Category Archives: Shudder Premiere

Into the Woods

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

by Hope Madden

Every so often you come across a movie and think it must have been made specifically for you. In my case, that film is Kier-La Janisse’s 3-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

Yes, that does seem like a very big time commitment to folk horror, but Janisse’s film repays your undertaking with not only an incredibly informative documentary but an engaging, creepy and beautifully made film.

Dividing her topic into chapters, Janisse portions out information theme by theme. And while this essay-style documentation is driven by expert commentary, the filmmaker surrounds the scholarly material with beguiling imagery.

Every chapter has its own look and feel, each one opening with an appropriately bewitching bit of rhyme. Then it leads you through a clearly articulated and fairly comprehensive examination of certain moments in folk horror. Janisse opens on the big three, The Unholy Trinity–Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man—as a way to ease us into the conversation by pinning major themes on well-known films.

She goes on to explore TV and written tales tangentially, though her focus is always primarily on film, taking us from The Wicker Man through Midsommar. In between, she introduces dozens of underseen films and traces not only the history of folk horror but the societal anxieties that these films represent.

And while many may think mainly of British films of the 1960s and 70s for this category, Janisse presents an intriguing global history that unveils universal primal preoccupations from England to Argentina, the US to Lapland and beyond.

Dry as that may sound, between the snippets of the movies themselves and the fluid, often creepy presentation, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched becomes as transfixing a film as those it dissects. And it digs deep, into obscure titles new and old. Border! White Reindeer! Onibaba! Viy! Prevenge!

Bonus: You can find a gorgeous array of folk horror streaming on Shudder this month, including The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General.

There are so many, you can’t blame even a 3-hour film for leaving some out. Here are a few masterpieces glimpsed but not discussed and well worth your time:

And even then, there are some favorites not discussed at all that you might want to check out:

How can three hours of folk horror discussion not be enough? It’s a question that points to what may be the greatest strength of Janisse’s film. Like any truly strong documentary, her film not only covers its topic comprehensively, it inspires you to dig deeper on your own time.

Hard Candy Christmas

The Advent Calendar

by Hope Madden

Who needs a new Christmas horror story?

I do. Y’all can have your Hallmark romances but give me a little yuletide carnage and I’m filled with holiday cheer.

This Christmas season, writer/director Patrick Ridremont comes through with the Belgian horror The Advent Calendar.

It’s been three years since the accident that put Eva (Eugénie Derouand) in a wheelchair, but it’s still sometimes tough for her to tolerate the ableism and ignorance of those around her. Luckily her bestie Sophie (Honorine Magnier) cheers her with a visit and a gift — an antique wooden advent calendar she picked up in Germany.

There are rules. There is candy. There will be blood. (But there is candy, so how bad can it be?)

The “be careful what you wish for” storyline is as vintage as the ornate and impressive prop, but cursed object horror can be powerful when done well. Ridremont does it well, allowing time for his ensemble to develop their characters. And though the film skirts cliché, Ridremont respects his audience’s ability to keep up. We’re not spoonfed.

Better still, Eva has depth enough as a character that when she finally moves willingly toward doing the wrong thing, you feel her resignation more than her selfishness.

Derouand portrays Eva’s bitterness and longing so clearly that the film never has to bow to montage or flashback. And when the time comes to get spooky, The Advent Calendar delivers.

There’s plenty of blood, but it’s the way it’s meted out that ramps up tensions. We start off with people we’re trained to want to see picked off, but viewer beware: there’s a beautiful mutt in danger here as the cursed object worms its way into Eva’s life.

The FX are not as impressive as the performances, unfortunately, but the creature itself is creepy as hell. Better still, his existence and the origin of the Advent Calendar are left a bit to the imagination. It’s a clever sleight of hand, Ridremont taking advantage of our familiarity with his subgenre when he needs to, while still leaving behind the tangy taste of mystery.

State of Shark

Great White

by George Wolf

Wait, no new scientific term mixing sharks and weather? No genetically modified sharks? Unearthed prehistoric giants? Sharks with lasers on their heads?

Geesh, do these guys even know how to Sharkmovie?

Don’t get me wrong, Shudder’s Great White gives you plenty of opportunity to suspend disbelief, but it’s built on a premise that now seems almost quaint.

People in the water. Sharks in the water. Big sharks.

Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies….

Actually these are Australian waters, with Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden) running the Pearl Air charter service, where they debate getting married and fire up the seaplane to take tourists on excursions to Hell’s Reef.

The business needs some renewed cash flow, so Charlie is only too happy to book a last minute trip for superdouche investment analyst Joji (Tiim Kano) and his wife Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi), who wants to scatter her Grandfather’s ashes in the sea.

