The Field Guide to Evil (2019)

In theory, I understand the thinking behind programming a horror anthology like The Field Guide to Evil in the late-night slot at an arthouse theater or on the festival circuit. This is a format typically populated by 80-minute creature feature showcases, where a few like-minded directors put in wildly different short films only tied together by a flimsy wraparound. They’re an excuse to sample different tones & onscreen monsters in bite-sized horror morsels. The classic horror anthology in a genre film nerd party in that way, so it makes sense to relegate them to the late-night slot when those freaks (us) tend to come out. The Field Guide to Evil is a different beast entirely, though. At nearly two hours and often academic in tone, this is a film that would benefit from the sober light of the afternoon rather than the rowdy eeriness of a midnight screening. It’s too long, too dry, and too tonally consistent to satisfy the usual criteria of a fun, breezy horror anthology – which means a lot of festival goers & late night partiers are going to fight the urge to doze off midway through the picture, through no fault of the film’s. It’s just an experience that requires a little alertness in a proper atmosphere.

Whereas most horror anthologies are harshly criticized for being wildly inconsistent in quality & tone from segment to segment, it’s that very variation that gives the format an inherent sense of excitement. Featuring nine filmmakers from eight different countries, you’d think that The Filed Guide to Evil would traffic in that traditional inconsistency, but it’s a very cohesive, evenly curated piece – almost to a fault. The central, unifying conceit of the collection is clear in a way few anthologies are: some of the most exciting new filmmakers in the horror genre (all veterans of Fantastic Film Fest) are gathered to adapt folklore tales from their home countries in any way they see fit. Cautionary tales about djinns, goblins, demons, and witches vary only slightly across national borders, establishing a kind of Brothers Grimm collection for the “elevated horror” era. As an international horror folklore omnibus, the entirety of Field Guide recalls recent genre outliers like The Witch, November, and Tale of Tales, titles that look back to the fantasies & moralistic norms of the past to terrify audiences & diagnose societal ills of the present. The atmosphere, imagery, and academic discussion that arise from that end of the horror filmmaking spectrum can fascinate in the way they stir up an old-world sense of dread. However, it’s also a storytelling mode that requires a little patience & a lot of forgiveness for abrupt, obscured conclusions – which can be very trying at this length with this overwhelming wealth of contributors, especially at a late hour.

As a voracious horror nerd who feels absolutely spoiled by the wealth of talent & #content out there in the current landscape, I found plenty to be excited by in this picture’s impressive lineup of filmmakers. Any anthology that manages to feature contributions from Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy), Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure), Veronika Franz, and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) is automatically going to have my attention. I suspect my biases there determined most of my preferences for individual vignettes. Those specific contributors’ segments were all clear favorites for me, while filmmakers I knew nothing about or whose work I don’t appreciate as much (Baskin’s Can Evrenol, to name names) left me a little cold . . and very sleepy. Strickland’s concluding segment was a particular must-see standout, one that reimagines German Expressionist horror filmmaking in a new, vibrantly psychedelic light I felt lucky to catch on the big screen. I was so deliriously exhausted by the time that conclusion arrived, however, that I feel like I owe it a bright-eyed sober rewatch over a morning coffee to fully soak it in. It’s a dark blessing that this anthology was released on VOD the same weekend as it hit arthouse theaters; most venues are going to be tempted to screen it in a late-hour cult movie slot that does its slow, peculiar rhythms a disservice. As is, I was thrilled by individual images & ideas on display in this horror folklore collection, but too exhausted by its late-night time slot to recall it vividly; it lingers in my mind only as a half-remembered nightmare. I’m hoping I can remedy that dilemma soon with an early morning revisit on my couch.

-Brandon Ledet

Goodnight Mommy (2015)

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threehalfstar

Goodnight Mommy (aka Ich seh Ich seh, literally “I see I see” but culturally translated as something more akin to “I spy with my little eye”) is the non-documentary feature directorial debut of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who previously collaborated on 2012 documentary Kern. The film stars twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz as twins Elias and Lukas and Susanne Wuest as their mother (maybe). Released in Austria last year, the film has made its way stateside and is generating non-negligible buzz in the international film community, despite an unsurprising “twist.” As one commenter on Salon’s review of the film says, “If you haven’t guessed [the plot twist] by ten minutes in, you haven’t seen a movie before,” and, with all the positive buzz surrounding the movie, I hate to admit that he or she is right.

To be fair, this doesn’t detract from the film overall as much as one would expect. The plot follows the young twins as their mother, a TV presenter, returns home after receiving extensive cosmetic surgery. Bandaged and almost unrecognizable, she begins to act erratically, uncharacteristically imposing new house rules that enforce silence and solitude, cruelly ignoring one twin completely, and behaving in a physically threatening manner that both boys say their mother would never exhibit. Evidence that she may be an impostor begins to mount: a beauty mark that she used to have is revealed to be drawn on; her eyes are blue now, which she claims is due to contact lenses; when shown a photo of herself and another girl in identical outfits and with whom she shares physical attributes, she is either unwilling or unable to name the other person in the picture.

Even if you, like me and many others, spot the revelation coming ninety minutes before it’s verbalized, that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy the ride. This is a smart, taut movie that is beautifully composed and cinematically crisp, full of beautiful exterior landscape shots that highlight the isolation of the two boys and contribute to the logic of their slowly building paranoia in a home that no longer feels safe and a caregiver they cannot recognize. The major issue is that this movie is clever and inventive, but not quite as clever and inventive as it thinks it is. After all, I saw this same twist in an episode of Supernatural eight years ago, and although it wasn’t fresh then, it managed to elicit a gasp while this film garnered an “I knew it!” So much of the foreshadowing works—the twins’ game of tag in the cornfield where they exchange a grotesque homemade mask between themselves when one becomes predator and the other prey is particularly well-done, as it sets up the theme of hidden faces and the way that the tables will eventually turn—but the film also might have benefited from reining in the precognitive images that reference the coming twist in order to preserve the surprise. If the film-makers had played their cards closer to the vest instead of showing their hand so early, there would be an extra star at the top of this review.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond