Fright Club: Mothers and Daughters in Horror

The relationship between mothers and daughters informs an awful lot of great horror films from The Exorcist to Black Swan. Frightmare suggests that becoming your mother is inescapable. The Woman tells us that if we can’t raise our daughters right, a more alpha mom might show up and do it for us. The Ring and Mom and Dad remind us that moms aren’t perfect. They have bad days. Sometimes they may want to drop you down a well.

We focus on five horror films where that relationship between mother and daughter informs and impacts the storyline in a substantial way.

5. The Bad Seed (1956)

The minute delicate Christine’s (Nancy Kelly) husband leaves for his 4-week assignment in DC, their way-too-perfect daughter begins to betray some scary behavior. The creepy handyman Leroy (Henry Jones) has her figured out – he knows she’s not as perfect as she pretends.

You may be tempted to abandon the film in its first reel, feeling as if you know where it’s going. You’ll be right, but there are two big reasons to stick it out. One is that Bad Seed did it first, and did it well, considering the conservative cinematic limitations of the Fifties.

Second, because director Mervyn LeRoy’s approach – not a single vile act appears onscreen – gives the picture an air of restraint and dignity while employing the perversity of individual imaginations to ramp up the creepiness.

Enough can’t be said about Patty McCormack. There’s surprising nuance in her manipulations, and the Oscar-nominated 9-year-old handles the role with both grace and menace.

4. Hounds of Love (2016)

It is the late 1980s in Perth, Australia, and at least one young girl has already gone missing when the grounded Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) sneaks out her bedroom window to attend a party. She doesn’t like staying with her mom, who left her dad and ruined the family and her life.

So she sneaks out, which isn’t nearly as dumb a move as is accepting a ride from Evie White (Emma Booth) and her husband, John (Stephen Curry).

Writer/director Ben Young’s amazing feature debut works on so many levels and showcases a master visual storyteller almost as brilliantly as it shines the light on three phenomenal performances.

What is it that may finally undo the evil the Whites have planned? One mother’s relentless devotion to her daughter and another mother’s sudden, stabbing empathy.

3. Eyes of My Mother (2016)

Francisca’s mother had been an eye surgeon back in Portugal.

“We used to do dissections together. She always hoped I’d be a surgeon one day.”

Though Mom appears only in Act 1 of writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s modern horror masterpiece Eyes of My Mother, her presence echoes throughout the lonely farmhouse Francesca rarely leaves.

Yes, the skills her mother imparted coupled with the trauma Francesca faced bleeds together to create a character whose splintered psyche keeps her from seeing that she’s taking some extreme measures to cure her lonliness.

This is one of the most beautifully filmed horror movies ever made, and as impeccable as the cinematography, the sound is even more important and magnificent. Together with restrained performances and jarring images, Eyes of My Mother is a film that sticks around even after it’s gone. Like a mom.

2. The Witch (2015)

There is a lot going wrong for poor Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). But it all starts when the baby goes missing on her watch. Her mother (Kate Dickie) never forgives her for it and soon Mother is finding faults with Thomasin, making accusations that even Father, who knows better, won’t defend.

For The Witch to work, for us to tentatively hope that Black Philip talks back, Thomasin has to basically lose everything, and it all starts with her mother’s love and respect. Soon her mother’s bitterness turns to competition for the affection of the menfolk, accusations of all sorts of wrongoing, all of which spirals out of control until Thomasin has no one left, no one who will love her and look after her, except that goat.

Robert Egger’s unerringly authentic deep dive into radicalization, gender inequality and isolation is all sparked with one act that irrevocably ruptures one relationship.

1. Carrie (1976)

There is nobody quite like Margaret White. Oscar nominee Piper Laurie saw the zealot for all her potential and created the greatest overbearing mother film has ever seen. (We never did see Mrs. Bates, did we?)

Sissy Spacek (also Oscar nominated for her performance) is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance. Her simpleton characterization would have been overdone were it not for Laurie’s glorious, evil zeal. It’s easy to believe this particular mother could have successfully smothered a daughter into Carrie’s stupor.

