Fright Club: Best Medical Horror

Where are you most vulnerable, if not in the hands of doctors? You don’t know what they’re doing. It’s likely to hurt. There are needles, saws maybe. Suturs. Staples. Blood. Is there more fertile, gory ground for horror? We say no, and today we celebrate the very best there is in medical horror.

5. American Mary (2012)

Twin sisters, Canadians and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that pays off.

4. Re-Animator (1986)

Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator reinvigorated the Frankenstein storyline in a decade glutted with vampire films. Based, as so many fantasy/horror films are, on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain.

Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).

They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.

Re-Animator is fresh. It’s funny and shocking, and though most performances are flat at best, those that are strong more than make up for it. First-time director Gordon’s effort is superb. He glories in the macabre fun of his scenes, pushing envelopes and dumping gallons of blood and gore. He balances anxiety with comedy, mines scenes for all they have to give, and takes you places you haven’t been.

3. Dead Ringers (1988)

This film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Writer/director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Take, for instance, the scene with the middle aged woman in stirrups, camera on her face, which is distorted with discomfort. Irons’s back is to the screen, her bare foot to his left side. Clicking noises distract you as the doctor works away. We pan right to a tray displaying the now-clearly-unstable doctor’s set of hand-fashioned medical instruments. Yikes.

Irons is brilliant, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performances you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

2. The Skin I Live In (2011)

In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.

The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.

Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.

1. Frankenstein (1931)

Obviously, any exploration of medicine in horror cinema – no matter how amateurish that exploration – must begin with Frankenstein.

James Whale’s genius was in finding the monster fascinating, rather than the doctor. Nearly every other Frankenstein made before or since has been preoccupied with the doctor, but Whale understood that it was this unique beast, baby and man, evil and innocent, that should compel our interest. Who cares about one more doctor with a god complex?

Luckily for Whale, he had Boris Karloff. Karloff’s gift was in seeing the monster as a neglected child. His monster is sweet and tragic, characterized by the terrible freedom of a loosed child full of fear, unbridled excitement, and shame. Karloff nails this childlike energy and ignorance married to a grown man’s strength in a way that no other actor truly has.

Join the full conversation on the FRIGHT CLUB podcast.

A Beacon of Hope for Lesser People

Mistress America

by George Wolf

If you thought director Noah Baumbach was turning all populist after While We’re Young, take heart! At my recent screening of Mistress America, five people walked out within the first twenty minutes, apparently put off by hilariously flawed characters who talk to themselves, but at each other, without mercy.

Their loss.

It’s a charming, wonderfully offbeat, fast-paced dialogue fest, and a perfect vehicle for Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach.

Gerwig stars as Brooke, a busy New Yorker who seems happy to get a visit from her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke – impressive), an 18 year-old student at a nearby college. Brooke bombards Tracy with stories of her exciting life and social calendar (“He’s the kind of person I hate – except I’m in love with him!”), instantly gaining an admirer. Tracy’s reserved demeanor is no match for hurricane Brooke, and soon Tracy and two friends are joining Brooke on a mission to persuade her rich old boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) into bankrolling her plan for a new restaurant/hair salon/cool place to be combo.

The gang ends up crashing a party hosted by Dylan’s wife (loves these names) Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Mamie-Claire may or may not have stolen Brooke’s idea for a line of t-shirts, and the visit descends into a madcap frenzy of incidents and allegations. As characters move throughout the rooms of Dylan’s lavish house, Baumbach stages it to perfection, much like a high school play directed by a coked-up Woody Allen.

Underneath the inspired insanity, though, lies a love letter to the written word. Tracy desperately wants to join her school’s literary club, and she uses Brooke as the basis for a short story that she hopes will be accepted into their magazine.

As the characters’ continue their rapid fire, often non-sequitur dialogue, it’s offset with Tracy’s voiceover reading of the measured, wonderfully flowing prose of her short story. This not only puts a spotlight on the art of writing, it cleverly reinforces the film’s undercurrent of self-delusion.

