this stick-to-the-basics reliance on horror filmmaking method & process is reflected in its own plot. As we watch A Dark Song’s two main players attempt to summon dark spirits in a regimented, by-the-books ritual, it’s easy to see their religious dedication to process & tradition reflected in the production of the film itself, which attempts to summon a dark spirit (and modest profit) of its own through admirably limited means. Indie horror filmmaking is itself a kind of regimented, traditionalist ritual that doesn’t always heed results, but when it works it’s (dark) magic.

A grieving mother turns to a self-taught occultist for help in staging a ritual that will aid in the process of coming to terms with her young son’s death by putting her in contact with literal demons & angels. The pair are locked away from the rest of the world in an old house for months, where they prepare for the Kaballist ritual as if preparing for battle. It’s at first difficult to take the occultist at all seriously as he switches his garb from bucket hats to ceremonial robes, but he apparently has extensive experience & hands-on research related to the task at hand. The mismatched pair purify their bodies by abstaining from food, sex, and alcohol. They draw geometric chalk lines on the floorboards in various rooms and recite prayers meant to “unshackle the house from the rest of the world” &”push off into the void.” There’s an obvious, meticulous method to this regimen, one the occultist enforces like a drill sergeant as he berates the grieving mother/paying customer in violent, overly macho bursts. Of course, his dedication to the rules of the ritual eventually do pay off in a spectacular supernatural breakthrough; there wouldn’t be much of a movie if it didn’t. Still, he often comes across as an abusive ass and the mother only puts up with his self-aggrandizing behavior because she’s as desperate to see the ritual’s result as the audience is.

I felt slightly let down by the climax & fallout of A Dark Song‘s conclusion, but it’s difficult to imagine a payoff for a movie this small-scale that could satisfy what the build-up promises to deliver. What’s odd is that the payoff almost doesn’t even matter, because the build-up of the meticulously-executed ritual is so satisfying in its own right (rite?). In the zeitgeist of modern indie horror this one lands somewhere between the aesthetics of Baskin & I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, yet exceeds both titles in quality & overall effect because of its dedication to small-scale methodology. There’s something psychologically satisfying about watching two insignificant players follow a meticulous recipe for something much bigger than them and then reap the supernaturally outsized rewards for their troubles. I love the way that same dedication to precise regimen can be seen reflected in the filmmaking style that produced it. A Dark Song is a kind of time-tested horror movie alchemy that turns a small scale drama about two broken people alone in a house together into something much larger than its limited means. The movie itself is a kind of dark magic incantation in that way.

-Brandon Ledet

Dig Two Graves (2017)

It’s both fascinating and depressing how many minor indie films can slip through the cracks of theatrical distribution after first appearing for a festival run. The digitization of the film industry has democratized production to the point where almost anyone can make a movie, but opening the floodgates that way has meant that it’s much more difficult for a feature to stand out & be seen. The Gothic mystery thriller Dig Two Graves, for instance, premiered at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2014, but didn’t earn a “select theaters” release until nearly just three years later. The modestly budgeted film is now lurking, just a few months later, in the massive heap of under-publicized indies that eventually all find their way to Netflix. In some ways it’s easier to watch than ever before, but it’s also a victim of a distribution method that does it no favors in terms of visibility. It’s a shame too, because it’s actually a fairly engaging work that could be commercially viable with the right push.

There are two dueling timelines in Dig Two Graves. The film opens with 1940s cops dumping two bodies off a cliff into a backwoods river. It then jumps to two teen siblings standing at the same cliff in the 1970s. Unable to convince his sister to plunge with him, the older brother leaps to the water below on his own, never to resurface. The sister obsesses over this disappearance and is hurt that her family and community is able to move on. Her story starts to converge with the opening 1940s timeline from there, as she’s offered a proposition from old-timey gypsy vagabonds who promise to bring her brother back to life through black magic in exchange for the life of her schoolyard friend. The division between the 40s and 70s timelines loses its rigidity as she struggles with the implications of the magic that could bring her brother back. It’s a classic Southern Gothic tale of supernatural revenge that just happens to be set in the Midwest.

