Thursday, October 22, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Nordic Horror



Five movies from Europe’s northern regions that will get your pulse pounding!




1. Antichrist (2009)

So what kind of movie is director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist? Well, to answer that question, let’s jump forward to the film’s end credits, specifically those relating to the “research assistants”. Each of von Trier’s researchers was apparently given a specific subject to explore, and among them are Heidi Laura, who researched misogyny; Thomas Christensen and Astra Wellejus, who delved into mythology and evil; Trine Breum studied horror films; Poel Lubicke explored the subject of Theology; and Simo Koppe had the pleasure of researching anxiety. So based on that credit grouping alone, you can guess that Antichrist is going to be a bleak, emotional film, which is exactly what von Trier delivers. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are brilliant as the grieving couple who, to deal with a tragic loss, head into the woods, hoping the isolation of their cabin retreat will help them mend their failing marriage. But what they encounter instead might just destroy them forever. There’s a genuine chemistry between Dafoe and Gainsbourg, which makes where the story ultimately goes all the more troubling, and the black & white photography, coupled with von Trier’s use of slow motion, is breathtaking (even when what we’re seeing is so very disturbing). Antichrist is a dark, chilling movie about the nature of loss and grief, a beautiful motion picture that will shake you to your core. And I’ll never look at a piece of firewood in quite the same way again!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10




2. Day of Wrath (1943)

Though more an historical drama than a horror film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath casts a spotlight on 17th century witch hunts, a subject most genre fans will likely find appealing. Anna (Lisbeth Movin) is the wife of local pastor Absalom Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), the lone priest in their tiny village. Anna’s mother was once accused of witchcraft, and as a reward for saving her mother’s life, Anna married Absalom (Absalom refused to condemn the old girl for witchcraft). Trouble arises, however, when Martin (Preben Lerdorff), Absalom’s adult son from a previous marriage, returns from abroad. The moment they meet, Anna and Martin are attracted to one another, and soon after they begin an affair. But is it love or something more sinister that has drawn them together? Dreyer, who also directed my all-time favorite silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc, establishes an ominous tone right at the outset of Day of Wrath, which he then maintains for much of its running time. In addition, the character of Anna remains an enigma throughout; seemingly naïve and innocent as the film commences, she grows more manipulative, more daring, once Martin enters the picture, and because of this we’re never quite sure what’s motivating her. Does Anna love Martin, or is it witchcraft that caused this attraction? It’s here that Day of Wrath sets itself apart from movies like The Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil and Haxan, films that clearly depict the witch hunters themselves - and not the so-called witches - as the true force of evil. In Day of Wrath, Dreyer looks at it from both sides, and we, the audience, are left to make our own judgments about what’s really happening. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath is a classic, and is not to be missed.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10




3. Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Ingmar Bergman often delved into dark subject matter; his The Virgin Spring was remade by Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left, and his dramas occasionally crossed the line into horror-esque territory (Even Fanny and Alexander featured a handful of supernatural sequences). With Hour of the Wolf, the legendary director dives headfirst into full-blown horror, and true to form it’s psychological in nature. Artist Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) live on a small island. Johan has been experiencing terrifying visions as of late, but it isn’t until he meets some of the island’s other residents, including Baron Von Merkens (Erland Josephson), that he begins to comprehend the true nature of the horrors that haunt him night after night. The jarring camera movements and sudden cuts Bergman employs throughout Hour of the Wolf are unlike anything I’ve seen from him before (all of which enhance the horrific story he’s telling), and the director’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist once again proves he’s a master of black & white, with startlingly beautiful shots and sequences. Add to this the superb performances by Bergman regulars Von Sydow, Ullmann, and Josephson and you have a must-see motion picture (though to be fair, I have yet to watch a Bergman film that wasn’t one).
Rating: 10 out of 10