De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen streamline King’s meandering finale. Wise, because once the dance drama is done, we just want to find out what happens at home, and Mrs. White doesn’t disappoint.

Countdown: The 25 Best Films of 2016

by George Wolf

Yeah, I know I’ve got two number 25’s….I was told there’d be no math.

25. 20th Century Women 

What a joyous conundrum this film is. Set in 1979, the film looks on as Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) maneuvers the troubles of adolescence, societal sea change and his loving if enigmatic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening).

Perhaps the biggest surprise in 20th Century Women is the humor – the film, like life, is peppered with laugh out loud moments that help make even the barely endurable pain of adolescence enjoyable.

Writer/director Mike Mills falls back at times on a punk rock undercurrent that creates a wonderful energy as well as a thoughtful theme for the time in history and in Jamie’s life, because it’s about, “When your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it.”

It’s a line that’s almost too perfect, as this cast is almost too perfect. This seems to be the quiet wonder of  Mills: he puts his own complicated, insightful and emotionally generous writing into the hands of genuine talent.

Good call.

 

25. Sully

Carrying a true American icon both in front of the camera and behind it, Sully lands with a smooth craftsmanship as fitting as it is inevitable.

Director Clint Eastwood and star Tom Hanks build the tension quietly, maintaining a consistent tone of understatement that makes the spectacle of Capt. Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” all the more breathtaking.

Not every scene embraces subtlety and not every line finds its mark, but Sully does, because it approaches the story precisely the way Sully himself seemed to approach his job. It’s a film that is modest, prepared and professional, with important moments that rise to the occasion.

 

24. Elle

Elle is a flummoxing, aggravating, possibly masterful piece of filmmaking that will leave you reeling.

A misanthropic tale with a complex – even befuddling – moral core, Elle explores the aftermath of a brutal rape. No matter what you expect to happen next, the only thing you can predict is that clichés will be upended.

Raising more eyebrows, the creative braintrust behind the film is entirely male: director Paul Verhoeven, novelist Philippe Djian, and screenwriter David Burke – who, interestingly, specializes in true-life horror films, often succeeding in humanizing the serial killer (Dahmer, Gacy).

To articulate the film’s frustrating turns would be to give away far more than is appropriate. Suffice it to say, the deeply flawed heroine (an incredibly good Isabelle Huppert) makes baffling choices in a story that chastises a culture that promotes rape while simultaneously encouraging rape fantasy.

Or does it?

It is quite possible that Huppert is the entire reason Elle works – but somehow, it does.

 

23. 10 Cloverfield Lane

More of a second cousin than a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, J.J. Abram’s-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane is a claustrophobic thriller. No found footage. No shaky camera. No perturbed kaiju.

First-time director Dan Trachtenberg ratchets up the tension as the film progresses, finding the creepiness in even the most mundane domestic activities, as an award-worthy performance from John Goodman reminds us monsters come in many forms.

 

22. Midnight Special

Know as little as possible going into this film because writer/director Jeff Nichols is a master of the slow reveal, pulling you into a situation and exploiting your preconceived notions until you are wonderfully bewildered by the path the story takes.

Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.

You should.

 

21. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Like JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story peppers the action with welcome humor and continually reminds viewers of the film’s place – chronological and geographical – in the saga.

One or two of the tricks up director Gareth Edwards’s (Monsters, Godzilla) sleeve come up short, but the majority land with style. With his team of writers and a game cast, he takes us back to the height of the Empire’s smug attitude – their belief in their right to silence those who oppose them and dictate to a voiceless population with impunity.

It’s a clever, thoughtful slice of entertainment that adds depth to the Star Wars franchise as it deftly salutes those who sacrifice for hope.

 

20. Southside With You

Even if you knew nothing about the characters involved, Southside With You would be a sweet, smart, refreshingly grown up romance. It does nothing more than follow two people over the course of their first date.