The pitfalls of revenge and the cycles of history repeating itself aren’t exactly novel territory for a mystery thriller to explore, but Dig Two Graves does a great job of visually distinguishing itself while remaining narratively familiar. Snakes, carnivals, magic tricks, the eeriness of the woods, and the hallmarks of hillbilly occultism all afford the film the feel of a strange bedtime story that resurfaces in your nightmares through half-remembered images. Jars of homemade moonshine and the field dressing of deer ground its supernatural story in a sense of real world brutality, while the lead vagabond’s battered top hat gives him a kind of Babadook quality. This is the exact kind of film I would have loved to have caught at a young enough age so that its specific images haunted me more than the mechanics if its central mystery; I’m thinking specifically of my relationship with The Lady in White. Still, even for an adult audience Dig Two Graves packs plenty of visually-triggered chills and can be technically impressive in its confident drifts between its two disparate temporal settings.

One of the biggest questions Dig Two Graves raises for me is just how many of these well-made indies are slipping through the distribution cracks and not even reaching Netflix. I even attended the 2014 NOFF where this film premiered (it’s where I saw Wetlands) and I’ve never heard of this film. I’ve had movies from subsequent NOFF screenings crack my Top Films of the Year lists, never to be heard of again in wide distribution. This is a strange time we’re living in for pop culture media, but I’m glad films like Dig Two Graves can at least find a way to get made even if they have to later struggle to be seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Mark of the Witch (1970)

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fourhalfstar

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Many moons ago when I was at boarding school, there was a patio restaurant across the main drag from campus that had a detached building containing the restrooms. In the short hallway between latrines, there was a poster for a horror flick I had never heard of, entitled Screams of a Winter Night. After some research using 2004-era internet access (no small feat, to be honest), I found that the movie had been filmed in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana (where my boarding school was located) by college students in the late seventies. They made three prints of the film and took them to drive-ins in the nearest cities, where Screams was discovered and picked up for nationwide distribution. Although it’s my understanding that the film has since found a home on DVD, it took some time to locate a pirated VHS copy of the movie at that time; although it has a certain nostalgic appeal for me, it’s not a very good movie, being largely amateurish in its narrative cohesion and poorly filmed in general, with lighting that renders much of the film impossible to see at points. Maybe I’ll get around to reviewing it for the site one day, but this is really just a preamble to discuss today’s selection, another cheap regional production, 1970’s Mark of the Witch, which, unlike Screams of a Winter Night, is actually a lot of fun and definitely worth seeking out.

In the late sixties, two Dallas women named Martha Peters and Mary Davis noticed that, although the horror genre was exploding, very few films were being made by or for women. Since both women had an academic interest in the occult, they composed a draft of Mark of the Witch, in which a young co-ed is possessed by the spirit of a centuries-dead witch. The film was shot with a cast and crew comprised mostly of local Texan amateurs: Peters seems to have never written anything else, while Mary Davis’s sole other screenwriting credit was for 1974’s Scum of the Earth. This was the first directing credit for Tom Moore as well, although he would direct Return to Boggy Creek (sequel to The Legend of Boggy Creek) seven years later before going on to have a largely unremarkable career as a TV director for episodes of various programs, including Cheers, Picket Fences, The Wonder Years, Mad About You, and L.A. Law.

The film opens with the hanging of the titular witch (Marie Santell), overseen by the betrayer MacIntyre Stuart (Robert Elston); he and two other members of their coven turned on the other ten members, leading to their execution. With her final words, the witch curses Stuart: he and all of his descendants shall bear her mark, until she returns to exact her vengeance. Some three centuries and change later, Leonard Nimoy lookalike Alan (Darryl Wells) is buying some books on witchcraft at the local university bookstore, where his girlfriend Jill (Anitra Walsh) is assisting with a book drive. They briefly discuss the psychology course that they are taking from Professor “Mac” Stuart (Elston again) and make plans to attend one of his parties/seminars that evening. After Alan leaves, Jill discovers a real spell book, later identified as the Red Book of Appin. That evening, she brings the book to the meeting and encourages her friends and classmates, including horndog Harry (Jack Gardner) and ditzy Sharon (Barbara Brownell), to participate in a ceremony outlined in the book: summon a witch.