4. Marianne (2011)

The most interesting aspect of director Filip Tegstedt’s 2011 film Marianne is its lead character, Krister (Thomas Hedengran), a teacher who, since the tragic death of his wife, has been having terrible nightmares, which may be the source of an evil entity that’s tormenting him as he sleeps. Played quite well by Hedengren, we sympathize with Krister through much of Marianne; on the surface, he seems like a nice guy. But as revealed in the opening sequence ( a flashback of 10 years or so), he’s also a bit of a heel; he cheated on his wife, and for a time left her and their young daughter Sandra, who, now that she’s a teenager (played by Sandra Larsson), resents the hell out of him. Krister did eventually return to his family, and in so doing spurned yet another longtime lover, the titular Marianne (Viktoria Satter)! So even as we root for Krister to reconcile with Sandra, we understand that he may very well deserve the terrors that the ghostly presence brings his way each and every night. The mystery of who or what this ghost is - and why it has been visiting Krister - is easily figured out well before the final reveal. Yet I’d still recommend you check out Marianne; it’s a slow burn that sometimes favors family drama over horror, but has enough creepy moments to keep you on your toes.
Rating: 8 out of 10




5. Thelma (2017)

Thelma (Eili Harboe), a repressed young woman who spent her entire life under the watchful eye of an ultra-religious father (Henrik Rafaelsen), moves to Oslo to attend University, and there befriends Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student. As their friendship grows, Thelma develops deeper feelings for Anja, an attraction that may account for the sudden reemergence of Thelma’s epileptic siezures, a childhood condition she thought was under control. But is this newfound love the true cause of Thelma’s physical ailment, or is it all in her mind? Despite its more horrific elements, 2017’s Thelma is a beautiful motion picture; kudos to director Joachim Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who employ numerous long shots throughout, perfectly establishing the sense of isolation that plagues their lead character through much of the movie. In addition, Thelma features a positively chilling opening sequence - set sometime in the past - where Thelma, as a child, accompanied her father on a hunt (this scene changes our perception of Thelma’s relationship with her dad, essentially clueing the audience in on something that even Thelma herself doesn’t know). Eili Harboe is amazing in the title role, portraying a shy, demure girl who slowly comes out of her social shell, yet feels nothing but guilt for doing so, all the while never realizing the awesome power she possesses. Thelma is not a fast-paced movie by any stretch, but is so incredibly engrossing, and told with such skill, that I was completely immersed in it.
Rating: 9 out of 10




Thursday, October 15, 2020

#2.519. Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)




Set during the depression and featuring gangsters, vampires, and an innocent girl at the center of it all, 1973’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a very strange - albeit hugely entertaining - motion picture.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural relates the story of Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), the 13-year-old daughter of renowned gangster Alvin Lee (William Whitton). With her mother dead and her father on the run, Lila has been taken in by the local Reverend (played by writer / director Richard Blackburn), and every Sunday she sings like an angel during his church services.

Lila’s near-idyllic new life is turned upside-down, however, when she receives a letter in the mail telling her that her father is dying, and wants to make amends with his daughter before he passes. Believing it’s the right thing to do, Lila sneaks off one evening and makes her way to the town where her father is hiding out, only to find herself at the mercy of a vampire named Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who, with the help of her countless minions, plans to keep Lila prisoner for as long as she possibly can.


As directed by Blackburn, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural has the look and feel of a made-for-TV picture, and at times even comes across like a Disney-esque feature (though more along the lines of Something Wicked This Way Comes than The Apple Dumpling Gang). Yet, despite this, I was still surprised to learn this fantasy / horror film was only rated PG. Aside from the bloody killing that opens the movie, when Alvin bursts into the bedroom and murders his wife and her lover, most of the men young Lila encounters (including the Reverend who acts as her guardian) lust after her, even though she’s only 13 years old! There’s also a frightening scene involving a bus ride (through a dark forest) that likely scared the hell out of kids who saw this movie back in 1973.

When all is said and done, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a solid horror flick, with decent performances (especially Lesley Gilb’s turn as the title character), ominous set pieces, and a well-paced, engaging story. My only advice to the parents out there is that you take its PG rating with a grain of salt; there’s a good chance Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural will prove a little more than your youngsters can handle.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (A film horror fans will enjoy).