But even before cook Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka) can whip them up a delicious lunch on the island, a ridiculous accident puts everyone in a life raft trying to evade some large, hungry predators that supposedly injured some bathers.

Yes, that’s another Jaws reference, which seems appropriate as director Martin Wilson doesn’t shy away from them either, even including a pretty shameless re-working of one of Spielberg’s classic scenes. But Wilson does craft one major jump scare of his own, and adds frequent shots framed right on the waterline to consistently simmer the tension through simultaneous looks at the castaways and what they fear.

Bowden and Jakubenko mine Michael Boughen’s script for enough authenticity to seem like real people who care for each other. Kano and Tsukakoshi aren’t as lucky, with the Joji character painted as such an over the top asshole that it’s clear he’ll be an entree, the only question is how bloody satisfying it will be to watch.

These man-eaters never do get lasers, but there’s still some pretty outlandish shark wrangling before the shoreline comes into view. So while Great White gets some props for not drowning in silliness from the start, that may have been the only way to make it memorable.

The Bored and the Beautiful

Dead & Beautiful

by Hope Madden

Oh, they’re so attractive. They’re so rich. In fact, the five souls at the center of writer/director David Verbeek’s Dead & Beautiful are so attractive and rich that they have to stick together because literally no one else on earth can understand where they come from.

Each has a family fortune in the billions, and every week one of the five takes a “turn” — they decide what the group will do for fun, and their buddies have to participate, no questions asked. But it’s so hard! They’ve done everything.

Verbeek makes his point early. These five people contribute nothing to the world. As the rich and beautiful, they are the alpha predators. And yet, their unfulfilled lives spin out of control after one “turn” may have inadvertently changed them into vampires.

Thus begins the psychological experiment. When you have no soul to begin with, you’ve essentially lived off the masses your whole life, is there really any difference between you and a vampire?

We find out in rain-slicked, neon-tinted urban late nights, following five impossibly thin and unreasonably attractive people through a whole lot of nothing.

Very, very little happens during this movie. Camaraderie and sexual tensions feel fake. Individual suffering rings false. The psychological game at the heart of the action is as bloodless as the film itself. This is a horror film in the loosest sense.

Dead and Beautiful would play more like a social satire if it didn’t emulate the same tedious, vacuous billionaire youth that it pretends to skewer.

A handful of funny moments help the time pass, mainly thanks to Philip Juan, whose character believes he mind-controlled his way into a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum. A frustrating number of scenes begin with great promise — well-framed, intriguingly populated possibilities for those alpha predators to prove their label. What’s frustrating is how blandly these scenes all end.

Verbeek lenses a gorgeous late-night cityscape — never sinister, never forbidding, just pretty and mainly empty. Like his film.  

Monster Mash

Horror Noire

by Hope Madden

Remember Shudder’s 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror from director Xavier Burgin? It was great, wasn’t it? And if you thought to yourself that you’d love a sequel, you should know that this week’s Shudder premiere Horror Noire is not that. Not exactly.

Instead, it is an anthology of six horror shorts made by Black filmmakers. Writers, directors, performers, ideas, perspectives, points of view — everything the documentary made us realize we were not getting – is delivered by the anthology.

Production values and performances in every film are solid. Familiar faces of veteran talent elevate the individual pieces. Tony Todd, Malcolm Barrett, Rachel True, Peter Stormare, Lenora Crichlow and others turn in memorable performances in creature features, Gothic horrors, psychological horrors and comedies.

Todd, True and Barrett star as a married couple pulled apart by a cult in one of the strongest entries, Rob Greenlea’s Fugue State, a sly comment on a common problem. Kimani Ray Smith’s Sundown is a fun reimagining of horror tropes led by Stormare’s characteristic weirdness and the action hero stylings of Erica Ash.

Julian Christian Lutz’s Brand of Evil reworks familiar ideas, turning them into an unexpected creature feature that’s both savvy and strangely touching.

Other shorts are a little less successful. Robin Givens’s Daddy digs into parental horror but can’t balance build-up with payoff. Zandashé Brown’s The Bride Before You brims with insight and style, but an overreliance on voiceover narration keeps the film from developing the kind of atmosphere it hopes for.

Joe West’s The Lake also falls just short of keeping you interested and guessing, although a fuzzy backstory allows for a more thought-provoking lead character than you might expect.

The full stash runs two and a half hours and might have played better as a short series. It’s a long commitment, and every film has weak spots, which makes the time really feel like a commitment. But there’s much to enjoy with each episode. Taken as a whole, there’s variety enough in style and substance to promise something for everyone.

Cue and A

V/H/S/94

by George Wolf

You ready for scary?

1994 was almost thirty years ago. Three zero.

So the fourth film in the V/H/S series places the found footage premise in a decidedly nostalgic vibe, with plenty of videotape filter effects, “taped over” moments and no worries about smartphones crashing the internal logic.

Five filmmakers deliver separate short film visions, as four segments are bookended by an anchor meant to tie them all together as a narrative whole.

Jennifer Reeder handles the wraparound, entitled “Holy Hell,” which follows a SWAT team invading a compound while members shout about drugs and search warrants. They find much more than drugs in a frantic, satisfactory opening that suffers from some uneven production values and pedestrian acting.

Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” finds an Ohio TV reporter and her cameraman investigating the local legend of the Rat Man. Venturing a little too deep in the sewers, what they find sheds a nicely subtle light on the plight of the homeless before the creature effects come calling.

Okuno’s camerawork and dark tunnel framing is effective, and Anna Hopkins delivers a fine performance as the reporter, but like all the segments here, “Storm Drain” feels like a great idea that’s never fully realized.

That is the most true with Simon Barret’s “Empty Wake.” Barrett, writer of You’re Next, The Guest and Blair Witch, gives us a funeral home employee waiting out a wake that no one is attending. As a storm escalates outside, noises from inside the casket suggest a soul may not be ready to move on.

Barrett lays out some nicely simplistic stakes, and plays a fine game of peek-a-boo with the inside lights going off and on, but the payoff ultimately lands as a bit familiar and anti-climactic.

The opening shot of Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” grabs your attention immediately, bringing you into the horrific laboratory of a mad scientist conducting human experiments. What starts as a fun and gore-filled homage to both Frankenstein and Tetsuo descends into an overlong, first-person shooter game that squanders much of its early potential.

“Terror,” the final segment from Ryan Prows, brings horror comedy to the party with a look at good ‘ol boy militia members aiming to overthrow the government. They’re more than well-armed, they’re fostering a supernatural entity. And you can guess how well that goes.

Prows never completely sets the tone, as the few truly comedic moments crash into an overall atmosphere that plays it too straight for satire.

Reeder closes it all out with the conclusion of “Holy Hell,” bringing a surprise to one of the SWAT teamers and an overly tidy reinforcement of the videotape theme.

V/H/S/94 presents a host of promising ideas and several solid moments. A step up from Viral for sure, but with too many false starts for a rewind-able experience.

Ghosted

Martyrs Lane

by Hope Madden

Six years ago, filmmaker Ruth Platt released the thriller The Lesson. While essentially no one else saw the film, I was impressed enough by it to look forward to whatever else Platt wanted to make.

So here’s her follow up, the grief-driven horror Martyrs Lane.

Platt’s story of a haunting walks in familiar circles, as confused and lonesome 10-year-old Leah (a heart-bruisingly melancholy Kiera Thompson) makes a spooky new friend (Sienna Sayer, wonderful). By day Leah rattles about the vicarage where her father (Steven Cree) is minister, her older sister (Hannah Rae) kills time before fleeing for university, and her mom (Denise Gough) mourns something secretly.

At night, the creaks and whistles combine with Leah’s fears, imagination and loneliness to conjure a visitor who leaves Leah with clues to follow.

There is a lot about Martyrs Lane that feels familiar, but Platt grounds her spectral tale in messy, lived-in family drama. Set design, costuming, framing, moments of silence, pointed cruelties followed by protective love—all of it combines to create an atmosphere both familial and haunted. No austere staircases, empty nurseries, or any of the other chilly and spare environs where you might expect to set a mournful ghost story. Instead, Leah’s home bears the weary chaos and forced cheer of family and absence.

Thompson’s performance is driven by the recognizable, shapeless guilt that looms in a child’s imagination, making every perceived transgression somehow unforgivable and therefore impossible to share, even with a caring adult. Cree’s bright presence offsets the gloom nicely, while Sayer’s ghostly cherubic image is wonderfully, tenderly haunting.

Gough’s understated frailty is the unease that haunts the film from its opening, a feeling that blossoms into dread as the tale wears on.

Platt and her talented group do not fail to deliver on the promise of their ghost story. The issue is only that, while the execution is impeccable, the story itself is a bit tired. Wisely, Platt capitalizes on character over story, leaving you so invested in this little girl and her family that you’ll likely forgive the sense of having been here before.

And, like me, you’ll probably keep an eye out for wherever it is Platt wants to take you next.

Bzzz

Mosquito State

by Hope Madden

Right from its scientifically precise and profoundly unsettling opening, Filip Jan Rymsza’s Mosquito State is almost unwatchable. The film, about Wall Street analyst Richard Boca (Beau Knapp) and the 2008 financial collapse, takes on an upsetting metaphor.