When nothing seems to happen, the group disbands for the evening and Alan, unaware that Jill has been possessed by the witch, gives her a ride back to her dorm, shrugging off her strange behavior as a kind of joke. Jill returns to Stuart’s home and tells him the truth. Stuart had donated the Red Book, a family heirloom, to the book drive in the hope that it would be found and a ritual performed as a psychological experiment; after a few demonstrations of her power, Stuart and Alan realize that they have unleashed an old evil in modern times. While the possessed Jill seeks out and kills Harry and Sharon to complete a rite that will make her ruler of the world, Alan and Stuart work together to try to find a way to exorcise her possessor before it’s too late.

This is a fun little movie, and surprisingly impressive for a film made on such a small budget and with only local talent. The fun is mitigated in a few places by special effects failures (the fire that the possessed Jill uses in her rites at the wooded grove is no larger than a dinner plate, for instance) and some repetitiveness (the witch uses the same overlong invocation in a few separate scenes), but it’s obvious that all of the players involved are having fun, and that sense of bonhomie and good humor is infectious enough that it’s no trouble to get swept up in the moment.

I saw the film at the Alamo Drafthouse’s weekly Terror Tuesday event in Austin, and the reels themselves were provided by the American Genre Film Archive, which is committed to preserving little oddities like this. Host Joe Ziemba noted that the film had never been checked out from the archive since its induction, and that only a few dozen people had seen the film in its original release. Although the quality of the 35mm print was imperfect (some parts of the film itself had actually turned to dust, resulting in a few skips in the narrative and a blank screen), it was still a great viewing. The entirety of Mark of the Witch appears to be available on YouTube, so viewing it in your own home is not only easy, but highly recommended.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Love Witch (2016)

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fourstar

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I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 20: Help! (1965)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Help! (1965) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 152 of the first-edition hardback, Ebert praises a Chicagoan revival house cinema called The Clark Theater. He wrote, “It was there one Sunday, while sitting in the balcony watching Help! with The Beatles, that I saw a fan run down the aisle, cry out ‘I’m coming, John!’ and throw himself over the rail. Strangely, there were no serious injuries.”

What Ebert had to say in his review:  Unfortunately, if he ever officially reviewed the film, it’s not currently available on his website.

Richard Lester’s first collaboration with The Beatles, the classic 1964 boyband comedy pioneer A Hard Day’s Night, has a flippantly absurdist edge to it, but mostly remains grounded in reality as the Fab Four navigate a world where fans & the press are ravenous for more, more, more. Help! trades in that absurdist tinge for all-out surreality & psychedelia, mostly to the film’s detriment. It’s as if A Hard Day’s Night captured their boozy, pill-popping rock band phase & Help! happened to catch them just a year later after they had just smoked pot for the first time. Every half-baked highdea Lester & the boys had made it to the screen without filter and the results can include some great gags & striking imagery in the film’s long string of throwaway moments. However, as a whole Help! is messy in a druggy, pot-addled way that a lot of comedies would come to be in the decade that followed. Still, you could do much worse that watching the greatest band of all time get stoned off their asses & act like goofballs in-between tour dates for two hours & Help! remains consistently entertaining, even in its blasé, ramshackle state of dazed giddiness.

For the entirety of Help!’s opening scene, I thought for sure I had popped in the wrong DVD. A Hindu-adjacent Indian cult (ostensibly modeled after the Thugee) prepare a human sacrifice to their in the flesh god-king only to discover that *gasp* she’s not wearing the sacrificial ring necessary to complete the act. Smash cut to The Beatles performing a proto music video rendition of the song “Help!” where it’s revealed that, duh, Ringo is wearing the ring. Somehow catching that detail on their era’s version of MTV (a reel-to-reel projector), a group of higher-ups in the cult go on a mission to steal the ring back from the goofball drummer. The quest to reclaim Ringo’s ring (which seems to be magically stuck to his finger) beings in London, but follows his band all over Europe (presumably between a hectic schedule of tour dates). Magic, science, and high concept hijinks all fail to remove the ring from Ringo’s finger. The espionage-themed antics that ensue recall James Bond by way of Benny Hill and the movie constantly shifts gears as it sees fit, occasionally dropping the storyline in favor of allowing The Beatles to perform music video renditions of songs like “Lose that Girl” & “Ticket to Ride”, as well as to be cute & cheeky in their downtime. It’s in some ways more of the same after A Hard Day’s Night, except with a bigger budget & a more obvious attempt to shoehorn a plot into its very loose structure.