Brooke lives to define herself, as Tracy so eloquently puts it, as “a beacon of hope for lesser people,” regardless of how well her definition aligns with reality. “Lesser” people’s descriptions aren’t as welcome, a fact beautifully illustrated by a scene where Brooke is recognized by an old high school classmate. Gerwig is a true wonder in the role, combining comic timing with the depth needed to make Brooke sympathetic no matter how much you want to dislike her.

Will Mistress America be the movie where the masses (minus those five party poopers from my screening) get hip to Gerwig’s unique talents?

Let’s hope so.





Saturday Mornings Come to Life

Turbo Kid

by Hope Madden

For the 10-year-old boy inside us all, Turbo Kid opens cinematically and on VOD today. It takes us to the post-apocalyptic future of 1997, many years after the catastrophe that destroyed most of humanity, leaving a scrappy few to scavenge for water and survival.

The film is expanded from a short originally rejected by the ABCs of Death franchise (in favor of T is for Toilet – eesh). The short is worth a Google, but the full length film is a celebration of early Eighties storytelling and juvenile imagination.

It’s a mash-up of the Power Rangers and Hobo with a Shotgun. That is, it’s a perfectly crafted time capsule: a low budget, live action Saturday morning kids show – except for the blood spray, entrails and f-bombs.

The Kid (Munro Chambers) wheels around the wasteland on his sweet bike, picking up bits of retro treasure to trade for water, ever watchful for the henchmen of evil overlord Zeus (Michael Ironside). His one real solace comes from the Turbo Man comics he gets in trade for his scavenged booty.

When his only friend, Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) – an energetic, teal-wearing girl – is in danger, he becomes Turbo Kid. Together he, Apple, and a mysterious Australian arm wrestler take on Zeus to free fellow survivors from his oppressive, bloody leadership.

Writing/directing team Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell have crafted a delightfully absurd action comedy. Its 1982-ish panache is joyously spot-on, and the combination of innocence and gore perfectly captures the pre-teen cartoon watcher’s imagination.

And Michael Ironside! The feral Canadian makes a glorious Zeus, flanked by scoundrels and outcasts suited for a Mad Max film. (The early ones, before the budget and talent came in.)

Turbo Kid is not trying to be Mad Max, though. It’s trying to be the imagined Mad Max (or Indiana Jones or Star Wars or Goonines) game you and your stupid friends played in the neighborhood on your bikes, and it succeeds miraculously because Turbo Kid never winks or grimaces at its inspiration. This is a celebration, not a campy mockfest.

Yes, it has trouble keeping its energy for the entire 89 minute running time, but for those of us who took our Saturday morning shows out to the neighborhood streets every weekend, it’s a memory blast.


Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

We Are Your Friends

by George Wolf
Restless young men try to make their way in the city. They party, chase girls, work boring jobs and start to wonder about the bigger picture. Hopes seem dim, but one of the guys has an extra spark. Maybe it’s disco dancing, bartending, or more recently, stripping, but the point is this guy’s gonna learn some life lessons and make his mark!

This time, that mark starts with “just one track.”

We Are Your Friends gives us Cole Carter (Zac Efron), who pours over his music editing software, mixing beats that he hopes will lead him to the top of the club DJ scene in Los Angeles. James Green (Wes Bentley, nice to see you) is already there, so what luck that he takes Cole under his wing for no reason whatsoever, showing him the ropes as well as his very tempting girlfriend/assistant Sophia (Emily Ratajkowski).

This is the feature debut for director/co-writer Max Joseph, and there are certainly familiar trappings, requisite cliches and even a couple cringeworthy moments (Cole defending Sophia’s honor to some loudmouth assholes – ugh). But other times, there’s some real skill here looking for a good home.

Joseph utilizes slow motion, text graphics, animation and even flirts with the fourth wall, essentially providing an entertaining EDM for Dummies class for those of you (ahem, those of us) who are a bit late to the party. Breaking out such a bag of tricks is often just for show, but Joseph seems to have good instincts for storytelling with style. Once he can eliminate the sudden lapses where those instincts vanish, he’ll be fine.

Efron doesn’t show a ton of range, but honestly, he’s not asked to. He still displays the charisma of a budding star and Ratajkowski (SI swimsuit issue, Gone Girl) shows promise for a successful transition from modeling to legit acting career. Bentley, despite a Kenny-Loggins-in-the-Danger-Zone look, is the real treat. After numerous smaller supporting roles, he gets a more vital one here, and manages to give James some unexpected depth.

Like many of the films with this formula, the problem is what to say, not how to say it. We Are Your Friends doesn’t tap into a cultural zeitgeist as successfully as, say, Saturday Night Fever, but if you’re ready for a modern-day Cocktail with some thumping beats, serve it up.




Digging Your Scene

Digging for Fire

by George Wolf

A strong ensemble cast and a crafty, improvisational script make Digging for Fire a new high water mark for a filmmaker inching cautiously closer to the mainstream.

For over a decade, Joe Swanberg has been a busy boy, serving as writer, director, actor, editor, cinematographer and more on various obscure shorts, mumblecore staples, and indie favorites. He’s probably best known for his role in the slasher flick You’re Next, but Swanberg’s 2013 effort Drinking Buddies earned him plenty of notice as writer/director with a refreshing voice.

Digging for Fire‘s cast is full of Swanberg favorites, led by Jake Johnson, who also helped write the script. Johnson plays Tim, who is staying with his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their young son Jude (Jude Swanberg, Joe incredibly cute son) In a swanky house they don’t own.

Lee teaches yoga in LA, and while some of her clients are away shooting a movie, Lee and her happy young family agree to house sit, where Tim promptly finds an old bone and a rusty gun while checking out the grounds.

As the weekend approaches, Lee leaves the boys at home to visit her parents, and then have a girls’ nite with an old friend. Tim promises to do the taxes while she’s gone, but he can’t get his mind off of his strange discovery. Once some friends come over and beer starts flowing, seeing what other secrets might be buried in the yard starts sounding like a great idea.

Both Lee and Tim find plenty of temptation in their respective adventures, and Digging for Fire becomes a quietly insightful take on managing priorities throughout the changing phases of life.

Swanberg’s camera often drifts without anchor, perfect for the bevy of recognizable faces that come and go (Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Sam Elliott, Orlando Bloom and more), some for only one scene. You can see why these talents are drawn to such a free-form filmmaking structure, and all are able to carve out memorable characters that influence the choices Lee and Tim are pondering.

Though obvious, Swanberg’s extended metaphor is effective, as responsibilities of marriage and family clash with the yearning for lost freedom. If you keep digging for something, you just might find it, and that can be playing with fire.


Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

by Donna Kelly

Based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age comedy/drama written and directed by Marielle Heller. Set in 1970s San Francisco, it follows the story of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a 15-year old girl who enters into an affair with her mother’s 34 year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).

Challenging, edgy and controversial, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film about sexual awakening and the crossroads between female adolescence and womanhood. The narrative is told from the perspective of 15-year old Minnie who details her experiences on audio cassette, which forms the narrative voiceover of the film. Set against the backdrop of the west coast hippie and feminist movement, Minnie’s mother Charlotte shows her daughter little love and affection and seems more intent on getting drunk and high on drugs. Minnie longs to be loved and touched so when her mum’s boyfriend invites her for a drink, Minnie’s hormones being to rage, and despite Monroe being two decades her senior, the pair begin an illicit and illegal affair.

While there are plenty of indie films that deal with sexual experimentation and the journey from adolescence to adulthood,  Diary certainly pushes the limits when it comes to exploring unchecked sexual desires. While actress Bel Powley is in her twenties, there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s playing a 15-year old having sex with a much older man. The film is full of sex and drugs (including sex with strangers, group sex and even bouts of prostitution) all of which show Powley in varying states of undress, and while the scenes are done with respect, it still morally challenging to watch.

What truly pulls the film through is the stunning performances. Powley is superb as Minnie, the wannabe graphic artist who may have made the transition into womanhood but deep down is still very much an immature child. Powley’s raw and untamed performance makes Diary the edgy film that it is and demonstrates her talent as a versatile actress.

Kristen Wiig is excellent as Charlotte, Minnie’s free-loving, heavy-drinking, drug-taking mother, who at times, perceives her daughter as a rival. Disappointingly, her character rarely appears on screen but when she does, she brings a kind of candor and ironic verve to a woman who needs a harsh lesson in parental responsibility but does care…in her own way.

A special mention needs to go to Skarsgård as the handsome, yet morally dubious Monroe Rutherford. Skarsgård, who arguably plays the hardest role in the film, perfectly conveys the balance between addictive lust and troubled moral conscience to pull off an incredibly convincingly performance.

Visually, this is a stunning film, captured in a beautifully hazy luminescence by cinematographer Brandon Trost (who won the Cinematography award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival), and the film’s period detail is also excellent. There is plenty of animation superimposed over the live action (in the style of Phoebe Gloeckner and Aline Kominsky) and while this works well as a narrative device, it may not be to everyone’s taste.

If you can overlook the morally difficult subject matter,  The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a provocative, candid and funny film about the transition from female adolescence to womanhood and, more importantly, the value of self-worth. A decent directorial debut from Marielle Heller.





Read more of Donna’s reviews at

Three’s a Crowd

Z for Zachariah

by Hope Madden

If you are unfamiliar with Craig Zobel, google him immediately. Hopefully you’ll discover Homestar Runner, which will clue you into Zobel’s particular mad genius. Go ahead and spend some time. Take in the glory that is Teen Girl Squad. Then prepare yourself for an amazingly different experience and watch the filmmaker’s third feature, Z for Zachariah.

Based loosely on Robert O’Brien’s award winning adolescent novel, the film is a meticulous examination of human behavior masquerading as a SciFi flick. Sometime after an undisclosed apocalypse (radioactivity suggests a nuclear war), Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) tends her farm alone, her valley somehow spared of the radiation. She believes she may be the last living soul until scientist John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears in the distance in his radiation suit.

What evolves is a fascinating character study blessed with two excellent performances.

Ejiofor is incapable of a weak turn, and as is always the case, he manages to wear the character’s entire backstory in his countenance, posture, wordless reactions, and eyes. He’s almost capable of presenting a fully realized character without a word of dialog, and his Loomis is a mysterious, weary guest whose undisclosed, recent experiences have made him a little distant, even as Ann has to contain her joy at finding a companion.

Robbie has never been better in a role that is sometimes almost aggravatingly naïve, and yet this is a character with the grit to survive on her own, to plow a field – to create the film’s Eden.

Nissar Modi’s screenplay sometimes treads too heavily with the biblical metaphors, but Zobel never does. While the film explores ideas of science versus religion, male versus female, intellect versus emotion, white versus black, Zobel’s real interest – as he showed with brilliantly frustrating results in his previous effort, Compliance – is to examine human foibles, resilience, and self-destructive tendencies.

Z examines the nervous but sweet blossoming of a relationship, then upends the comforting narrative with the arrival of a third survivor – handsome Caleb (Chris Pine).

Pine’s third wheel is a less developed character, but the actor manages to convey the right amount of manipulative aw-shucks and just the hint of menace the film needs to generate tension.

The film’s minimalism is both welcome and problematic, as it seems to work against much of the built-in tensions and drama that could enliven the running time.

Fans of the novel will be irritated by the many liberties taken, but Zobel’s film stands firmly on its own. Told with realism and simplicity, and boasting an intriguing amount of ambiguity – especially at the climax – Z abandons the traditions of the post-apocalyptic film in favor of something modest and moving.


