Hagazussa (2019)

On a superficial level, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is doomed to forever be reductively understood as the German answer to The Witch. In a lot of ways, the comparisons are unavoidable. Hagazussa may be set centuries earlier than its American counterpart and in an entirely different region of the world, but both films share an academic pride in being thoroughly researched recreations of antique lore & superstitions surrounding witchcraft – so that they both separately function as 2010s updates to the silent horror classic Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. Both films also center on fringe families who live ostracized in the isolating wilderness outside their nearby community. Both films focus on the coming-of-age struggles of the daughter in particular, and what tragedies superstitions dictate that transformation brings upon her family. If Hagazussa was looking to avoid these Witch comparisons entirely, it did itself no favors by making this exiled family goatherders by trade, so that dozens of goat closeups recall the VVitchy presence of Black Phillip. Also, not for nothing, the title Hagazussa supposedly translates to “Witch” in Old High German.

I’m not sure this 1:1 comparison could ever be favorable to Hagazussa, which is somehow much, much more difficulty quiet, brutal, and inscrutable than its American predecessor. I remember hearing a lot of grumbling in my opening-weekend screening of The Witch, where an unprepared audience registered vocal dissent against what they had assumed was going to be a more conventional horror film than the slow-burn familial drama that was delivered. I imagine that same crowd would have hurled literal rotten tomatoes at the screen during Hagazussa, which makes The Witch look like a bombastic Michael Bay action comedy by comparison. This is a mostly dialogue-free descent into misery as one lonely young woman gradually loses everything & everyone she has because she’s understood to be a witch. Hagazussa often borders on the avant-garde subgenre of Slow Cinema in which long, silent takes hold on a single image for relative eternities in an effort to break through to something more artistically substantial than traditional entertainment. As someone who doesn’t have the patience for Slow Cinema even in the best of circumstances, watching Hagazussa alone in my living room was an effective window into what it feels like for mainstream audiences who suffer through Elevated Horror™ slowburns when expecting a more traditional slasher or creature feature. It comes across as tedious instead of properly atmospheric.

Still, although the film tested my patience (which often failed), I admired so much of its witchy, metal-as-fuck imagery. Black cats, cauldrons, thrones of skulls, plague carts, and mushroom trips into the darkness of the human soul decorated the screen in a continually compelling way, even despite my personal issues with the pacing. As soon as I hit the drone metal title card, I knew I was in for a quietly spooky visual feast, one that recalled similar history-minded arthouse Euro horrors like Häxan, November, and The Juniper Tree. It’s not like nothing happens plot-wise either. There are plenty of heartbreaking betrayals, psychedelic freak-outs, shocking sexual transgressions, and tragic downfalls throughout to keep you mind occupied, even if they’re doled out at a glacial pace. I wonder if I would have been more on-board with the film in a proper theater, with no opportunities to be distracted from the black-magic tragedy on the screen. At least, I can see it going over well among a film fest crowd with the right temperament. As is, though, I mostly appreciated Hagazussa as a folk-metal mood board, not necessarily a feature film. It was most useful to me as a taste of my own medicine for rolling my eyes at the strangers around me who were audibly bored by The Witch.

-Brandon Ledet

In Fabric (2019)

There’s no better way to convey how divisive of a film In Fabric is than to recount an utterly mortifying social confrontation I had while watching it. Sometime during the first act of our Overlook Film Fest screening of the picture, a woman leaned over to scold me for laughing at its absurdity. She explained that what we were watching was “not a comedy” and that my amusement was ruining her own experience of the film. The general subjectivity of humor aside, I was a little shocked that someone could be taking this giallo pastiche about a killer dress 100% seriously. Even with time, as the humor of the picture became more blatant & undeniable, my finger-wagging nemesis ended up laughing through much of the absurdity on display. I do somewhat understand where she was coming from in her initial annoyance with my laughter, though. In Fabric is a gorgeous, pristinely crafted object on a pure sensory level. Set in a high-end department store (of the damned) in 1980s London, the film’s prêt-à-porter fashion and sexually arranged mannequins cheekily poke fun at the pretentions of European arthouse horrors of yesteryear, while also genuinely indulging in the sensory pleasures therein. It may be a high-fashion variation on killer-object horrors like Velvet Buzzsaw, Maximum Overdrive, and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, but it presents its murderous dress and the department store weirdos who worship it in a genuinely chilling arthouse horror context. A lot of my personal amusement with In Fabric derived from that tension between form and content; it’s a beautiful arthouse horror film about a demonically possessed dress that flies through the air to kill its cursed victims. I do contend that the film is openly joking throughout in its absurdism, though; it just apparently takes a particular comedic temperament to immediately lock into its humor.