If I had to liken Help!’s comedy style to anything more specific, I guess I could see how it would’ve had an influence on its ZAZ-style comedies like Airplane! & Naked Gun that would follow over a decade after its premiere. In true ZAZ fashion the film throws so many gags at the wall that it doesn’t at all matter that they don’t all stick. If the film’s flamethrower umbrella doesn’t elicit a chuckle then maybe you’ll laugh at its killer hand drier or its ludicrous undercover espionage costumes (of which Ringo’s gradually would become true to life over time) or whatever else flies at the screen from moment to moment. Also true to ZAZ comedies, Help! has an obvious problem with cultural . . . insensitivity when it comes to othering its neighbors from the East for their kooky religious ways. The Beatles likely included the Indian cult in their film to acknowledge their growing interest in incorporating Eastern sounds into their music, but it’s hard to watch Help! & believe this was the most ethical way of going about that. The problem is especially noticeable in a repeated gag where John Lennon chides an Indian woman for her “filthy Eastern ways,” a running joke that only gets increasingly uncomfortable with each occurrence.

According to Richard Lester, Duck Soup was a huge inspiration for the making of Help!, but I can just barely see the connection myself. I guess The Beatles have always had a Marx Brothers style of rapid-fire banter & the film does devolve into the chaos of warfare in its final act the way Duck Soup does, but Help! is done no favors by being compared to, in my opinion, one of the greatest comedies of all time. Personally, I think the film is much more reminiscent of the down-the-line ZAZ comedy Top Secret!, except that it was pulling form contemporary James Bond titles like From Russia with Love (including that film’s cultural gawking) instead of Bond films of the 80s. There are some inspired moments in the whimsical set designs, especially in The Beatles’s color-coded flat & a scene where Paul McCartney is shrunken down to thumbsize among towering, oversized props. For the most part, though, Help! is a nonstop assault of Looney Tunes goofery run amok, a dedication to irreverence that can vary from moment to moment in terms of entertainment or annoyance.

According to my extensive online research (a quick Google search), The Beatles had indeed been introduced to the dysfunctional joys of marijuana by Bob Dylan in the year prior to writing & performing Help!. If anyone can get away with dicking around while stoned on camera & still make it charming, however, it might as well be The Beatles. Help! probably could’ve used a second draft & a editor, but it’s still a joy to watch due to the inherent charm of its blitzed moptops.

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Roger’s Rating: (N/A)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

-Brandon Ledet

The Invitation (2016)

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fourstar

“There’s something strange going on here and no one is saying anything.”

I may have mentioned once or a thousand times that one of my favorite plot structures is what I’ve dubbed “The Party Out of Bounds”: a story where guests at an initially civil social event stick it out once the party goes awry, held either by force or by free will, despite the very apparent fact that they should just call it a night. There have been a few great examples of Party Out of Bounds films from this year, ranging from the seething personal drama of A Bigger Splash to the go-for-broke absurdist horrors of High-Rise, but the straight-to-Netflix mystery thriller The Invitation feels like it might be the most pure & to-the-point distillation of what makes the formula work I’ve seen all of 2016. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Girlfight) & company stage their cruel, eerie mystery at a red wine & old friends dinner party that gets increasingly more disturbing by the minute as the alcohol takes hold & the conversations get morose. The major variation on the traditional Party Out of Bounds story structure in The Invitation is that only one party guest seems to notice the sinister vibes at play as his fellow partiers pass off his terror & concern as mere paranoia. This lends the film a very focused mode of psychological horror sometimes absent from films of its ilk, which makes it a unique watch even if I can boil down its basic premise & gimmick down to a well-worn trope (one that I just happen to be a sucker for).

