SHOCKTOBER 2015: THE PACT (Nicholas McCarthy, 2012) & THE CANAL (Ivan Kavanagh, 2014)

When I chose these two films to watch, mostly at random, I didn’t expect there to be so many similarities between them! It’s almost creepy to think about, unless you consider that contemporary haunted house horror films share a lot of the same genetics. Both The Pact and The Canal try to do something new with the haunted house trope, with varying levels of success.

vlcsnap-2015-10-04-15h10m51s79

vlcsnap-2015-10-04-16h56m08s6

The Pact is the story of Annie, who, after her estranged mother’s death, is cajoled by her older sister to come back home for her mother’s funeral. When she arrives in town, however, she finds her sister has disappeared, leaving her young daughter behind. Annie must figure out the truth about what happened to her sister, and what’s behind the spooky happenings in the house, both of which might be related to Annie and her sister’s harshly abusive upbringing at the hands of their mother.

The Canal is also about a haunted house, but with a much more brutal relationship to the ghosts of the past. David, his wife, and his young son all live happily in a Victorian house by a canal, until David has some suspicions and finds out his wife is cheating on him, and planning to leave him. That same night, his wife is found murdered, her body surfacing in the canal. All signs point to David, but he insists that murderous ghosts in the house have something to do with her murder.

vlcsnap-2015-10-04-15h09m12s100

vlcsnap-2015-10-06-17h08m07s40

Both films rely on technology to help the characters figure out their relationship with the ghosts – Annie gets a mysterious text with an unknown address, and when she looks it up on Google Maps, she sees the above ghost; while David, a film preservationist by trade, films the house and the canal with a turn-of-the-century camera he believes can capture the ghosts. Both films even have video calls with ghosts in them!

David’s obsession with film, and what it can show him about things that he cannot see with the naked eye (or cannot prove exist to others) reminded me of one of our all-time favorite films, Arrebato– David even holds up his film to the light to try to prove he’s right, in a seeming homage to one of Arrebato‘s most enduring images. The appearance of ghosts after you see David’s film is also reminiscent of The Ring, and The Canal shares that film’s obsession with seeing that which we are most afraid of.

vlcsnap-2015-10-04-15h26m16s107

vlcsnap-2015-10-06-17h45m07s218

The similarities continue: both films are set at/around Christmas, and characters peeping through holes in the walls and hiding in secret passageways within the house are recurring themes in both. It’s the third-act reveals that separates the good from the mediocre. The Pact finds real heart and redemption in its finale (even as it switches from a haunted house film to more of a slasher thriller), while The Canal is brutal (particularly against women) until the very end. Whereas The Canal director Ivan Kavanagh might have thought he was being shocking, instead it’s just a needlessly depressing parade of horrors, one after the other.

The performances also differentiate the films: The Pact stars Caity Lotz, who I was happy to see, as she’s one of my favorite recurring actors on Mad Men, who brings a tough vulnerability to Annie. This is a woman who has been through a horrifically abusive childhood, yet has the strength to come back to the former house of horrors and solve her family’s ghastly secrets. The Canal, on the other hand, stars Rupert Evans in a relatively thankless role as David. He’s never a nice guy, he has violent fantasies about killing his cheating wife, and is basically threatening and/or frightening to every woman in the film. There’s no one to cheer for, even if we think that David is being falsely accused. At the end of the day, I’ll always take the woman with heart over the man who is filled with impotent rage.

 

SHOCKTOBER 2015: DEAD CREATURES (Andrew Parkinson, 2001)

tumblr_nvnxpzmdF41qah9gwo1_1280

Dead Creatures is a cannibal film with brutal kidnapping, cannibalism, and murder, and yet it doesn’t feel like a traditional horror film. The film rolls out its premise slooooowly – the first scenes juxtapose a group of women hanging out, smoking pot, and sleeping in hovels with graphic shots of disembodied arms and legs being dismantled by knife. One of the women is literally falling apart, with chunks of skin missing from her face and hands. There is clearly something wrong – but what, exactly?

tumblr_nvnxpzmdF41qah9gwo4_1280

The film doesn’t go too  much into the mythology of its disease, which is something I generally appreciate in horror film – too many movies try to over-explain their plot, to the advantage of no one. The women are all afflicted with a vampire-esque cannibalistic disease, and stick together in small groups and share their fresh meat in order to survive. I loved how the film portrays these small societies of women – killing and robbing to get along, helping one another and living in a nonhierarchical structure – even killing members of the “tribe” once their disease progresses too far.

tumblr_nvnxpzmdF41qah9gwo10_1280

There is a subplot involving an older man who is obsessed with finding these cannibals, one young woman in particular, but it’s thankfully  just used as a sidebar in order to give the film a semblance of narrative structure. With a bit more adventurous cinematography and different choices (soundtrack, for sure), Dead Creatures could have been a remarkable feminist-horror-film-as-parable; instead, it’s not a bad choice for your Shocktober viewing, but nothing extraordinarily memorable.

SHOCKTOBER 2015: CORRUPTION (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968)

 

vlcsnap-2015-10-01-23h45m37s205

Dana: This year’s Shocktober festivities began with a bang with Robert Hartford-Davis’ Corruption, starring Peter Cushing as a distinguished surgeon whose model fianceé has a nasty accident involving her face and a flood lamp. Overcome with grief, he devotes his life to finding a cure for her scarred face, which leads him down a path of murder and, well, corruption.

Darren: A surgeon who must operate upon the dead (and, ultimately, the living) is certainly well in the wheelhouse of Cushing, who took more than a few turns playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein, but all Gothic trappings are switched for mod-a-go-go London and tasteful cutaways are switched for startlingly brutal murder scenes. Meanwhile, complications grow ever more difficult to avoid — Cushing’s fiance’ (Sue Lloyd, probably best known from The Ipcress File) develops a Lady Macbethesque need for any and all to die in order to keep her power, an attempt at bringing a young hitchhiker back to the house leads to home invasion and ghastly discoveries, and all the while Cushing’s future brother-in-law keeps giving him the razz about ethics and decency.

vlcsnap-2015-10-01-23h31m16s247

Dana: It might not seem like a stretch for Cushing, a man whose name is synonymous with mid-century British horror, but this is quite a different film for the actor best known as Van Helsing – he’s the (reluctant) villain of the film, using corpses to find the parts he needs, until he realizes live victims will do better. He’s a wild-eyed, wild-haired madman who kills prostitutes and train passengers with bloody brutality.


vlcsnap-2015-10-01-23h38m04s25

Darren: What Corruption does well is continue building the pitch, adding pressure to Cushing’s ever-increasing series of problems: throughout the film, he seems like a man in a world he doesn’t understand and for which he is entirely unequipped — he’s belittled by the fashionable, the strong, those without any morality whatsoever, so that by the time we get to the finale (I won’t spoil it, but it’s nuts) it seems the only way such a film could end.

Dana: Sue Lloyd is great as the burned woman who eggs her husband on more and more to help her regain her lost beauty. There’s one particularly great scene in which Lyon, surrounded by mirrors reflecting her damaged face, smashes mirror upon mirror until they are as broken as she sees herself. As I said on TwitterCorruption is one part Hammer horror film, two parts HG Lewis execution, and, for some reason, one part Straw Dogs subplot. Not a bad way to start the month!

The Genre-Busting Pleasures of MAGIC MIKE XXL

ht_magic_mike_xxl_still_wg_150625_16x9_992

Somehow I wasn’t in line on the first day for Magic Mike XXL; even though I thoroughly enjoyed the first one, and heard nothing but raves about the film, it took me a month to see it. But I’m extraordinarily glad I finally did – I haven’t had that good of a time at the movies, well, maybe ever. So while most everything about the film has already been said – though I’d quickly like to give a shoutout to the fact that this movie sees female pleasure of all kinds as a transformative force – a few less obvious, though no less revolutionary, things have stuck with me.

  1. Metatextuality: This being the sequel to a Soderbergh film, the clever intertextuality of MMXXL isn’t actually that surprising. It’s remarkable for how effective it is, though: Gabriel Iglesias’ classic McConaughey impression when discussing how Dallas has gone to Macau; Andie McDowell, who may as well be reprising her character from Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, warning us of the sexual desert of middle age; Channing Tatum’s literally tongue-in-cheek performance of “Pony” in his workshop; and, my favorite, Joe Manganiello’s horror and disgust at the troupe of male entertainers performing a Twilight routine. All these moments work together to build a film that never takes itself too seriously, and is, like its male entertainers, focused on the audience’s pleasure.
  2. Respect: Speaking of pleasure, the male entertainers all respect the need for pleasure, and joy, and hold it above anything else. They respect women; I can’t think of a single misogynistic comment throughout the entire film, which must be some kind of record. And while the film is incredibly heteronormative, there’s no homophobia, either; the guys get up on stage and do legit voguing at a drag show, with none of the “no homo” attitude we’ve come to expect from modern masculinity. And when Zoe (Amber Heard Depp) describes herself to Mike as going through a lesbian phase, he doesn’t mock her, or make any suggestive comments about how he can fix that. He just accepts it.
  3. That ending: I can’t express how glad I am that the stripped convention wasn’t a competition where they had to beat some young upstart group of male entertainers – instead, the only people they were competing with were themselves. This means that there can be a really satisfying ending without some totally manufactured conflict with an ending we see coming. Instead, the guys are able to perform to the best of their abilities, and “win” by doing their best, as cheesy as it sounds. And speaking of cheesy, the end, with a montage of July 4 good times set to “All I Do Is Win,” should be an eye-rolling affair. Instead, it’s a celebration of friendship and hard work! Plus Zoe and Mike don’t fall in love – she’s even seen throwing her arms around a group of women. How’s that for a nice ending? As the friend I went to the movie with said, “This is what Entourage should be.”

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

With my 2014 Top 10(ish) list basically set in stone, I was pleased to finally be able to see Clouds of Sils Maria, hoping it would be the film to make me rethink my list. Unfortunately, it’s not the bracket-buster I was hoping it would be; it’s full of good ideas, but none of which are pushed far enough to actually break waves on the movie’s smooth, beautiful surface.

vlcsnap-2014-12-14-00h43m21s186

Juliette Binoche is Maria, an aging actress who is on her way to Switzerland with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to publicly present an award to her notoriously reclusive mentor Wilhelm. While on the journey, Maria and Valentine are hit with the news that Wilhelm has died, turning the celebration into an impromptu wake. While Maria is resistant to the idea, and wants to return home immediately, Valentine convinces her to stay and pay tribute to Wilhelm. While at the accompanying dinner, Maria is introduced to a director, Klaus, who wants to remake Majola Snake, the film that made Maria famous twenty-odd years ago; only this time, Maria would be playing the older, broken woman, while It starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) will be playing the role that originally made Maria famous.

vlcsnap-2014-12-14-00h19m30s202

Much of the film takes place at Wilhelm’s estate in Sils Maria, where Maria and Valentine retreat so Maria can learn her lines, and prepare her psyche, for the stage version of Majola Snake. The scenery is breath-takingly gorgeous; the isolated nature of the place plays into the seemingly isolated lives of both Maria and Valentine. While the play Majola Snake is about a conniving young woman and the pathetic older woman who is in love with her, Maria and Valentine’s relationship doesn’t play as an analogue to that – I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the idea, but Valentine never seems much more than an impressively loyal employee to me. She’s not devoted to Maria – she disagrees with her often (which contributes to the film’s climax) and goes off to party with friends she meets along the way. In the same vein, Maria needs Valentine, and tells her as much, but never takes an unseemly interest in her. They both have secrets that they will not reveal to each other. Both women are an island, which takes away the kind of Persona/3 Women-esque psychological codependency this movie honestly could have used.

vlcsnap-2014-12-14-01h04m05s82

The ending (spoilers in this paragraph) is unsatisfying, to say the least; Valentine abandons Maria as they are finally about to see the mythical snake of mist, and then she is never mentioned again. I’m not necessarily a person who needs closure in every film I see, but the final third of the film doesn’t feature, or even mention, Valentine once. Valentine’s presence can be felt in Maria’s decision to go ahead with Majola Snake, and in Maria’s refusal to run lines or discuss the play with her new assistant, but there’s a sense of loss that isn’t even acknowledged. But perhaps, it’s as Moretz’s Jo-Ann tells Maria: once the audience knows something is over, they want to move on. No point in dwelling on the past.