But these people are Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama (Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers – both terrific) during a very hot Chicago day in 1989, and writer/director Richard Tanne, in a confident feature debut, finds plenty of resonance in an otherwise uneventful afternoon that changed the course of history.

 

19. The Eyes of My Mother

First time feature writer/director Nicolas Pesce, with a hell of an assist from cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, casts an eerie, three act spell of lonesome bucolic horror.

Shot in ideal-for-the-project black and white, The Eyes of My Mother often reminds you of any number of horror films. Where Eyes differs most dramatically 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.

 

18. 13th

Director Ava DuVernay follows her triumphant Selma with an urgent dissection of mass incarceration in the United States. Informative, stirring, and heartbreaking, 13th is an essential history lesson.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V66F3WU2CKk

 

17. Arrival

Amy Adams is as reliable an actor as they come. Thoughtful and expressive, she shares a tremendous range of emotions without uttering a sound.

With his latest, Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve puts her skills to use to quietly display everything from wonder to terror to hope to gratitude as her character struggles to communicate with visitors.

People looking for explosions and jingoism on a global scale need not attend. In its place is a quiet contemplation on speaking, listening and working together. While that may not sound like much excitement, it’s about as relevant a message today as anything we can think of.

 

16. Krisha

Krisha is not only a powerful character study awash in piercing intimacy, it is a stunning feature debut for Trey Edward Shults, a young writer/director with seemingly dizzying potential.

And then there’s the startling turn from Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s real-life Aunt, who after decades of scattershot film and voice work, delivers a jaw-dropping lead performance full of such raw authenticity you begin to feel you are treading where you don’t belong.

It’s a timely reminder what undiscovered talents can achieve despite their limitations of budget, cast or location.

 

15. The Handmaiden

Mesmerizing director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) mesmerizes again, with this seductive story of a plot to defraud a Japanese heiress in the 1930s. Gorgeous, stylish and full of wonderful twists, The Handmaiden is a masterwork of delicious indulgence.

 

14. The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation recreates a primal scream of outrage from one man driven to a violent uprising against the inhumanity of slavery. It is a passionate, often gut-wrenching film that stands as a stellar achievement from director/producer/co-writer/star Nate Parker.

Parker pours his soul into this film, both behind the camera and in front, delivering a searing performance as Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who organized a bloody rebellion in 1831. Parker’s film is blunt and visceral, displaying a strong sense of visual style and narrative instinct.

 

13. Green Room

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.  It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint.

What Green Room lacks in depth, it makes up in commitment to genre. It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

 

12. O.J.: Made in America

ESPN’s 5-part “30 For 30” documentary examined much more than just a football star’s fall from grace. It is an exacting, expertly blended spotlight on race, class, oppression and privilege. Made in America, indeed.

 

11. Zootopia

With Zootopia, Disney – not Pixar, not Dreamworks, but Disney proper – spins an amazingly of-the-moment political tale with real merit, and they do it with a frenetically paced, visually dazzling, perfectly cast movie.

It is simply the most relevant Disney film to come along in at least a generation.

 

10. Loving

Like Barry Jenkins’s miraculous Moonlight, the latest film from Jeff Nichols offers a needed, optimistic reminder that progress is not dead and the ugliness of hatred need not win – even when it looks like it has already won. Here the writer/director quietly shares the triumphant story of the couple whose Supreme Court case made interracial marriage legal in the US.

In 1958, Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) married. Richard was savvy enough to have the ceremony conducted in D.C., but upon returning to their rural Virginia home, the two were arrested for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws.

Nichols conducts the effort with an understatement that gives certain small moments and images true power. Never splashy and far from preachy, Loving sits with an otherwise ordinary family and lets their very normalcy speak volumes about the misguided hate that would separate them.

The approach does give the film a lovely intimacy,  and it reminds us that progress, though often ugly in its pursuit, can be won.

 

9. Jackie

Director Pablo Larrain disregards traditional biopic structure and reshapes it to hypnotic effect in Jackie, a complex portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as she struggles with the shock and grief of her husband’s assassination.

Anchored by a committed, transfixing lead performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie emerges as a surreal character study layered with the intimacy of a soul struggling to balance public demands with private resentment.

With one of history’s most famous women as his subject, Larrain wisely narrows his focus to these watershed moments, adding unspoken gravitas to the film through what we already know about the rest of Mrs. Kennedy’s life. In the whirlwind of November 1963, she had a husband to honor, children to reassure, and a future to guard.

With Jackie, Larrain and Portman deliver a meticulous, visionary statement full of both vital history and raw humanity.

 

8. Fences

Denzel Washington is an Oscar contender in about one of every three films he makes – Fences is clearly one of those special performances.

As a director, he’s chosen to focus on the African American experience – August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning stage play being the strongest effort yet.

Troy Maxson – a 1950s garbage man with a lot to say – is a character that feels custom-made for Washington. Larger than life, full of conflict and bullshit, bravado and stubbornness, Troy is a big presence. He fills up the screen, he fills up a room, but it is Viola Davis as his wife Rose who offers an emotional and gravitational center to the story.

Together she and Washington boast such chemistry, their glances, smiles and gestures articulating a well-worn, bone-deep love. Their time together on screen – which is a great chunk of the film – is an opportunity to watch two masters riff of each other for the benefit of character and audience alike. The result is in turns heart-warming and devastating.

True to the source material, Washington’s direction feels very stage-bound and theatrical. But in most respects, Washington’s delivery – faithful as it is to the idea of the stage from which it leapt – retains what is needed about the sense of confinement allowed by the few sets and locations. There is no doubting this play’s bonafides, and Washington honors its intimacy and universal themes.

 

7. The Jungle Book

Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.

The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.

Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.

All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.

 

6. The Witch

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

Every opportunity writer/director Robert Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.

Though The Witch is Eggers’s first feature as filmmaker, his long career in art direction, production and costume design are evident in this flawlessly imagined and recreated period piece.

Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

 

5. Hell or High Water

Two brothers in West Texas go on a bank robbing spree. Marshalls with cowboy hats pursue. It’s a familiar idea, certainly, and Hell or High Water uses that familiarity to its advantage. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) embraces the considerable talent at his disposal to create a lyrical goodbye to a long gone, romantic notion of manhood.

Two pairs of men participate in this moseying road chase. Brothers Toby and Tanner – Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively – are as seemingly different as the officers trying to find them. Those Texas Marshalls, played with the ease that comes from uncommon talent, are Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

These four know what to do with Taylor Sheridan’s words.

Sheridan more than impressed with his screenwriting debut, last year’s blistering Sicario. Among other gifts, the writer remembers that every character is a character and his script offers something of merit to every body on the screen – a gift this cast does not disregard.

Even with the film’s unhurried narrative, not a moment of screen time is wasted. You see it in the investment in minor characters and in the utter, desolate gorgeousness of Giles Nuttgen’s photography. Every image Mackenzie shares adds to the air of melancholy and inevitability as our heroes, if that’s what you’d call any of these characters, fight the painful, oppressive, emasculating tide of change.

A film as well written, well acted, well photographed and well directed as Hell or High Water is rare. Do not miss it.

 

4. The Lobster

Imagining how Charlie Kaufman might direct a mashup of 1984 and Logan’s Run would get you in the area code, but still couldn’t quite capture director Yorgos Lanthimos’s darkly comic trip to a future where it’s a crime to be single.

The Lobster builds on themes we’ve seen before but bursts with originality, while every setting looks at once familiar and yet like nothing we’ve ever known.

The entire ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, each actor finding subtle but important variations in delivering the script’s wonderfully intelligent takedown of societal expectations.

It’s a captivating experience full of humor, tenderness, and longing, even before Lanthimos starts to bring a subversive beauty into soft focus. The Lobster pokes wicked fun at the rules of attraction, but finds its lasting power in asking disquieting questions about the very nature of our motives when following them.

 

3. Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea will put your emotions in a vice and slowly squeeze, buffering waves of monumental sadness with moments of biting humor and brittle affection. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan crafts a film so deeply felt it can leave you physically tired. A very good kind of tired.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are sure Oscar contenders as Lonergan sketches a narrative without regard for any strict linear structure, and the dense fog of grief surrounding the characters becomes palpable, anchored in Affleck’s tremendous performance.

Lonergan’s entire supporting cast is stellar, highlighted by an unforgettable Williams. Despite limited screen time, Williams conveys the pain beneath her character’s facade, finally airing it in a shattering scene with Affleck so full of ache and humanity you’ll be devastated, yet thankful for the experience.

Williams’s small but mighty performance pierces the film’s admittedly male-centric worldview. The other female characters are more broadly drawn in negative lights, yet this reinforces the sad cycle of emotional immaturity in danger of being passed on to another male in the family. In the end, Manchester by the Sea is a hopeful ode to breaking these barriers, and enduring in the face of the worst that life can bring.

 

2. La La Land

Have you ever smiled for two hours straight? From the opening sequence – a dazzling song and dance number in the middle of an L.A. traffic jam that’s skillfully edited to resemble one long shot – writer/director Damien Chazelle plants a wide one on your face with his unabashed mash note to old Hollywood, old jazz, and young love.

Like a beautiful bookend to Chazelle’s thrilling Whiplash, La La Land is also steeped in music and starry-eyed dreamers, but trades cynicism for an unfailing belief in the power of those dreams. It’s easy to say “they don’t make movies this any more,” and that’s right – they don’t, because doing so means risking all that comes from putting such a heart on such a sleeve.

It could have gone Gangster Squad wrong, but Chazelle’s instincts here are so spot-on, every tactical choice adds a layer to the magic. The Cinemascope framing and extended takes prove a fertile playground for the film’s vibrant colors, relevant backdrops, catchy tunes and snappy dance steps. Who needs 3D to create a world so tactile and dizzying? Not Chazelle.

But as much as La La Land has its head in the clouds, it’s grounded by a bittersweet reality, with wonderful lead performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling that showcase the heartbreak often awaiting those that choose this life.

Let’s not kid ourselves, real life in 2016 has been tough. This type of joyful jolt to the senses is long overdue.

Take two hours of La La Land and call me in the morning.

 

1. Moonlight

Saving the world is great, so is finding love, or cracking the case, funnying the bone or haunting the house. But a movie that slowly awakens you to the human experience seems a little harder to find at the local multiplex.

You can find one in Moonlight, a minor miracle of filmmaking from writer/director Barry Jenkins. With just his second feature (after 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), Jenkins presents a journey of self-discovery in three acts, each one leading us with graceful insight toward a finale as subtle as it is powerful.

Jenkins adapts Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” with astonishing sensitivity and artful nuance. Simple shots such as closing doors or hands on a sandy beach scream with meaning, as Jenkins is confident enough to let the important moments breathe, finding universal truth and beauty in the most intimate of questions.

The performances are impeccable, the craftsmanship precise, the insight blinding. You will be a better human for seeing Moonlight. It is a poignant reminder that movies still have that power.

Fright Club: Best Horror of 2016

So much great horror in 2016! We may not have had that much to be happy about last year – besides the Cavs national championship (hooray!!) – but at least we can celebrate one outstanding 365 days of horror.

Joined by Killumbus Horror’s fearless leader Bridget, we argue about what is and is not horror – and whether Neon Demon thrills or disappoints – plus a few words on scissoring.

10. Demon

Like the mournful soul that clings to poor bridegroom Piotr (Itay Tiran), Demon sticks to you. Director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s final feature (he ended his life at a recent festival where the film was playing) offers a spooky, atmospheric rumination on cultural loss.

Wrona sets the Hebrew folktale of the dybbuk – a ghost that possesses the living – inside a Catholic wedding, accomplishing two things in the process. On the surface, he tells an affecting ghost story. More deeply, though, he laments cultural amnesia and reminds us that our collective past continues to haunt us.

With just a hint of Kubrick – never a bad place to go for ghost story inspiration – Wrona combines the familiar with the surprising. His film echoes with a deeply felt pain -a sense of anguish, often depicted as scenes of celebration clash with unexplained images of abject grief.

9. The Love Witch

Wes Anderson with a Black Mass fetish and a feminist point of view, Anna Biller wrote/directed/produced/edited/set-designed/costume-designed/music-supervised the seductive sorcery headtrip The Love Witch.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson – demented perfection) needs a change of scenery. Driving her red convertible up the seacoast highway toward a new life in northern California, her troubles – and her mysteriously dead ex-husband – are behind her. Surely, with her smart eyeshades and magic potions, she’ll find true love.

Expect a loose confection of a plot, as Elaine molds herself into the ideal sex toy, winning and then tiring of her trophies. This allows Biller to simultaneously reaffirm and reverse gender roles with appropriately wicked humor.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Less a sequel than a tangentially related piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane amplifies tensions with genuine filmmaking craftsmanship, unveiling more than one kind of monster.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes from a car crash handcuffed to a pipe in a bunker. Howard (John Goodman, top-notch as usual), may simply be saving her from herself and the apocalypse outside. Good natured Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) certainly thinks so.

Goodman is phenomenal, but Winstead and Gallagher prove, once again, to be among the strongest young actors working in independent film today.

Talented newcomer Dan Trachtenberg toys with tensions as well as claustrophobia in a film that finds often terrifying relevance in the most mundane moments, each leading through a mystery to a hell of a climax.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biG8R1yGouY

7. The Wailing

“Why are you troubled,” Jesus asked, “and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

Though the true meaning of this quote won’t take hold until the final act, it presents many questions. Is this film supernatural? Demonic? Or, given the corporeal nature of the quote, is it rooted in the human flesh?

Yes.

That’s what makes the quote so perfect. Na meshes everything together in this bucolic horror where superstition and religion blend. The film echoes with misery, as the title suggests. The filmmaker throws every grisly thing at you – zombies, pustules, demonic possession, police procedural, multiple homicides – and yet keeps it all slippery with overt comedy.

6. The Greasy Strangler

Like the by-product of a high cholesterol diet, The Greasy Strangler will lodge itself into your brain and do a lot of damage.

A touching father/son story about romance, car washes and disco, this movie is like little else ever set to film. Both men fall for one particular “rootie tootie disco cutie,” and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a marauder on the loose – an inhuman beast covered head to toe in cooking grease.

The brilliantly awkward comedy leaves you scratching your head. Every absurd character begs for more screen time, and yet, each gag (and you will gag) goes on for an almost unendurable length of time.

The result is ingenious. Or repellant. Or maybe hilarious – it just depends on your tolerance for WTF horror and sick, sick shit. Whatever else it may be, though, The Greasy Strangler is – I promise you – hard to forget.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPl1vcb4hao

5. Don’t Breathe

For his sophomore effort Don’t Breathe, director Fede Alvarez dials down the blood and gore in favor of almost unbearable tension generated through masterful deployment of set design, sound design, cinematography and one sparse but effective premise.

Young thugs systematically robbing the few remaining upscale Detroit homeowners follow their alpha to a surefire hit: a blind man (Stephen Lang) sitting on $300k.

This is a scrappy film that gives you very little in the way of character development, backstory or scope. Instead, Alvarez focuses so intently on what’s in front of you that you cannot escape – a tension particularly well suited to this claustrophobic nightmare.

4. Under the Shadow

Our tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

3. Green Room

The tragic loss of 27-year-old talent Anton Yelchin makes this one bittersweet. Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). Bass guitarist Pat (Yelchin) eschews social media promotion for the “time and aggression” of live shows, and when he accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, Pat and his band find plenty of both.

Along with concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots), they’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.

It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

2. The Eyes of My Mother

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.

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.

1. The Witch

In set design, dialog, tension-building and performances this film creates an unseemly familial intimacy that you feel guilty for stumbling into. There is an authenticity here – and an opportunity to feel real empathy for this Puritan family – that may never have been reached in a “burn the witch” horror film before.