On a practical level, In Fabric essentially functions as a horror anthology. We watch in abject terror (or delirious amusement) as a cursed red cocktail dress drifts through the lives of several unwitting, unlucky victims. Like the magical Traveling Pants of the early aughts, this dress mysteriously conforms to the size & body type of each poor soul who dares wear it. It also marks each victim with an identical rash on their chests, then systematically ruins their work & homelives until the dress is all they have left. The dress doesn’t only cause damage through curses & misfortunes. It mangles washing machines, causes car accidents, and flies through the night like a vampiric ghoul – all with sentient intent. The only constant in these crimes of fashion is a network of Nosferatu-type department store employees who seemingly worship the murderous dress as their Dark Lord. These saleswomen and their ghoulish manager also worship the smooth plastic crotches of their store mannequins, which they pay tribute to in appreciative cunnilingual rituals. Customers are lured to the store with Tim & Eric-style television ads for a seemingly never-ending sale. Once inside, they are seduced in absurdly purple dialogue from the demonic saleswomen, who coax them into purchasing their doom. Everything in In Fabric is deliriously overwritten. Saleswomen pontificate on the philosophy of dress sizes as if they were discussing Sartre. The department store doesn’t have a dressing room; it has a Transformation Sphere (which looks & functions exactly like a dressing room). The soundtrack is provided by a maybe-fictional band called Cavern of Anti-Matter. The film is wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.

Director Peter Strickland has pulled off this same balancing act between sensual art & sly humor before in Berberian Sound Studio & The Duke of Burgundy, but I personally believe In Fabric to be his most outright silly film to date. If you want to take the film 100% seriously, it leaves you a lot of room to do so, especially in the way it peeks in on fetishistic sex through bedroom keyholes and the way it uses its genre film premise to extensively discuss the politics of labor & corporate management. I don’t believe you’re fully appreciating what the film has to offer, though, if you don’t allow to yourself to be chilled by its arthouse scares and tickled by its over-the-top camp. I wonder if the woman who sternly shushed me for laughing in the first act enjoyed the picture as much as I did, or if its ultimate veer into full-blown silliness was a disappointment for her. Personally, I don’t think its giallo-flavored sexuality or labor-relations philosophy would’ve shined quite as vividly if the camp & excess weren’t there to provide contrast. I loved In Fabric for all its lush sensory pleasures, old-school horror creep-outs, and delirious indulgences in campy absurdism – while I can also see any one of those elements detracting from someone else’s enjoyment, depending on their own expectations & default sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet

Satanic Panic (2019)

I closed out my experience at the Overlook Film Festival this year the exact way I started it: with a comedy that wasn’t at all funny. Just like with my opening night selection, Porno, I sat through much of Satanic Panic in the festival’s closing hours not laughing at any of the film’s proper Jokes but being amused by the absurdist excess of the sex & violence onscreen anyway. Humor is entirely subjective, as I learned a day prior when a total stranger scolded me for laughing during Peter Strickland’s killer-dress giallo pastiche In Fabric because it is “not a comedy” (hard disagree), so I’m sure this splatter comedy has a core demographic of genre nerds out there who are going to slurp up its cutesy occultist humor like so much blood & viscera. For the rest of us, the film is at least committed to exploiting the full absurdist potential of its sex & violence, perhaps the two most reliable sources of entertainment in the history of commercial art.