vlcsnap-2014-12-14-00h38m14s182

The meta-texual elements of the film are the most interesting to me. I don’t see Binoche in English-speaking films very often, so her accented English and short hair reminded me very much of Asia Argento (who I recently gushed about here), with a softer edge. And it must really have been strange for Kristen Stewart to do this movie, when Jo-Ann Ellis is a weird mashup of Stewart’s public persona/career choices, with a bit of Lindsay Lohan thrown in for good measure. Moretz gives my favorite performance of the film; she’s very young, insecure, in love, sure of herself, blase, scared, and very used to fame, all at once. It’s a difficult balance to get right, and I think she nailed it. Binoche and Stewart are also solid in the film, but their characters have so little depth, ironically enough, that it’s hard to engage with them on a deeper level. I found it very unbelievable that a lauded, experienced actress like Maria would find it so hard to dig into Majola Snake and find the relatable pieces of Helena, even if she is still connected to Sigrid. She’s not a woman who seems stunted in any other way, so why this stubborn resistance of the character of Helena?

vlcsnap-2014-12-14-01h24m22s212

The film is unequivocally beautiful, using Sils Maria as a perfect backdrop for the characters’ personal dramas. And I absolutely love seeing a mature film about strong women with great performances – it’s one of my favorite things! I do recommend the movie, but I was really hoping it would knock me out of the park.

 

Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

vlcsnap-2014-07-12-21h47m33s8

 

What a better film to mount a comeback to than one of the bleakest, coldest films I’ve seen in a long time! I generally love Claire Denis’ films – Trouble Every Day is in my top films of all time, so I thought I was ready for some delightful Denis brutalism. I wasn’t exactly prepared, it turns out.

 

vlcsnap-2014-07-12-21h03m50s145

(From here on out, be prepared for spoilers)

Vincent Lindon stars as a Marco, man whose brother-in-law, as close to him as a blood brother, commits suicide, and he takes leave from his solitary life as a ship captain in the Navy to help his sister. Not only is his brother-in-law dead, but his niece, his sister’s daughter, has been found wandering naked in the streets of Paris with her wrists slit. Marco theoretically comes to put the pieces back together, but he soon finds himself embroiled, with his emotionally unstable sister (Julie Bataille) in a plot for revenge against Edouard Laporte, the man both see as responsible, through his business dealings, for their loved one’s death. Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) becomes an unwitting player in the revenge plot as Edouard’s trophy wife, who Marco quickly seduced once he moves into their building. From there, no one, including Edouard and Raphaelle’s son, is left untouched.

While this might seem like an awful lot of plot, it’s revealed slow as molasses. The film begins with intercutting scenes of the suicide crime scene, juxtaposed with Justine’s naked walk down the street. I appreciate this style of story-telling; in fact, when some major plot points come together in the final 15 minutes of the movie, it’s like watching a beautiful, terrible puzzle being finished (although I’d expect nothing less from Denis).

 

vlcsnap-2014-07-12-21h22m07s116

 

Now, on to those twists. The film surprises twofold in the last few minutes: first, when given the choice between killing her lover Marco and killing her husband, who has taken away her child, Raphaelle chooses to kill Marco, in what was honestly a very surprising turn of events. The willingness (or unwillingness) of a mother to protect her child is a main theme here, and it turns out that Raphaelle was willing to kill a man who may have truly cared for her in order to maintain her status quo life with her son. If Raphaelle had shot her husband, it would have been a totally expected change of heart, but also incredibly satisfying for the audience. Denis denies us both the pleasure of righteousness and that of predictability, and it’s really masterful.

On the other hand, there’s the second twist, which caused a minor uproar at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. (I remember hearing that there is some rough stuff that happens in the film, but thankfully didn’t remember the details.) It turns out Justine was being pimped out by her father to Edouard! Probably for some buisness favors! And not only that, but Justine was also raped by her father on camera with a decorative corn cob! This, I did not care for. I’m actually surprised that Denis, a strong feminist filmmaker, went this route. It seems like a cheap shock; perhaps Denis is making an ill-advised statement that we’re all violated by capitalism and patriarchy? But I really didn’t need to see that point made visual with corn, especially after a doctor describes the brutalized state of Justine’s vagina in an earlier scene. There was nothing in the film that seemed to suggest that Justine’s parents – particularly her mother, who seems to have known about the entire thing – would do this to her; but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures. The most desperate measures, apparently. (NB: A friend informed me that Denis remarked that the end of this film is a response to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a book I have not read – but was also the premise for The Story of Temple Drake. I sense a revisitation to these themes soon!)