Fright Club: Best Cannibal Horror

Perhaps any living thing’s most primal fear is that of being eaten, and horror cinema has taken advantage of that built-in tension with every zombie movie and creature feature ever made. But there’s an added element of the macabre, the unseemly, when it isn’t some “other” preying on us for our own tasty flesh. Today we celebrate those brave, carnivorous souls who crave the other, other white meat. You are what you eat.

Who’s hungry?

5. Trouble Every Day (2001)

Writer/director Claire Denis doesn’t offer a great deal of exposition, relying instead on startling images to convey themes. Her approach, and her provocative film, may do a better job of linking not just sex and death – which is commonplace to the point of being a bore in horror – but lust and bloodlust, carnality and hunger.

Beatrice Dalle’s Core – lovingly held captive by her husband – routinely escapes to seduce and consume unsuspecting men. Meanwhile a honeymooning groom seeks her because of his own obsession and/or similar sexual disposition.

This is a tough film to watch. The murder sequences are particularly bloody and profoundly uncomfortable, but the film gets under your skin and stays there, which is the point of horror, right?

4. Ravenous (1999)

The blackest of comedies, the film travels back to the time of the Mexican/American War to throw us in with a cowardly soldier (Guy Pearce) reassigned to a mountainous California outpost where a weary soul wanders into camp with a tale of the unthinkable – his wagon train fell to bad directions, worse weather, and a guide with a taste for human flesh.

Pearce is great as the protagonist struggling against his own demons, trying to achieve some kind of peace with himself and his own shortcomings, but Robert Carlyle steals this movie. As the wraithlike Colonel Ives, he makes the perfect devil stand-in. Smooth, compelling and wicked, he offsets Pearce’s tortured soul perfectly. The pair heighten the tensions with some almost sexual tension, which director Antonia Bird capitalizes on brilliantly.

3. We Are What We Are (2010)

Give writer/director Jorge Michel Grau credit, he took a fresh approach to the cannibalism film. His Spanish language picture lives in a drab underworld of poverty, teeming with disposable populations and those who consume flesh, figuratively and literally.

Grau’s approach is so subtle, so honest, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a horror film. Indeed, were this family fighting to survive on a more traditional level, this film would simply be a fine piece of social realism focused on Mexico City’s enormous population in poverty. But it’s more than that. Sure, the cannibalism is simply an extreme metaphor, but it’s so beautifully thought out and executed!

We Are What We Are is among the finest family dramas or social commentaries of 2010. Blend into that drama some deep perversity, spooky ambiguities and mysteries, deftly handled acting, and a lot of freaky shit, and you have hardly the goriest film on this list, but perhaps the most relevant.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.

It is classic because Hooper masterfully enlisted a low rent verite for this bizarre story to do something utterly new. The camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.

Friends on a road trip pick up a hitchhiker, played with glorious insanity by Edwin Neal. The Hitchhiker is part of a family of cannibals, and the youths will eventually stumble upon their digs. Here we find this unemployed family of slaughterhouse workers just teasing and mocking each other with little mercy. Like Sally Hardesty, we’ve entered a lived-in world belonging to them, and their familial bickering and cruelty only reinforce our helpless otherness. This inescapable absurdity is one of the things that make TCM so unsettling.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

Everyone loves this film, even people who hate horror films. Those pretentious bastards call the film a “psychological thriller.” But to clarify, any film about one man who eats human flesh helping to track down another man who wears human flesh is a horror movie.

It’s to director Jonathan Demme’s credit that Silence made that leap from lurid exploitation to art. His masterful composition of muted colors and tense but understated score, his visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and his subtle but powerful use of camera elevate this story above its exploitative trappings. Of course, the performances didn’t hurt.

Anthony Hopkins’s eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends. He’s toying with you. You’re a fly in his web – and what he will do to you hits at our most primal fear, because we are, after all, all part of a food chain.

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.

Fast, Faster and Disaster

Being Evel

by George Wolf

What would possess a bunch of kids in the 1970s (myself included) to build two makeshift ramps, hop on their bikes and try to jump over a row of their friends lying on the ground?

All the answers can be found in Being Evel.

Before Robert Craig Knievel became the motorcycle daredevil named “Evel,” he was a hell raiser/insurance salesman/huckster in Butte, Montana. Blessed with a gift for self promotion, he rode it and a slew of Harley Davidsons on a path to fame, fortune, and inevitable burnout.

If you didn’t grow up in the 70s, believe Johnny Knoxville (one of the film’s producers) when he says, “Evel Knievel was the 70s. I thought of him as a superhero.”

Regardless, director Daniel Junge (Oscar winner for the 2012 documentary short Saving Face) gets behind the myth in fascinating, informative and entertaining fashion. Knievel’s life truly is a classic American success story, and Junge gives us a wide-angled look.

From setting sales records at his insurance company, to actually convincing the Czech national hockey team to come play his semi-pro squad in Montana, Knievel moved through life with an intentional swagger a good-sized shoulder chip. After conning his way into a Vegas motorcycle jump, he caught the eye of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and a legend was born (along with a line of some of the greatest action figures ever made).

Back in the ancient time of only 3 TV networks, Knievel’s “you don’t want to miss it if I kill myself” act was a perfect fit for ABC, and vice versa. Still today, Knievel owns seven of the top ten most-watched episodes in the history of the show that defined “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”

Junge’s presentation is stylish, and his archival footage enlightening, getting us close to team Knievel as he bought into the immense hype leading to a 1974 attempt at jumping over Utah’s Snake River Canyon in his custom-made rocket powered “Skycycle.” In short, Knievel became a world class SOB, a horrible husband and a distant father, all while representing true American freedom to legions of fans.

Knoxville’s frequent presence does become a bit tiresome, though Knievel’s weighty influence on his Jackass antics, as well as today’s entire action sports industry, is rightly noted.

Fascinating not just for the well-rounded treatment of its subject, but also for a glimpse into the disillusioned era that created him, Being Evel is a satisfying flight.




Don’t Turn Around – Der Samurai’s in Town

Der Samurai

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Till Kleinert’s atmospheric Der Samurai blends Grimm Brother ideas with Samurai legend to tell a story that borders on the familiar but manages always to surprise.

Jakob, an entirely unintimidating police officer in a remote German berg, has been charged with eliminating the wolf that’s frightening villagers. Moved by compassion or longing, Jakob can’t quite make himself accomplish his task – a fact that villagers and his commanding officer find predictably soft. But a chance encounter with a wild-eyed stranger wearing a dress and carrying a samurai sword clarifies that the wolf is probably not the villagers’ – or Jakob’s – biggest problem.

Pit Bukowski cuts a peculiar but creepy figure as the Samurai – kind of a cross between Iggy Pop and Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs’s Buffalo Bill). His raw sexuality offers the perfect counterpoint to the repressed Jakob (Michel Diercks). As their cat and mouse game gains momentum, it appears the Samurai is here to upend all of Jakob’s inhibitions by eliminating anyone keeping him from embracing to his primal urges – getting “rid of the blockage once and for all.”

That’s what the sword is for.

Kleinert’s sneaky camera builds tension in every scene, and the film’s magnificent sound design echoes with Jakob’s isolation as well as that of the village itself. And though much of the imagery is connected in a way to familiar fairy tales or horror movies, the understated approach gives it all a naturalism that is unsettling.

Not that Kleinert’s content to take a naturalistic path all the way through. His tale has roots in old Germanic folklore, so the director peppers the film with enough magical realism to evoke that dreamy – in this case, nightmarish – childhood logic.

It’s a beautiful film about embracing or forever suppressing your inner monster, but this is no ordinary Jekyll and Hyde retread. Kleinert’s vision is steeped in sexuality and sexual identity, giving it a fascinating relevance often missing in this style of horror film.

The film pulls you along with a “Will he or won’t he? Is he or isn’t he?” kind of tension, and at times you’ll fear that you’ve figured out a plot twist in advance, but Kleinert is never that obvious. Though the resolution is not as surefooted as the rest of his film, the overall effort is a uniquely memorable affair.