This film picks up where Rosemary’s Baby leaves off. Upwardly mobile suburbanite aristocrats gather in a beige McMansion to worship Satan as their Dark Lord. Their ritual du jour involves summoning the demon Baphomet to impregnate a sacrificial virgin, providing a physical form for an Evil deity. Our POV character is the virgin sacrifice in peril – a pizza delivery driver who dares speak up when the cult stiffs her on her tip, only for them to single her out for their depraved ceremony of untold horrors. Most of the film details her fight for survival over the course of a single night as she must first accept that witchcraft is real, then adapt to overthrow the black magic Satanists who want to destroy her with it. Luckily, her blue-collar pedigree has better prepared for the fight than the pampered suburbanites that surround her, whether or not they have all the forces of Hell to summon for backup.

In its least convincing moments Satanic Panic attempts a weirdly earnest emotional throughline about personal courage & survivor’s guilt. Its Society-esque thematic territory in which the Rich are an evil force that are actively trying to kill us is much more successful, but still a little hollow. Mostly, the plot is a thin excuse to juxtapose a wholesome cutie who loves fuzzy bunnies with the blood-soaked horrors of Satanic worship. It’s a relatively harmless source of humor (excusing a rape joke or two, re: preemptively losing her virginity), but also not a particularly novel or clever one. For me, the film worked best when the humanity of its characters was forgotten entirely in pursuit of sexual, gory mayhem: strap-on “killdo” drills, poisoned children, fisted neck wounds, Cronenberigan anus monsters, blood-soaked occultist orgies, etc. It may not be the pinnacle of joke writing or emotional drama, but Satanic Panic at least knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to over-the-top ultraviolence & softcore sexual mania.

From a production level standpoint, this should’ve been able to accomplish much more than what Porno pulled off. While that film was a more amateur affair populated by unfamiliar faces and limited to just a few locations, this is a Fangoria-supported debut feature for Horror Industry notable Chelsea Stardust and features supporting performances from Rebecca Romjin, Jerry O’Connell, and Arden Myrin among its suburbanite Satanists. It’s far from a major studio production, but the fact that it amounts to the same general effect of something as cheap as Porno can’t be a good sign. Because both of those titles were able to earn their place on the schedule for the same generally well-curated horror festival, and both screenings were met with uproarious laughter from plenty of genre nerds besides me, I assume there are many people out there who will find Satanic Panic hi-larious, whether or not they would enjoy it more than Porno. Admittedly, I did eventually have fun with its commitment to bloodlust & excess myself, but I also walked away a lot more cautious about making time for these unvetted splatter comedies the next time I’m prioritizing what to see at a genre film festival. I now know that they’re a type, and not necessarily my type.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not a Witch (2018)

The world Rugando Nyoni establishes in her debut feature I Am Not a Witch is so far removed from my own that it’s difficult to tell exactly where its true realism stops and its magical realism begins. Zambian born and residing in Wales, Nyoni clearly has plenty of real-world issues on her mind in her satirical look back on her African birthplace: governmental corruption, colonialist tourism, the subjugation of women, the clash of traditional ideals with worldwide homogenization, etc. Without contextual research, however, it’s impossible to parse out exactly how much of its minute-to-minute details are heighted for satirical effect. Its central story follows a young Zambian orphan who is accused of witchcraft by a local villager and subsequently sentenced to live out her entire life in a government-owned labor camp with other “witches,” who are all elderly women. As an outsider with no context for Zambian government structure or folklore, this premise initially seems plausible enough, or at least something I’m hesitant to question. From there, the details sprawl further into the realm of absurdist fantasy. The “witches” are tethered to spools of white ribbons that prevent them from flying away. The young girl can magically hear nearby schoolhouse lectures through a plastic funnel with superhuman clarity. The local economy appears to be built entirely on trading bottles of gin. There’s a lot of real-world pain & oppression at the center of I Am Not a Witch, but it’s all filtered through a disorienting, absurdist layer of satirical exaggeration.