A man travels with his new girlfriend to an ex’s home for a dinner party with friends he hasn’t seen in two years. As an outsider, his new girlfriend feels the need to overcompensate & break the silence among other party guests, but he remains stoic & pensively surveys a home where he used to live. In his own silent way, our protagonist wrestles with two distinct conflicts: a past trauma that occurred in the home that dissolved his former romance & his past lover’s new life in what appears from the outside to be some kind of sex cult. There’s a hippie niceness to his hosts’ “everything is beautiful” mode of oversexed, dazed gushing that’s eerie in contrast with the darkness their home recalls, made worse by vague platitudes like, “Pain is optional,” and “I am different. I am free. All that useless pain, it’s gone.” The protagonist senses a life-threatening danger disguised as “hospitality”, but stays to see the party through anyway, allowing for dual slow reveals of exactly what past trauma occurred in his host’s home as well as the full scope of the cult-like crowd, known simply as The Invitation, his ex has seemingly become involved with. As the partiers continuously open bottle after bottle of wine & the past gradually seeps in to inform the underlying menace of the present, our audience surrogate struggles to open his fellow guests’ eyes to what he perceives as imminent doom. So much of the satisfaction in these What’s Really Going On Here? plots depends on the strength of the films’ conclusions. The Invitation makes good on the dread of the sex & violence teased & promised throughout, but when & how the hammer falls is up for question for the entire runtime in what feels like a deliberate, sinister ritual carried out by some not-what-they-seem hippies & witnessed only by one observant party guest.

The isolation of the main character’s skepticism makes The Invitation feel just as much like a psychological horror as it does a reverse home invasion thriller (where the victim is invited as a guest to the threatening stranger’s home). With the production value just as cheap as the fictional party’s wine looks expensive, The Invitation has a way of feeling like everything’s happening inside of its protagonist’s head as he works through painful memories in a storied space, as if he’s navigating a nightmare or a session of hypnotherapy. Thankfully, the film goes to a much more interesting & terrifying place than an it-was-all-just-a-dream reveal, but the psychological torment of the film’s nobody-believes-me terror adds a layer of meaning & emotional impact that would be absent without that single-character specificity. Outside a few character actors like Toby Huss & John Carroll Lynch, even the film’s performances can come across a little cheap & artificial, but still function to enhance the way that artificiality informs the film’s psychological torment & nightmare vibes. Details like a focus on the grotesqueries of guests drinking & chewing, the strange talisman of a birthday cake, and the color-coded divisions between the past & present are just as suffocating & confining as the film’s locked doors & barred windows, as they trap  in the mind of a guest at a Party Out of Bounds who just. will. not. leave. The Invitation might not be as formally well-crafted as similar confined space thrillers frpm this year like Green Room & 10 Cloverfield Lane, but its seemingly congenial setting & psychological horror leanings make it a much stranger, more singular experience than those films can sometimes be, however cheaply made.

-Brandon Ledet

The Witch (2016)

witch

fourhalfstar

A lot of times when you tell people that you really liked a horror movie the first question they ask is “Was it scary?” Now, that’s not a requirement for me to enjoy myself at a horror showing. Horror can be funny or gruesome or just eccentric or interesting enough to make questions about whether or not it was scary to even be relevant. With The Witch, however, I can actually answer that question bluntly & with enthusiasm. The Witch is a scary movie. It’s a haunting, beautifully shot, impossibly well-researched witchcraft horror with an authenticity that’s unmatched in its genre going at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan, so it has many virtues outside the simple question of whether or not it was a scary movie, but yes, The Witch succeeds there as well. At times it can be downright terrifying.

What makes The Witch scary, though, might also prevent it from becoming a commercial success. With the full title The Witch: A New England Folklore, this is a film much more concerned with upholding traditions in the mythology surrounding witchcraft than it is with entertaining its audience with a kill-a-minute sense of modern horror momentum. Far from the cinematic witchery you’d see in films like Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, or The Withes of Eastwick, The Witch is scary because it feels real. It strays from the temptations of movie magic escapism by telling a small, grounded story about a slowly-escalating supernatural event in the most muted, straightforward methods possible. I can see a lot of audiences seeking a typical horror movie experience being turned off by The Witch‘s art house sense of hushed drama & pacing, but that’s exactly what makes it such an engaging, terrifying experience if you can get on its wavelength.

Depicting the unraveling of a small Puritan family at the edge of the New England wilderness in the 17th Century, The Witch makes it clear very early that its supernatural threat is not only real, but it’s also really fucked up. The titular witch is an ugly, uncaring, unapologetically Satanic force of Nature. Her devout, pious victims are a paranoid family of many superstitions, all of which seem to prove true one at a time as if the witch were systematically confirming every horrific thing ever said about her & her kind. The strange thing about this set up is that the witch checks into cause havoc in occasional spurts (stealing an infant, seducing the weak-willed, spreading sickness & ritually participating in genital mutilation, etc.), but for the most part her presence is felt, but not seen. The main source of terror in the film is the cruelty of Nature at large. The witch is just one weapon in Nature’s arsenal, which is revealed to be quite large & varied by the time the film reaches its stunning conclusion. The Puritan farm family suffers many blows at Nature’s uncaring, ungodly hand, especially as their religious faith is tested & strained by heartbreaking loss & physical pain.

The old-timey vibe aimed for in The Witch is not only a matter of aesthetic. It’s essential to the film’s entire existence. The Witch is set in a time when its tales of cursed goats, Satan’s attempts to recruit the youth, and minor sins like “prideful conceit” causing you to fall out of God’s protective favor would’ve been very real, tangible concerns. As the film’s central family fails to navigate these Old World dangers on New World turf while remaining intact as a single unit, a deeply unnerving effect swells from the nightmare sound of the string arrangements in the film’s gloriously-evil sounding musical score. The Witch doesn’t solely evoke its 17th Century time frame by peppering its dialogue with “thee”s & “thy”s and lighting its characters like an old Dutch painter. It transports the audience to the era, making you feel like fairy tales like Hansel & Gretel and folklore about wanton women dancing with the devil naked in the moonlight might actually be real threats, just waiting in the woods to pick your family apart & devour the pieces. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but it is a significantly more rewarding film than strict genre fare can be when it too closely plays by modern rules. The Witch is a scary movie, but what’s impressive is that it scares you with an outdated threat of a tratidional folklore that’s no longer supposed to feel as real as it does here.

-Brandon Ledet

The Satanist (1968)

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Hooboy, this one was a stinker. Directed by Zoltan G. Spencer (nee Spence Crilly), The Satanist is a B&W horror nudie (a kind of subset/cousin of the genre of nudie cuties that Brandon has been writing about of late) that was released in 1968 and was thought to be irretrievably lost after its last screening in 1971; film archivists generally agree that only five prints of the film were ever made, and the single surviving print was unearthed only a year ago. It has been screened only two or three times since then, including at the Forgotten Film Festival in Philadelphia last summer, and most recently at the Alamo Ritz for the Halloween season. Unfortunately, of all the missing films out there in the world that are begging to be found, this is one whose discovery doesn’t enrich the world all that much.

The plot follows a writer who has recently experienced a nervous break and is, under orders from his doctor, trying to get some stress-free rest in the country with his beautiful wife, Mary. In short order, the two meet their neighbor Shawna, a “student of the occult” whose home is decorated with “numerous” “arcane” objects. The writer sees an apparition of a topless woman in a mirror, but does not share this with his wife, chalking it up to his nervous exhaustion. Later, he returns to Shawna’s home and spies through her window as she feels up another woman before turning into a man and engaging in softcore intercourse with her. His wife catches Shawna attempting some rite with his glasses (topless, of course), and the two decide to leave, but feel obligated to attend a party that Shawna had invited them to before they discovered her witchy ways. Obviously, this is a bacchanal during which the writer is tied up and forced to watch as Mary becomes the bride of Satan, as each man in attendance dons a ridiculous-looking ram’s head and thrusts vainly in the general direction of her nethers. The film then ends with the writer back in the frame story, where he sits in a wheelchair stating that it is up to you, the viewer, to determine whether or not his experience was real or the result of his mental breakdown. Of course, his doctor sure does look an awful lot like Shawna, doesn’t she?

There is nothing that could save this movie, not even an ending that mocks The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At only 64 minutes, this movie feels as if it is hours long, and there’s nothing to do for long stretches of it while topless women roll around in relative chastity with hairy, mustachioed men. There’s no exchange of dialogue at all in the film, as all lines are delivered by the writer in voiceover, expositing here and explaining there, and any fun that comes from the film is in the pompous verbosity and overwrought delivery. Even the titles for the director’s later works, like Terror at Orgy Castle and Sister in Leather, are more automatically engaging than this film. There are monologues here that are begging to be sampled and looped, but that does not make up for the long stretches of screentime that are devoted to titillation. Even as an esoteric, forgotten piece of cinema, this is one to avoid.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond