Authenticity is certainly the main differentiator between
Chad Crawford Kinkle’s latest horror and others of the genre.
It’s been eight years since the filmmaker released his
underseen backwoods gem Jug Face. He once again pits a tenacious female
against the unrelenting pressure of an unholy presence, but Kinkle has a more
personal kind of dread in store with Dementer.
Katie (Katie Groshong), looking for a fresh start, applies for a job at a skills training facility that works with adults who have special needs. She’s hired, working with clients two days a week in the facility, then spending two nights in a group home with three of them.
Katie is especially concerned with Stephanie (Stephanie
Kinkle, the filmmaker’s sister).
Kinkle’s sister is an adult with Down Syndrome, which not
only elevates the reality of the situation but also the tenderness and anxiety
around the character’s safety. You can almost feel the filmmaker’s own personal
dread over his sister’s vulnerability in an untrustworthy world.
Aside from Larry Fessenden, who appears briefly, Groshong is
the only professional actor in the film. Kinkle, working with a skeleton crew,
films in an actual skill center. The majority of the staff and clients
represented in the film are, indeed, staff and clients.
The approach gives the film a verité style often seen in
horror films, rarely if ever seen in a horror film with a main character who
has special needs. Dementer lacks any of the sheen or noble heroism you
often find in films centered around a character with a disability. The realism
adds a level of discomfort, a sense that vulnerable adults who need care could
easily find themselves in a precarious situation.
Dementer also offers an uncomfortably realistic look
at working poverty.
Kinkle mines these anxieties as Groshong begins to see and hear signs that suggest Stephanie may be in real danger. As she races against the clock to save her, Kinkle slyly upends plenty of horror tropes.
It’s an often fascinating deconstruction of a particular
subgenre of horror, an approach that usually benefits from the verité style.
But too much of the loose narrative feels like filler. We watch Katie buckle
her seat belt no fewer than five times.
Unanswered questions can strengthen a film, but Dementer feels underwritten. Still, you get the sense that Kinkle made the best of what he had on hand and told a deeply personal story in the most authentic way he could.
The Eyes of My Mother will remind you of many other films, and yet there truly is no film quite like this one.
First time feature writer/director Nicolas Pesce, with a hell of an assist from cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, casts an eerie spell of lonesome bucolic horror.
Shot in ideal-for-the-project black and white, an Act 1 event could come from any number of horror films. A mother looks out her window to see her young daughter, playing alone in the front lawn, talking with a stranger. There is something clearly wrong with the stranger, and things take a bad turn. But for Pesce, this simple, well-worn set-up offers endless unexplored possibilities. Because this bad man doesn’t realize that the isolated farm family he’s come to harm is very comfortable with dissection.
His film is told in three parts. Part 1, with the stranger, sees the young Francisca (Olivia Bond) finding her role in her family. It changes after the stranger’s visit.
Parts 2 and 3 catch up with the family quite a few years later. The now-grown Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) takes some extreme measures to end her loneliness.
There is much power in dropping an audience into a lived-in world – the less we know, the better. Pesce understands this in the same way Tobe Hooper did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and though The Eyes of My Mother lacks the cynicism, satire and power tools of Hooper’s farmhouse classic, it treads some similar ground.
Where Eyes differs most dramatically from other films is in its restraint. The action is mostly off-screen, leaving us with the sounds of horror and the quiet clean-up of its aftermath to tell us more than we really want to know.
As retrained as it is, The Eyes of My Mother hardly lacks in sensual experience. Stunning, gorgeously lit frames are matched with garish sound editing.
Kuperstein’s cinematography is sometimes almost Malick-like. Pesce focuses that camera on nearly silent moments full of traumatic images. He creates dissonance between the peaceful, idyllic scenes and the pinpoint imagery, the horrifying sounds.
The quiet amplifies Francisca’s isolation. The sounds amplify something else entirely.
Though Eyes of My Mother is reminiscent of several Seventies horrors, its muted telling exposes a patience rarely found in the genre. Pesce repays you for your patience.
We have a new winner! Prior to this time travel cataloging exercise, we embraced the misunderstanding that the 1970s offered the best in horror. Nope. Pruning our list of the horror films released between 2000 and 2009 to just five proved honestly impossible. It was so hard! Too hard, actually, so we cheated: we are going to give a quick nod to the top 5 that didn’t make the list, and then we’re going to make #5 a tie. It had to be done!
Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, writer/director Greg McLean’s happy backpackers find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle.
If this sounds predictable and obvious to you, rest assured that McLean has plans to burst every cliché in the genre, and he succeeds on almost every level.
His first triumph is in the acting. Jarratt’s killer is an amiable sadist who is so real it’s jarring. You find yourself hoping he’s an actor.
A horror film this realistic is not only hard to watch, but a bit hard to justify. What makes an audience interested in observing human suffering so meticulously recreated? This is where, like a true artist, McLean finally succeeds. What is as unsettling as the film itself is that its content is somehow satisfying.
TIE! 5. 28 Days Later (2002)
Activists break into a research lab and free the wrong fucking monkeys.
28 days later, bike messenger Jim wakes up naked on an operating table. What follows is the eerie image of an abandoned, desolate London as Jim wanders hither and yon hollering for anybody. In the church, we get our first glimpse of what Jim is now up against, and dude, run!
Prior to 28 Days Later, the zombie genre seemed finally dead and gone. But Danny Boyle single handedly resurrected the genre with two new(ish) ideas: 1) they weren’t dead, 2) therefore, they could move really quickly. Like Romero, though, director Danny Boyle’s real worry is not just the infected, it’s the living.
Danny Boyle is one of cinema’s visionary directors, and he’s made visceral, fascinating, sometimes terrifying films his entire career – Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions, 127 Hours – but 28 Days Later is certainly his one true horror film. And it is inspired.
4. The Ring (2002)
The Ring – thanks in large part to the creepy clever premise created by Koji Suzuki, who wrote the novel Ringu – is superior to its source material principally due to the imagination and edge of fledgling director Gore Verbinski. His film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric, and creepy as hell.
This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a video tape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.
The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Bunuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!
And Samara – from plump-cheeked cherub to ghastly figure crawling from your TV…yikes.
Sure, it amounts to an immediately dated musing on technology. But still, there’s that last moment when wee Aidan (a weirdly perfect David Dorfman) asks his mom, “What about the people we show it to? What happens to them?”
At this point we realize he means us, the audience.
We watched the tape! We’re screwed!
3. The Loved Ones (2009)
Writer/director/Tasmanian Sean Byrne upends high school clichés, maneuvering between gritty drama and neon colored carnage in a story that borrows from other horror flicks but absolutely tells its own story.
Brent (Xavier Samuel) is dealing with guilt and tragedy in his own way, and his girlfriend Holly tries to be patient with him. Oblivious to all this, Lola (a gloriously wrong-minded Robin McLeavy) asks Brent to the end of school dance. He politely declines, which proves to be probably a poor decision.
The Loved Ones is a cleverly written, deeply disturbed piece of filmmaking that benefits from McLeavy’s inspired performance as much as it does its filmmaker’s sly handling of subject matter.
2. The Descent (2005)
A caving expedition turns ugly for a group of girlfriends who will quickly realize that being trapped inside the earth is not the worst thing that could happen.
Writer/director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) must be commended for sidestepping the obvious trap of exploiting the characters for their sexuality – I’m not saying he avoids this entirely, but for a horror director he is fantastically restrained. He also manages to use the characters’ vulnerability without patronizing or stereotyping.
He makes even better use of the story’s structure. Between that and the way film and sound editing are employed, Marshall squeezes every available ounce of anxiety from the audience. Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers, but Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier. For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.
1. Let the Right One In (2008)
In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flicks in years. A spooky coming of age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest, coldest imaginable environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure.
Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar with a blond Prince Valiant cut falls innocently for the odd new girl (an outstanding Lina Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. Reluctantly, she returns his admiration, and a sweet and bloody romance buds.
This is a coming of age film full of life lessons and adult choices, told with a tremendous atmosphere of melancholy, tainted innocence, and isolation. Plus the best swimming pool carnage scene ever.
The unsettling scene is so uniquely handled, not just for horrifying effect (which it certainly achieves), but to reinforce the two main characters, their bond, and their roles. It’s beautiful, like the strangely lovely film itself.
Jacob’s Ladder isn’t exactly a horror film, but it is as unsettling and creepy as any movie you’ll watch. The entire 113 minutes transpires in that momentary flash between life and death, with both light and dark trying to make a claim on Jacob Singer’s soul.
Tim Robbins plays Singer with a weary sweetness that’s almost too tender and vulnerable to bear. In a blistering supporting turn, the recently (and far too soon) deceased Elizabeth Pena impresses as the passionate carnal angel Jezebel. The real star here, weirdly enough, is director Adrian Lyne.
Known more for erotic thrillers, here he beautifully articulates a dreamscape that keeps you guessing. The New York of the film crawls with unseemly creatures hiding among us. Filmed as a grimy, colorless nightmare, Jacob’s Ladder creates an atmosphere of paranoia and dread.
By 1990, the Vietnam film has run its course, but with some distance from the post-Platoon glut, the “flashback” crisis that underlines Singer’s confused nightmare feels less stale. It allows the movie to work on a number of levels: as a metaphysical mystery, a supernatural thriller, and a horror film.
The horror is peppered throughout, and there are several scenes that will make your skin crawl.
The storyline is challenging and may seem like a sleight of hand more than anything, but Robins’s deeply human performance and some memorable scares make it a standout for the season.
If vampires can only come out at night, wouldn’t it make sense for them to head to the parts of the globe that remain under cover of darkness for weeks on end? Sure it would. And, given that those particular spots tend to be frozen death traps to begin with, more to love about this particular icy bloodsucking adventure!
The first potential downfall here is that Josh Hartnett plays our lead, the small town arctic sheriff whose burg goes haywire just after the last flight for a month leaves town. A drifter blows into town (Ben Foster – a bit over the top, but always a welcome sight) – and this is a town that sees a lot more snowmen than drifters. Dogs die viciously. Vehicles are disabled. Power is disrupted. You know what that means…the hunt’s begun.
Hartnett, a characteristically weak actor, holds up OK upon the frozen tundra. He’s asked to guide us through the action and little more, which is as it should be. Director David Slade keeps the pace quick and the action mean.
Much of his success is due to the always spectacular Danny Huston as the leader of the bloodsuckers. His whole gang takes a novel, unwholesome approach to the idea of vampire, and it works marvelously.
Slade cheats several times, like every time Hartnett’s chased by a vampire. One cut, they’re right behind him, the next cut, he’s hiding successfully beside some barn. What the…?
Still, Slade builds the pervasive feeling of being cornered with no way out, and more than once, the baddies employ rather ruthless measures to flush out those in hiding.
A pod of survivors hides in an attic, careful not to make any noise or draw any attention to themselves. One old man has dementia, which generates a lot of tension in the group, since he’s hard to contain and keep quiet.
There’s no knowing whether the town has any other survivors, and some of these guys are getting itchy. Then they hear a small voice outside.
Walking and sobbing down the main drag is a little girl, crying for help. It’s as pathetic a scene as any in such a film, and it may be the first moment in the picture where you identify with the trapped, who must do the unthinkable. Because, what would you do?
As the would-be heroes in the attic begin to understand this ploy, the camera on the street pulls back to show Danny Huston and crew perched atop the nearby buildings. The sobbing tot amounts to the worm on their reel.
Japan may have left its monster movie past behind it, moving on to horrifying, circuitous tales where ghosts and technology intertwine, but in 2006, Korea took its own shot at the Godzilla fable. The sci-fi import The Host, which tells the tale of a giant mutant monster terrorizing Seoul, has all the thumbprints of the old Godzilla movies: military blunder, resultant angry monster, terrorized metropolis. Writer/director Joon-ho Bong updates the idea, and not solely with CGI.