While the obscurity & severity of its subject make it sound like a miserable watch, Nyoni smartly disarms I Am Not a Witch’s overt misery with a weaponized sense of humor. It may sound heartless to label a story about a young girl sentenced to a lifelong labor camp where she’s gawked at as a tourist attraction a comedy, but there’s a very broad, purposeful line of humor that runs throughout the film. The girl herself (played by newcomer Maggie Mulubwa) is mostly a silent, put-upon observer, but the world around her is increasingly absurd. Her t-shirt that reads “#bootycall,” the government goon who parades her around in public as a sideshow attraction, and the clueless white tourists who snap her photos as keepsakes all feel like they belong to a much broader comedy, confusing the borders of her real-life crisis. Nyoni & Mulubwa never lose sight of the seriousness her gendered subjugation represents, but a spoonful of humor often sweetens the medicine of that real-world issue so that the film is also palatable as an entertainment, caustically so. That absurdism can also achieve a sense of lyrical poetry, especially in the visual motif of the ribbons that keep the “witches” tethered to the earth and in the overwhelming orchestral score that heightens the atmosphere. The film’s overall tone is one of disturbed beauty and deep heart-heavy despair, but its function as a political satire also means that it finds plenty of morbid laughs to be had along the way.

I’m trying to imagine the inverse equivalent of what someone interpreting my own country & culture through this distorted of a lens might look like. If, for instance, a Zambian audience’s first vision of America were last year’s over-the-top sci-fi satire Sorry to Bother You, they might have a difficult time parsing out what was true & what was satirical exaggeration. However, Boots Riley’s film would still convey something very real about the corporate-labor hell we all live under here, no matter how fantastic the third-act details, and I suspect my own experience with I Am Not a Witch is much the same. I know too little of witchcraft’s place in modern Zambian culture to say for sure what is an absurdist exaggeration vs. what is a true-life cultural or governmental ill. Still, it’s easy to tell Nyoni is unloading some very real frustration about gendered oppression in that cultural context here, whether expressed through poetic lyricism, absurdist humor, genuine heartfelt despair, or a mesmerizing cocktail of all three.

-Brandon Ledet

Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

November (2018)

When James & I covered a few Andrei Tarkovsky movies for the podcast last year, I found myself impressed by the Russian auteur’s talents as a visual craftsman, but more than a little frustrated by his work as entertainment media. With features that sprawl past the three-hour mark and fret over political & philosophical crises of Faith, Tarkovsky’s work often feels like an academic prerequisite more than movies to be “enjoyed.” Thankfully for my unintellectual mush-brain, 2018 has already offered a couple correctives to my frustrations with the Tarkovsky aesthetic. Most notably, Alex Garland’s sci-fi puzzler Annihilation reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker as a much more conventionally entertaining genre picture with scary monsters, a manageable runtime, and a clearly discernible narrative. This year’s more esoteric Tarkovsky remix can be found in November, which feels like the long-lost blooper reel to the director’s interminable religious epic Andrei Rublev. Shot in a black & white digital haze, November continues Rublev’s grueling drudge among the intensely religious, beaten-down peasants who struggle outside the comforts of the Christian elite. Unlike Rublev, this low budget indie often lightens the mood of its descent into the brutality of abject poverty with matter-of-fact depictions of pagan witchcraft, shit jokes, and Three Stooges-style slaps to the face. Sometimes this intruding irreverence can hit a sour note, particularly when it finds its amusement in sexual violence, but for the most part it’s the exact Andrei Rublev blooper reel I didn’t know I needed until it was casting spells and farting directly in my face.

Much like how The Witch literalizes the superstitions of New England Puritans, November depicts in frank terms Eastern European (particularly Estonian) folklore. Witches prepare salves that transform their clients into wolves for a night (and a price). Peasants make deals with the Devil that bring their farm equipment to life as all-obliging puppets/sculptures (“kratts” in the film’s parlance). Ancestral ghosts visit the living from beyond the grave to break bread & offer advice. Among this black magic free-for-all and visitations from the Plague (personified as common farm animals, naturally), the peasants stave off Christian conversion efforts by mixing the new religion with preexisting pagan practices and stave off their own hunger by stealing from everyone in sight: their bosses, The Church, The Devil, each other, etc. A tragic story of unrequited love emerges from this grimy, surreal backdrop, but its circumstances are too bizarre to land with much emotional impact. November is slow and not especially funny, even when indulging in outright scatological slapstick. It’s absolutely fascinating as a curio, though. The D.I.Y. puppetry of the kratts has a distinctly humorous Eraserhead quality (which the film could have used more of; the kratts steal the show). The matter-of-fact depictions of practical effects witchcraft are persistently endearing, especially in their achievement of visualizing human-size chickens through miniature set pieces. The desperation & audacity of the characters’ thievery is cumulatively jaw-dropping, as it proves to show no bounds or shame. The only ways the film stumbles, really, are in being too aggressively odd to stage an emotionally engaging plot and in finding occasional slapstick amusement in rape. In every other way, it’s the exact pagan fairy tale farce it presumably set out to be, as much as anyone could guess what a film this deliberately loose in tone & logic intended to achieve.

I should probably do a better job of justifying my comparisons of November to Andrei Rublev, but most of the details they directly share are in the margins: religious fanaticism, pagan ritual, soul-crushing poverty, images of water layered with tree branches & other foreign objects that distort or drift away before your eyes can fully adjust. November is ultimately too silly & irreverent to be exactly comparable to that immensely personal Tarkovsky work, but I understand them as reflections of each other all the same. As the goofier curio that depicts supernatural witchcraft instead of real-world war, I much prefer November’s end of that aesthetic, just as I preferred Stalker when it featured Natalie Portman firing bullets at a nightmarish alligator-beast. Still, November has entertainment value limitations of its own. With more witches & kratts and fewer rape jokes I could have easily fallen in love with this weird little Tarkovsky blooper reel. As is, it’s enjoyable as a bizarre midnight movie curio, but still mildly frustrating for having had the potential to amount to more than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the exact kind of movie that’s destined to be undervalued & taken for granted on sight. The first picture from the Studio Ghibli spinoff production company Studio Ponoc, it’s automatically going to suffer many unflattering comparisons to classic Hayao Miyazaki works like Kiki’s Delivery Service & Spirited Away. Adapted from the 1971 fantasy novel The Little Broomstick, which heavily features a school for witches & wizards, the film is also likely to be compared unfavorably to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (which likely borrowed just as much from its source material as it did elsewhere; Rowling’s work is practically a pastiche). Instant familiarity is destined to temper a lot of enthusiasm for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but that kind of dismissive ungratefulness doesn’t consider just how rare of a treat this kind of thoughtful, traditionally animated work actually is on the modern children’s film cinema landscape. Given how much of a sucker I was for the goofy magic of The Worst Witch (speaking of works that likely heavily inspired Harry Potter) and the anime-lite tones of Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland at the time, I’m convinced this would have been my favorite movie as a kid, were it released in the early 1990s. Anime has gradually become the last refuge for thematically thoughtful, intricately crafted traditional 2D animation. It’s worth celebrating a new studio’s arrival as a contributor to keeping that tradition alive instead of brushing them off for feeling like they’ve always been around. Besides, as a subject, witchcraft is just inherently badass.

The titular Mary is a bored preteen wasting away the final scraps of her summer in her great-aunt’s gorgeous country home. This idleness inspires her to follow a couple mischievous kittens into the woods in a down-the-rabbit-hole experience that lands her in a magical realm of witchy universities, mad scientists, and wild hybrid beasts that resemble psychedelic Pokémon. She accidentally stumbles into a Chosen One plot arc in this new world thanks to a magical flower & a sassy broomstick that temporarily grant her extraordinary witch powers. From there, it’s a race against the clock for Mary to save a damsel in distress Anime Boy from the clutches of the evil schoolmarm & her side kick scientist and to put a stop to put their cruel animal experiments before she’s found out to not be the Chosen One at all, but rather an intruder & a fraud. The story Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells isn’t nearly as complex thematically as it is impressive visually. The lessons learned here are, again, familiar to classic children’s media narratives: learning to be confident in your own abilities and accepting the things you cannot change about yourself (especially your physical attributes). The movie is much more interesting in the way it wakes its young audience up the magic of the mundane. Simple, everyday activity like the pleasure of gardening and the science of electricity is framed as a kind of real-world witchcraft, enticing children to find interest in both magic & science and the grey area between them. It may not be a mind-blowing feat in intricate storytelling, but it is adorably animated and easy to love. This is the exact kind of immersive comfort food I would have ground into dust, were it released in the days of obsessively repeated VHS viewings.

Instead of focusing on how Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t quite as intricately animated as Ghibli classics or as immersive in its books-long world-building as the Harry Potter series, I was swept away by its warm, familiar charm. It’s an increasingly rare treat to see traditional animation on the big screen in recent years, anime or otherwise, and I greatly appreciate the arrival of Studio Ponoc (and the surprisingly trustworthy distribution company GKIDS) for keeping the experience alive. The onscreen witchcraft was dazzling. The glockenspiel-heavy score occasionally felt like a G-rated Suspiria. The world it created was a fantasy space I’d love to mentally dwell in for a magical eternity. The only real bummer for me was that the theater was sparsely attended by appreciative cinema & anime nerds instead of being packed with wide-eyed, witchy children. I would have loved for Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s easy familiarity to have been a result of it always being in my life the way titles like Little Nemo & The Worst Witch have; I hope it finds the right kids at the right time so they can have that experience in my place.

-Brandon Ledet

Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968)

As a huge sucker for both cinematic depictions of witches and the surrealist horrors of beat generation author William S. Burroughs, I was always predestined to enjoy Witchcraft Through the Ages at least a little bit. An experimental work assembled by beat filmmaker Antony Balch, Witchcraft Through the Ages re-interprets the landmark 1922 documentary Häxan for the druggy counterculture crowd of the late 60s. Satanism has a long history with hippie culture thanks to folks like Anton LaVey, so it makes sense that Balch would want to revive one of the great early cinematic works that depicts the Devil in the flesh for the stoners of his era. The spirit of Witchcraft Through the Ages is closely aligned with the dark times of the 1990s when outlets like Turner Classic Movies “colorized” black & white films to appeal to young audiences’ disinterest in outdated formats. Balch similarly punches up Häxan by shortening its runtime, soundtracking its imagery with the weirdo jazz of Daniel Humair, and lessening its challenge as a silent film by employing Burroughs, one of history’s greatest voices, to narrate. With jazzed up dialogue in its updated intertitles and a 77min runtime designed to maintain even the most drugged out of attention spans, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels like Balch tricking young weirdos into eating their Landmark Cinema vegetables by emphasizing the already-present exploitation film pleasures of its imagery. Häxan already openly gawks at the visual stimulation of witchy & Satanic iconography; Witchcraft Through the Ages pushes those cheap thrills just slightly further to de-emphasize its more educational endeavors. The only shame is that with Burroughs on hand to enhance Haxan director Ben Christensen’s already potent imagery, it could have done so much more than that.

As blasphemous (to God and to cinema) as Witchcraft Through the Ages appears to be from the surface, it’s a surprisingly tame work. Burroughs’s narration sticks fairly close to Häxan‘s original narrative, just at an accelerated pace. He even opens the film with the detailed history of how ancient Egypt believed the universe to be physically structured, just barreling through the details, maintaining the gist but wasting no time. That history lesson, along with later challenges to how The Church & The State have long used accusations of witchcraft to control & oppress, fit right in with the writer’s usual pet topics (especially in relation to his Western Lands trilogy). The disappointing thing is that Ben Christensen’s original film is already a timelessly powerful work on its own, so it feels pointless to have someone as cosmically talented as Burroughs on hand if he’s just going to color within the lines. I can happily listen to the author rattle on about Inquisitions, “old biddies,” torture, The Devil’s children, and “showing respect for Satan by kissing his ass” for hours, but Balch should have been smarter in allowing Burroughs’s voice to pervert the material. Whenever Burroughs isn’t talking & Humair’s jazz is allowed to overpower the soundtrack, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels intellectually pointless. Any personally-curated soundtrack synced up with Christensen’s original film would have the same effect, maybe even doing less to undercut the already-present sex humor & skip over minutes of Christensen’s eternally demonic imagery. Balch seems content to split the time evenly between Hunier’s jazz & Burroughs’s voice, which is just as much of a mistake as guiding his narrator to stick to the original intent of the script. In many ways, Witchcraft Through the Ages is not nearly blasphemous enough.

Theoretically, there’s a better version of this movie that plays like a 77min poem. If Burroughs were allowed to run wild with narrated, on-topic witchy versions of his cut-ups experiments like The Ticket that Exploded as a counter-balance to Christensen’s presented-as-is imagery, Witchcraft Through the Ages would stand a much better chance as a worthwhile perversion of (the far superior) Häxan instead of just a fascinating footnote. As is, it already kind of works like cut-ups: the results of the experiment are often fruitless, but when all elements at play line up just right, it feels like a work of cosmic genius. I’m not sure if Balch’s respect for Häxan dictated that he maintain its intended, educational effect in this jazzy update or if this idea was just hastily slapped together without proper thought given to the exciting ways it could go rogue. Either way, Christensen’s witchy imagery & Burroughs’s authorial voice are undeniably more impressive as separate entities than they come across as in this post-modern collaboration. That doesn’t mean that Witchcraft Through the Ages isn’t a fun, fascinating watch. A frenetic, jazzed up runthrough of Häxan featuring William S. Burroughs is just an inherently exciting idea, one that leads to many stray moments of brilliance even in its surprisingly well-behaved adherence to tradition. A more chaotic, poetic version of this same collaboration could have lead to something much more transcendent, however, a cinematic version of real life witchcraft.

-Brandon Ledet

Pam Grier’s Undervalued Career in Witchcraft & Voodoo

I often complain about how much of a shame it is that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they both suck. One of the all-time great personalities in genre filmmaking, Grier deserves so much better than the likes of the late career Eddie Murphy comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash and the nu metal era John Carpenter misfire Ghosts of Mars. If we’re only going to launch Grier’s visage into space twice in her career, she deserves a fate far more badass. It turns out, though, that her out-of-orbit sci-fi career isn’t even the most frustrating undercutting of her genre film potential. What’s even worse is the way Grier’s few performances as a witch or a Voodoo priestess have been deflated & underserved, when the idea of a Pam Grier Witchcraft picture should be instant B-movie gold. It’s not even that the movies where Grier dabbles in the art of magic are bad; they’re actually quite enjoyable. It’s that they don’t deliver the full power & glory that a Witchy Pam Grier should be able to command with ease.

My frustration with this witchy deficiency began with our current Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned 1983 Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the film, Pam Grier plays The Dust Witch, a mostly silent agent of dark magic who commands immense power & beauty, but isn’t given nearly enough to do as a character when compared to her overlord, Mr. Dark. Grier elevates every scene she’s in with just her mere presence. An image of her in a white veil overlayed with flying shards broken glass is just as intense & effecting as any of Mr. Dark’s fervent monologues. Still, it’s a shame that for an actor who had proven before in films like Foxy Brown & Coffy that she could hold down a picture on her own, there was no room in the film’s dialogue for her badass, attention-grabbing voice. I love the witchy image Grier strikes in Something Wicked; watching her collect souls of hapless male victims while adorned in gold paint & black lace is enough to get me excited for her performance. It’s just frustrating that she isn’t given much to do outside that physical presence. I would have readily traded all of the film’s other pleasures to watch a movie centered entirely on The Dust Witch instead.