Thursday, October 8, 2020

Capsule Reviews - 2020 Horror Movies

This week, I review five movies that went into wide release in the U.S. in 2020



1. Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest (2020)

The story that drives this Russian horror film is similar to that of another 2020 release, The Wretched. Egor (Oleg Chugonov) and his family: father Alexsy (Aleksey Rozin), stepmother Yullya (Maryana Spivak) and baby sister Varya, have just moved to a new neighborhood. To help his wife adapt to the unfamiliar surroundings, Alexsy hires Tatyana (Svetlana Ustinova), a nanny, to watch over Varya. But there’s something unusual about this nanny, and when Varya disappears without a trace, Egor is shocked to discover his parents no longer remember his baby sister! With the help of new friends Dasha (Giafira Golubeva) and Anton (Artyom Zhigulin), Egor attempts to find Varya, who, it turns out, has been abducted by an ancient witch that goes by the name… Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest features some effective early scares (the best of which involves a nanny cam), and the young performers, led by Chugonov, do a fine job handling the bulk of the workload. That said, the movie does occasionally give off an It: Chapter One vibe (especially when Egor and his pals descend into an alternate reality to battle Baba Yaga), and like many low-budget films, the computer imagery is its weakest aspect (it’s especially distracting in the final scenes). Fortunately, the strengths of Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest outweigh its weaknesses, and more often than not this one delivers the goods.
Rating: 7 out of 10




2. The Deeper You Dig (2019)

There was so much about The Deeper You Dig that impressed me, so much of it that worked, that it made those portions that didn’t work all the more frustrating. A tragic accident involving a 14-year-old girl (Zelda Adams) blurs the line between life and death for both the girl’s mother (Toby Poser) and a lonely stranger (John Adams).Written and directed by stars Poser and John Adams, The Deeper You Dig gets off to a great start; the introduction of its characters, the wintry setting, the event that sets the story in motion, all handled perfectly. I also loved how the movie utilized sound (even in those scenes where it was a bit of a distraction), and the main cast (including young Zelda Adams) delivers strong performances. Where the movie started to lose me was the way it approached its supernatural elements, some of which were occasionally intriguing (the mother’s journey into the seven circles resulted in a few cool scenes, but not enough to justify the subplot entirely) and others that were downright disappointing (especially the spectral visitations). Still, I would not discourage anyone from watching The Deeper You Dig; there’s a lot going on here, and even those moments that fell short for me were, at the very least, unique. And if you do check this movie out, be sure to let me know what you think of it; whether you love it or hate it, The Deeper You Dig is one you’re going to want to talk about!
Rating: 6 out of 10




3. The Dinner Party (2020)

How do you take a nearly two hour, dialogue heavy horror film and keep an audience’s interest throughout? You cast it well, which is exactly what director Miles Doleac has done with The Dinner Party. Jeff (Mike Mayhall), a playwright, and his wife Haley (Alli Hart) are the guests of honor at a dinner party thrown by several influential socialites, including Doctor Carmine (Bill Sage); opera aficionado Sebastian (Sawandi Wilson); best-selling author Agatha (Kamille McCuin); and investment banker Vincent (played by director Doleac). It’s Jeff’s hope that, by evening’s end, his hosts will have agreed to bankroll his newest play, but as he and his wife will soon discover, there’s more on the menu at this particular party than just wine and caviar. The Dinner Party is smartly written (the work of Doleac and his co-writer Michael Donovan Horn), but it’s the performances that really blew me away. Along with those mentioned above, Lindsey Anne Williams plays Sadie, a spiritualist, and Ritchie Montgomery has a brief but memorable role as a police deputy. In their more than capable hands, these performers deliver extended monologues about art, classical music, and opera in such a way that we’re hanging on their every word. The story itself is also good (though we realize before they do that Jeff and Haley are more than just dinner guests), but it’s the cast that makes this one memorable.
Rating: 8 out of 10




4. The Other Lamb (2019)

A cult-themed horror / drama directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, The Other Lamb tells the story of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teenage girl who has spent her entire life following the Shepherd (Michael Huisman), the only man in a commune of women and the self-appointed leader of his “flock”. Fast approaching the age of adulthood, at which point she will become one of the Shepherd’s wives, Selah finds her “faith” in the Shepherd waning, and feels more like a prisoner than one of his beloved followers. Cassidy, who also appeared in 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and 2018’s Vox Lux, delivers a magnificent performance as the confused young girl on the verge of becoming a woman. In addition, The Other Lamb is beautifully shot; cinematographer Michal Englert did a masterful job behind the camera (one scene in particular, where Selah is resting on top of a hill, took my breath away). Alas, The Other Lamb is a movie that approaches very dark subject matter, including male dominance and sexual abuse, yet spends most of its runtime dancing around them, rarely tackling these themes head-on. Though gorgeous, The Other Lamb is a slow burn-style horror film that never drives its point home as strongly as it should.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10