The film opens in a military lab hospital in 2000. A clearly insane American doctor, repulsed by the dust coating formaldehyde bottles, orders a Korean subordinate to empty it all into the sink. Soon the contents of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde find its way through the Korean sewer system and into the Han River. This event – allegedly based on fact – eventually leads, not surprisingly, to some pretty gamey drinking water. And also a 25 foot cross between Alien and a giant squid.
Said monster – let’s call him Paul – exits the river one bright afternoon in 2006 to run amuck in a very impressive outdoor-chaos-and-bloodshed scene. A dimwitted foodstand clerk witnesses his daughter’s abduction by the beast, and the stage is set.
What follows, rather than a military attack on a marauding Paul, is actually one small, unhappy, bickering family’s quest to find and save the little girl. Their journey takes them to poorly organized quarantines, botched security check points, misguided military/Red Cross posts, and through Seoul’s sewer system, all leading to a climactic battle even more impressive than the earlier scene of afternoon chaos.
The film’s decidedly comedic tone gives the film a quirky charm, but seriously diminishes its ability to frighten. Host does generate real, claustrophobic dread when it focuses on the missing child, though. Along with its endearing characters, well-paced plot, and excellent climax, it makes for one of the best creature features to come along in decades.
Let’s get the long weekend rolling with a fun, bloody, exciting trip to the Scottish highlands. Wry humor, impenetrable accents, a true sense of isolation and blood by the gallon help separate Neil Marshall’s (The Descent) Dog Soldiers from legions of other wolfmen tales.
Marshall creates a familiarly tense feeling, brilliantly straddling monster movie and war movie. A platoon is dropped into an enormous forest for a military exercise. There’s a surprise attack. The remaining soldiers hunker down in an isolated cabin to mend, figure out WTF, and strategize for survival.
This is like any good genre pic where a battalion is trapped behind enemy lines – just as vivid, bloody and intense. Who’s gone soft? Who will risk what to save a buddy? How to outsmart the enemy?
But the enemies this time are giant, hairy, hungry monsters. Woo hoo!
The fantastically realized idea of traitors takes on a little extra something-something, I’ll tell you that right now.
Though the rubber suits – shown fairly minimally and with some flair – do lessen the film’s horrific impact, solid writing, dark humor and a good deal of ripping and tearing energize this blast of a lycanthropic Alamo.
French horror films are not for the squeamish. Hell, even Belgian and Canadian horror seems affected by the French flair for bloodshed and discomfort – the Grand Guignol, as they might say. And those crazy frogs may be making the very best in the genre right now. In celebration of this week’s live Fright Club, the brilliant and horrifying Calvaire (in 35 mm!), we count down the other 5 best French language horror films.
5. Sheitan (2006)
The fantastic Vincent Cassel stars as the weirdest handyman ever, spending a decadent Christmas weekend with a rag tag assortment of nightclub refugees. After Bart (Olivier Barthelemy) is tossed from the club, his mates and the girls they’re flirting with head out to spend the weekend at Eve’s (a not shy Rosane Mesquida). Way out in rural France, they meet Eve’s handyman, his very pregnant wife, and a village full of borderline freaks. The film is savagely uncomfortable and refreshingly unusual. Cassel’s performance is a work of lunatic genius, and his film is never less than memorable.
4. Martyrs (2008)
This import plays like three separate films: orphanage ghost story, suburban revenge fantasy, and medical experimentation horror. The first 2 fit together better than the last, but the whole is a brutal tale that is hard to watch, hard to turn away from, and worth the effort.
3. Irreversible (2002)
Gaspar Noe is perhaps the most notorious French filmmaker working in the genre, and Irreversible is his most notorious effort. Filmed in reverse chronological order and featuring two famously brutal sequences, Noe succeeds in both punishing his viewers, and reminding them of life’s simple beauty. There’s no denying the intelligence of the script, the aptitude of the director, or the absolute brilliance of Monica Bellucci in an incredibly demanding role.