On the surface The Witch is an “into the woods” horror film that manages to be one part The Crucible, one part The Shining. Below that, though, is a peek into radicalization as relevant today as it would have been in the 1600s.

Beautiful, authentic and boasting spooky lines and images that are equally beautiful and haunting, it is a film – painstakingly crafted by writer/director Robert Eggers – that marks a true new visionary for the genre.

Halloween Countdown, Day 31: The Witch

The Witch

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

There William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) will raise their five children: the infant Samuel, young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), nearly adolescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the eldest, Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), nearly a woman now.

Each performance is remarkable. The twins are enormously creepy and both parents are flawed in the most necessary and compelling ways. Young Scrimshaw offers layers and tenderness galore, leading to an astonishing scene it’s hard to imagine a child managing.

Still, it’s Taylor-Joy who not only anchors the film but gives it its vulnerable, burgeoning, ripening soul. She is flawless.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

Every opportunity writer/director Robert Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.

Though The Witch is Eggers’s first feature as filmmaker, his long career in art direction, production and costume design are evident in this flawlessly imagined and recreated period piece.

Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Fright Club: Best Horror, First Half of 2016

The year is half over already?! Well, hell. Suppose we should argue over the best the genre has had to offer thus far? Senior Filmmaking Correspondent Jason Tastevin joins us to debate whether 10 Cloverfield Lane is a horror film or not, whether The Witch is any good, and to count down the best in horror so far this year.

5. Southbound

“For all you lost souls racing down that long road to redemption…”

Successful anthology horror is difficult to pull off. Southbound manages to do so as it spins its diabolical tale, interlocking five stories of travelers on a particularly lonesome road.

The film opens strong as two bloodied passengers rush to a desolate gas station to clean up and take stock of their situation – a situation we’re given very few clues about. But the immediately menacing, we-know-something-you-don’t-know atmosphere inside that gas station sets us up for the nightmarish episode that will unravel.

What follows are pieces on similarly distressed wayfarers – a rock trio with a flat tire, a distracted driver, a brother searching desperately for his missing sister, a family on an ill-planned vacation, then back to the original bloodied pair heading for gas.

Rather than feeling like five shorts slapped together with a contrived framing device, the segments work as a group to inform a larger idea – together they help to define this particular and peculiar stretch of highway.

4. Nina Forever

Brothers Ben and Chris Blaine crafted their feature debut as a “fucked-up fairy tale.” The truth is, that tag line sells their bleakly comedic, emotionally relevant, disquietingly familiar film short. Though you may laugh, Nina Forever swims a wellspring of sadness.

Check out girl Holly (Abigail Hardingham, wonderful) falls hard for mopey, over-aged stock boy Rob (Cian Barry), who’s still suicidal over the motoring death of his longtime girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy). Whenever the two living lovers hook up, Rob’s viscera-and-glass-shard-covered ex writhes her way into their embrace.

As an analogy for those awkward relationships you just can’t seem to let go of, Nina Forever excels in its amplification of all that is awkward and unruly. The filmmaking duo, who also write, avoid clichés and easy answers while their talented cast creates unpredictable and dimensional characters.

There is real depth and authenticity to a film that constantly surprises without really feeling contrived. Few seasoned directors handle tonal shifts with as much confidence as the Blaines in their feature debut.

3. Baskin

If you’ve ever wondered what hell might look like, first time feature director Can Evrenol has some ideas to share. They are vivid. You’ll swear they even have an odor.

Evrenol’s Baskin is a loose, dreamily structured descent into that netherworld in the company of a 5-man Turkish police unit. (Baskin is Turkish for “police raid.”) The serpentine sequencing of events evokes a dream logic that gives the film an inescapable atmosphere of dread. We are trapped along with this group of somewhat detestable, somewhat sympathetic men as they respond to a call for backup in an “off the map” nearby area. What they find is deeply disturbing.

Evrenol’s imagery is morbidly amazing. Much of it only glimpsed, most of it left unarticulated, but all of it becomes that much more disturbing for its lack of clarity.