5. The Soul Collector (2019)

A horror film steeped in folklore, The Soul Collector (Originally titled 8) takes a fresh approach to the subject of grief, and how the loss of a loved one can drive a man to do the unthinkable. The year is 1977. Her parents deceased, Mary (Keita Luna) now lives with her Uncle William (Garth Breytenbach) and Aunt Sarah (Inge Beckmann), who recently moved into a farmhouse that William inherited from his father. While exploring the nearby woods, Mary meets Lazarus (Thsamano Sebe), a wanderer who volunteers to help William work the farm. But Lazarus is hiding a terrible secret, one that might ultimately put young Mary in the greatest of danger. Shot on-location in South Africa and inspired by a Zulu legend, The Soul Collector tells a harrowing tale of demons, death, and the eternal soul, weaving all of these elements together in a way that is entirely satisfying. As played by Sebe, Lazarus is both hero and villain, a generally decent man who has made a pact with an entity that demands fresh souls, and it’s the battle between good and evil inside of him that gives the movie its energy. If you’re in the mood for a unique spin on horror, look no further than The Soul Collector.
Rating: 8 out of 10






Thursday, October 1, 2020

#2,518. Pig Hunt (2008)





Based on the DVD artwork alone, I went into director James Isaac’s Pig Hunt expecting a creature feature horror film about a giant pig that runs amuck, causing all sorts of chaos. Well, I got that, but I also discovered, fairly quickly, that there was a lot more to this 2008 film than its cover was letting on.

John (Travis Aaron Wade) and his girlfriend Brooks (Tina Huang), along with John’s buddies Ben (Howard Johnson Jr.), Wayne (Rajiv Shah), and Quincy (Trevor Bullock), head to a remote area of the woods to do a little hunting. Setting up camp near a cabin once owned by John's uncle, the group soon encounters the Tibbs brothers, Jake (Jason Foster) and Ricky (Nick Tagas), who invite themselves along on the hunt. Having practically grown up at his uncle’s cabin, John knows the brothers well enough, and warns his companions how volatile the entire Tibbs family (which resides nearby) can be at times. But when a hunting accident leads to tragedy, John and his friends find themselves in serious hot water. Throw in the fact that the locals believe a 3,000 pound man-eating hog - nicknamed “The Ripper” - has been roaming the area for years, and you have a true recipe for disaster.

Pig Hunt does, indeed, have a creature, and we get a few early indications that this beast is more than a local legend (the opening scene features a hunter being torn apart by an unseen animal), and there are several POV shots (from the monster’s perspective) littered throughout the movie, just to remind us there’s something out there. But Pig Hunt is more than just a creature feature; John, the lead character played close to the vest by Travis Aaron Wade, is an experienced hunter and former backwoods yokel who managed to break free of that existence, yet still bears the mental scars of this early lifestyle (including the tragic, unexplained death of the uncle that raised him). We figure out early on (almost at the same time his girlfriend Brooks does) that John is a complex dude, and being back in these woods has stirred something inside of him. If the movie has a weakness it’s that John is ultimately left underexplored. But thanks to Wade’s performance we get a taste of the demons that creep up on his character every once in a while.

In addition, Pig Hunt features a bloody showdown between the main characters and the Tibbs clan (which escalates when Ben does something very, very stupid), and their clashes result in some of the film’s grislier moments (though, on the violence scale, the creature attacks are much bloodier). And then there’s the hippie commune, home to one man (played by Bryonn Bain) and a bevy of beauties. This seemingly peaceful bunch spends their days growing marijuana and raising emus, though their true reason for being out there might be a little more sinister.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in Pig Hunt, and for a time I was a bit concerned that the filmmakers may have bitten off more than they could chew, taking the story in too many directions. Fortunately, director Isaacs and screenwriters Robert & Zack Anderson managed to tie everything together in the end, leading to a finale that was as satisfying as it was insane.

And Pig Hunt is, without a doubt, an insane motion picture, but in a very good way. I had a great time watching it.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (watch it as soon as you can)