2. Them (2006)
Brisk, effective and terrifying, Them is among the most impressive horror flicks to rely on the savagery of adolescent boredom as its central conceit. Writers/directors/Frenchmen David Moreau and Xavier Palud offer a lean, unapologetic, tightly conceived thriller that never lets up. Creepy noises, hooded figures, sadistic children and the chaos that entails – Them sets up a fresh and mean cat and mouse game that pulls you in immediately and leaves you unsettled.
1. Inside (2007)
Holy shit. Sarah lost her husband in a car crash some months back, and now, on the eve of Christmas, she sits, enormous, uncomfortable, and melancholy about the whole business. Were this an American film, the tale may end shortly after Sarah’s Christmas Eve peril makes the expectant mom realize just how much she loves, wants, and seeks to protect her unborn baby. But French horror films are different. This is study in tension wherein one woman will do whatever it takes, with whatever utensils are available, to get at the baby still firmly inside another woman’s body.
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.
In a quiet opening sequence, a man dies in a mall. It happens that this is a family patriarch and his passing leaves the desperately poor family in shambles. While their particular quandary veers spectacularly from expectations, there is something primal and authentic about it.
It’s as if a simple relic from a hunter-gatherer population evolved separately but within the larger urban population, and now this little tribe is left without a leader. An internal power struggle begins to determine the member most suited to take over as the head of the household, and therefore, there is some conflict and competition – however reluctant – over who will handle the principal task of the patriarch: that of putting meat on the table.
We’re never privy to the particulars – again giving the whole affair a feel of authenticity – but adding to the family’s crisis is the impending Ritual, which apparently involves a deadline and some specific meat preparations.
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!
The family dynamic is fascinating, every glance weighted and meaningful, every closed door significant. Grau draws eerie, powerful performances across the board, and forever veers in unexpected directions.
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 ever made about cannibals, but perhaps the most relevant.
Remember Bobcat Goldthwait – that screechy, overweight, sweaty comic from the Eighties? Well, in case you missed it, he’s now a film director, and a pretty good one. He’s been flexing that muscle and pushing boundaries since the early Nineties, but in 2011 he proved his mettle with the pitch-black observational comedy God Bless America.
He makes an unusual choice as the follow-up to his artistic high water mark with Willow Creek, a found footage horror that treads incredibly familiar territory.
Though his newest effort certainly boasts occasional humor, it’s no comedy. In fact, it’s basically a streamlined Blair Witch reboot with better actors.
Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) and Jim (Bryce Johnson) are celebrating his birthday with an excursion into the woods to follow the same path as those hearty souls who once tracked Bigfoot. Jim wants to make a little film of their expedition; Kelly wants to humor her boyfriend for his birthday.
The only mildly unique element about this premise is the word Bigfoot, which is so unusual that it suggests a comedy, but the standup veteran is not mining for laughs. Instead, he shows real flair for stoking tensions, expertly building anxieties about isolation while slyly unveiling that slow realization of helplessness.
But it is impossible to shake the feeling that this is just another Blair Witch. Though he improves upon many familiar scenes, they’re still lifted directly from the 1999 granddaddy of found footage horror.
Shouldering a film whose entire storyline depends upon candid, usually in-car footage of just two people tends to be too much for most actors. Indeed, the already very tired found footage style usually crumbles under the lacking improve ability of a handful of adequate actors stuck inside a car trying to make their road trip seem interesting.
But Gilmore and Johnson are surprisingly suited to the task. Their chemistry is quite natural, and therefore their dialog never seems forced. Goldthwait also knows how to make the most of the gorgeous forest scenery as well, showcasing not just the potential smothering terror of the surroundings, but also its true, natural beauty.
The combined effort is effective. Goldwhait has somehow thrown just enough wild cards into the mix that, while every scene feels eerily familiar, you still can’t ever quite predict what’s to come. It’s unnerving, insightful, and strangely fresh considering it’s just the latest in an unending series of films warning us away from the woods.