Richard, brilliant and socially awkward in equal measure, brings two bodies home with him one evening: the poised and lovely Lena (Charlotte Vega) and a thirsty mosquito. Thanks to Richard’s intimacy ineptitude, things don’t go well with Charlotte, but that mosquito gets all she came for.

Though the buzzing of the bloodsuckers that soon breed in Richard’s apartment may suggest those Wall Street parasites whose appetites will soon collapse the market, Rymsza has something less obvious on his mind.

Any underlying themes about benevolence versus predation serve the filmmaker’s somewhat confounding allegory, but his aesthetic is as pointedly horrific as they come. My god, that whining buzz! The sound threatens to overwhelm you as certainly as the insects themselves overwhelm Richard, who becomes utterly submissive, offering his naked body to the unholy swarm.

Rymsza orchestrates a certain ghastly beauty, but first he has to immerse you in sounds and sights that trigger an automatic, primal revulsion and need to swat and flee.

Knapp’s performance suggests a bloodless Nicolas Cage as Elephant Man — bloodless not just because he’s made Richard the mosquitos’ feast, but because Knapp drains his character of charisma and flamboyance. Richard’s as unpredictable and difficult to enjoy as the film itself, but that makes him —and Mosquito State — no less distressingly intriguing.

Rymsza’s anticlimactic finale will leave many unsatisfied with his film. But for a wild combination of revulsion and beauty, Mosquito State is worth a look.

Aggrieved

Teddy

by Hope Madden

Even a man who is pure in heart

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright

Teddy (an exceptional Anthony Bajon) may not be all that pure in heart, but he’s not such a bad kid. What he is, is a loser. He knows it. “We’re the village idiots,” he tells the uncle he lives with.

Teddy’s an outsider in his very small French hamlet, a ne’er-do-well who seems harmless enough. He has a job —one he hates. And he has a girlfriend, Rebecca (Christine Gautier) — but how long can that last? Her family can’t stand him, and she’ll graduate at the end of the term. Then what?

Before we can find out, Teddy’s bitten by something in the woods. Suddenly, by the light of the moon (which seems to forever coincide with some kind of angry humiliation Teddy faces), he loses consciousness and then wakes up naked and covered in blood.

Writers/directors/brothers Ludovic and Zoran Boukhera tap into classic monster movie mythology (and sometimes score, with fun results) to mine lycanthrope lore for metaphorical purposes.

Which is usually what werewolves are used for in movies, including the 1941 classic that spawned that poem. Anyone can be cursed, it seems, and under the right circumstances, anyone can become a monster.

In this case, Teddy represents the marginalized, angry white male. The havoc he wreaks? Well, it’s not hard to figure out what that represents. Truth be told, Teddy is almost off-putting in its empathy for the aggrieved male so disillusioned by disappointments and limitations that he becomes monstrous.

I suppose that makes Teddy feel a bit transgressive, but the reason it works is Bajon’s amiably brutish performance. A horror film is rarely worth its weight in carnage if it can’t engender some empathy, provoke some tragedy. Thanks to Bajon and a strong ensemble around him, the film makes you feel something for an enemy you might rather just hate.

It’s not often you get an official Cannes selection on Shudder. I guess that’s one more reason to watch Teddy.

Somebody’s Knocking

The Boy Behind the Door

by Hope Madden

Filmmakers David Charbonier and Justin Powell know how to do a lot with a little.

Earlier this year Shudder premiered their tightly packaged little horror story, The Djinn—very nearly a one-man, one-set show. Their latest to hit Shudder, The Boy Behind the Door, is slightly more expansive. A cast of about five knocks around one big, old farmhouse in the middle of an isolated, wooded area.

Two of those five are Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey, The Djinn), best friends who were kidnapped on their way to a little league game. Bobby wakes up in the trunk of a car without Kevin. He breaks free and makes his way clear of the house, but he can hear Kevin’s terrified cries and he circles back to try and save him.

The filmmakers leave it to Bobby’s sleuthing—and yours–to figure out what’s going on and how to end it. They make tremendous use of the hallways, floors and doors throughout their set, plus a well-placed wristwatch unnervingly ups the ante in a way the audience understands but Bobby does not.

There are times when the writing here hits too hard. I’m not sure the boys have to say they’ll always stick together quite so often; their actions speak to that. But the conundrums the filmmakers throw at Bobby as he tries to figure out what’s going on and how to get to his friend are believable.

More importantly, Chavis handles them with honest, childlike panic and courage. His performance would be enough to carry the film, but the adults around him offer supremely creepy turns.

Dewey’s less effective in this than he was in The Djinn, but it’s not enough to sink the film. The movie’s solid structure, paired with Charbonier and Powell’s gift for dropping clues and following up on threads make for a satisfying but never lurid horror show.