It turns out that wasn’t the first or last time Grier’s career in magic would be undercut. The only other time the actor appeared in a straightforward horror picture, ten years before her appearance in Something Wicked, she was cast as a Voodoo priestess named Lisa Fortier. Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 sequel to the popular blacksploitation horror Blacula, opens with Grier, as Lisa, preforming a Voodoo ritual on her recently deceased mentor. According to other characters in the film, “When it comes to Voodoo, Lisa has more Natural Powers than anyone in the past ten years.” It’s instantly believable. Lisa’s study of the “extremely complex science of Voodoo,” which she treats with the proper reverence as a religious faith, is unquestioned, making her the most obvious candidate to replace her local sect’s recently deceased high priestess. Unfortunately, one of her fellow practitioners wants to jump the line of succession and raises Mamuwalde (Blacula, for the laymen out there) from the dead to get her out of the picture. The plan backfires, obviously. Mamuwalde builds a new little vampire coven, inducting nearly everyone he meets into his mind slave army, everyone except Lisa. Recognizing her power & beauty, Blacula instead ropes Lisa into performing a ritual to cure him, a ceremony that’s broken up by the cops, who he promptly murders much to Lisa’s horror.

Scream Blacula Scream should be the perfect vehicle for delivery on a Pam Grier With Magical Powers premise, but somehow her Voodoo priestess practices are just as undercut here as they are in Something Wicked. As Lisa, Pam Grier commands a quiet strength & skepticism that perfectly matches the movie’s oddly quiet, somber tone. Outside a scene where she’s walking arm in arm with Blacula like a power couple and the final, interrupted Voodoo ritual to kill him (which looks like the standard dolls, candles, and chants image you’d expect), however, she isn’t given much to do in way of practicing her craft. This is Blacula’s film, after all. The best Lisa could do is wait for her climactic ceremony to test her skills, a scene that isn’t even allowed to fully play out.

A better-realized version of Pam Grier’s brief career as a Voodoo priestess would have had her waging a supernatural war against a foe like Blacula instead of meekly attempting to serve him from a victim’s position. There was a moment in the early 90s where that dream more or less came to life, but it unfortunately served a platform much less prestigious than a live action Disney horror or even a blacksploitation horror sequel. Grier appeared again as a Voodoo priestess in an episode of the syndicated horror anthology television series Monsters, a direct descendant of Tales from the Darkside. In the episode “Hostile Takeover” a business dick attempts to take the Reagan-coined term “Voodoo economics” literally, by employing Grier’s priestess to help him cheat his way to the top. Like all EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt descendants, this thirst for power obviously comes with a price and he’s ultimately punished at the hands of the demon Grier’s priestess worships. Here’s where Grier gets to really practice magic, having great fun with the power she visibly commands. She drinks a white businessman’s blood, forms a pact with an all-powerful demon, sends faxes from beyond the grave, hacks computer screens through the power of her Voodoo, etc. The only shame is that the product this witchy Pam Grier free for all serves is sadly short & embarrassingly cheap. Grier only appears in a couple scenes in this Monsters episode and although she looks badass smoking a cigar in the Party City Voodoo priestess costume they afford, even she can’t elevate the show’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level budget, it might just have been the Witchy Pam Grier project of my dreams.

Something Wicked, Scream Blacula Scream, and “Hostile Takeover” are all enjoyable genre fare. Even though her power is undercut in all three instances, watching Pam Grier practice witchcraft & Voodoo is a large part of their fun. It’s just frustrating in each case that her power wasn’t put to better & more prominent use. The good news is that Grier is still working. She seems to have mostly moved on from the genre film roles that defined her career in the 70s & 80s, mostly playing police detectives now, but she’s still out there. If there’s even a small chance that the magic potential Grier showed as The Dust Witch could be developed in a much better realized Witchy Grier project, I’m going to keep the hope alive. Her brief forays into witchcraft & Voodoo have created an itch I didn’t even know I had, but I’ve yet to find a movie that satisfactorily scratches it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and last week’s comparison to Bradbury’s other suburban horror feature adaptation, The Halloween Tree (1993).

-Brandon Ledet