That’s one of the things that bothered me most about the film – the judgements come down very hard on the mother characters. Justine’s mother at least helps to pimps her daughter out to ensure her family’s business stays afloat, but it literally costs her everything. Raphaelle is shown to be a bourgeoisie housewife who would rather keep her family intact than face what her husband has done. No one in the film comes out smelling like roses, to be certain, but it’s the mothers who have to live with the consequences, while everyone else is dead or gets away with it. But maybe that’s exactly the point – capitalism has changed our ideas of the family (and of right and wrong) that these captains of industry no longer feel responsible for the effects that their actions have on the family unit.

 

vlcsnap-2014-07-12-21h33m05s37

 

I was much colder on this film before I had a pleasant conversation on Twitter with some cinephile pals. Perhaps instead of a character study, it’s more useful to view the film as a dissection of the film noir, a genre associated with the tough man (Marco) and the femme fatale (Raphaelle? Justine? Both?). This is what choices made in film noir would look like in our times. While the irony didn’t always work for me – Marco is a near-saint, risking everything for a revenge plot that comes to absolutely nothing, in order to avenge a truly terrible man – I appreciate the sentiment, and the craft. Bastards is a searing indictment of capitalism and patriarchy, to be sure, but it never involved me on an emotional level, past gut-level shock. Perhaps that’s the point.

The Loreley’s Grasp

Ready for awesomeness? Las garras de Lorelei, better known over here as The Loreley’s Grasp or otherwise When The Screaming Stops, has pretty much everything: a girl’s school, a goofy swarthy and yet completely ineffectual hunter, a swamp creature that rips out human hearts in a very HG Lewis manner, angry mobs with torches, underwater cave castles, mad science — the only thing it doesn’t have is Paul Naschy! Our director Amando de Ossorio had finished his run of Blind Dead films just before The Loreley’s Grasp, and that same aesthetic is well in place here: gorgeous locations (the marshland swamp is particularly nice) and plenty of technicolor Gothic touches plus some really well-considered camerawork help keep a solid balance between slower atmospheric dread and the suprisingly fast-paced and gory murders. Tony Kendall plays Sigurd (those of you who know your Norse mythology will have a leg up here) and skips no opportunity to smirk, take off his shirt and show off his tightly-panted package while flirting with the jailbait students and patroling the six by six square feet of garden. While swimming in the swamp he first spies Helga Line’, whom you may know from any of a series of sword and sandal films or (more likely) roles in Horror Express, Horror Rises From The Tomb, and The Countess in The Vampires’ Night Orgy.
A small (Italian? Spanish? French? Does it matter?) town finds itself under siege by nighttime attacks where the victims’ hearts are torn out. The local girls’ school (with its 20-something students, but again, does it matter?) requests that Sigurd keep watch over them at night, which he does with the aforementioned smirking and flaunting of his package. Sigurd sees Lorelei in the marshes, and chases her, and when he finds her, she gives him a lot of evasive answers about who she is that should tip Sigurd off to the fact that she is the Lorelei of legend, who the townspeople are terrified of; the legend of Lorelei says that she eats peoples’ hearts every hundred years so as to be able to live. Sigurd totally ignores all the signs, and falls hard for Lorelei. At the same time, the stony headmistress is falling for Sigurd! What will happen!
There are some really nice de Ossorio touches in the film – particularly, a scientist who is testing a moonlight machine and a radioactive knife to use against Lorelei (and the subsequent trashing of his his laboratory is awesome, too), and Lorelei’s underwater castle, complete with skull-adorned bikini servants. He’s a director that makes the best of Technicolor, so Bava fans should find a lot to like, particularly when balanced with some of the more Gothic touches. Pedants might find the actual Loreley costume unconvincing, but that sort of thing doesn’t bug me, and the attacks go so fast you don’t have a lot of time to worry about that.
Fun fact: when the film was released in the United States as When the Screaming Stops, complimentary barf bags were given out at the theaters! I wouldn’t be surprised to see if David Friedman or Roger Corman had distributed the film, it’s such a great move. And so misrepresetative! The poster makes it seem like an early 80s slasher film, and while it’s not gonna satisfy the gorehounds there are definitely some bloody moments which remind me very much of the chest-molds-and-pig-hearts business in video nasty Madri Gras Massacre. There’s even a nice Blind Dead nod at the end! All things considered, it’s hard to think of a genre fan who wouldn’t like The Loreley’s Grasp; we both loved it, for sure.