There are moments when Baskin feels like a classier, more stylishly made Nightbreed, but there’s no camp factor here. Just a surreal exploration of the corruptibility of the human soul, and its final destination.

2. Green Room

The tragic loss of 27-year-old talent Anton Yelchin makes this one bittersweet. Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). Bass guitarist Pat (Yelchin) eschews social media promotion for the “time and aggression” of live shows, and when he accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, Pat and his band find plenty of both.

Along with concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots), they’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.  It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint. What Green Room lacks in depth, it makes up in commitment to genre.

Only a flirtation with contrivance keeps Green Room from classic status. It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

1. The Witch (2015)

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, isolationism and radicalization roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

Best Films of 2016 So Far

What the? The year is half over? Let’s get caught up.

Cleveland won a championship!!!

But back to movies…

Batman v. Superman wasn’t that bad, Civil War wasn’t that good, and two Gerard Butler flicks are clubhouse leaders for worst of the year. But let’s focus on the positive.

With honorable mentions going to Finding Dory, Love and Friendship, Keanu, Everybody Wants Some!!, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Viva, here are our picks for the top of the mid-year report card:

10) The Nice Guys

Hey girl, guess what – Ryan Gosling is a hoot! And if you found his scene-stealing performance in last year’s gem The Big Short a refreshing and joyous change of pace for the award-bedecked actor, you will surely enjoy this masterpiece of comic timing and physicality.

Gosling plays Holland March, an alcoholic PI with questionable parenting skills who reluctantly teams up with muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). What begins as a low-rent missing persons case snowballs into an enormous conspiracy involving porn, the government, and the all-powerful auto industry.

Aah, 1977 – when everybody smoked, ogled women, and found alcoholism a laugh riot. Writer/director Shane Black puts this time machine quality to excellent use in a film that would have felt stale and rote during his Eighties heyday, but today it serves as an endlessly entertaining riff on all that was so wrong and so right about the Seventies.

9) 10 Cloverfield Lane

Less a sequel than a tangentially related piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane amplifies tensions with genuine filmmaking craftsmanship, unveiling more than one kind of monster.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes from a car crash handcuffed to a pipe in a bunker. Howard (John Goodman, top-notch as usual), may simply be saving her from herself and the apocalypse outside. Good natured Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) certainly thinks so.

Goodman is phenomenal, but Winstead and Gallagher prove, once again, to be among the strongest young actors working in independent film today.

Talented newcomer Dan Trachtenberg toys with tensions as well as claustrophobia in a film that finds often terrifying relevance in the most mundane moments, each leading through a mystery to a hell of a climax.

8) Deadpool

A thug with a quick wit, foul mouth, a likeminded girl, and quite possibly a ring pop up his ass, Wade Wilson has it all – including inoperable cancer, which sends him into the arms of some very bad doctors. The rest of the film – in energetically non-chronological order – is the revenge plot.

An utterly unbridled Ryan Reynolds returns as the titular Super (yes) Hero (no), and though the actor’s reserve of talent has long been debated, few disagree that his brand of self-referential sarcasm and quippage beautifully suits this character.

All the sarcastic cuteness can wear thin, but Deadpool does not stoop to hard won lessons or self-sacrificing victories. It flips the bird at the Marvel formula, turns Ryan Reynolds into an avocado, and offers the most agreeably childish R-rated film of the year.

7) Krisha

Krisha is not only a powerful character study awash in piercing intimacy, it is a stunning feature debut for Trey Edward Shults, a young writer/director with seemingly dizzying potential.

And then there’s the startling turn from Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s real-life Aunt, who after decades of scattershot film and voice work, delivers a jaw-dropping lead performance full of such raw authenticity you begin to feel you are treading where you don’t belong.

Expanding his own short film from 2014, Shults is remarkably assured in constructing his narrative. Nothing is spoon fed, rather we grasp what we know about Krisha and her family through guarded conversations and quiet, private moments. From the awkwardness of forced holiday small talk to the inevitable request for the “techy” relative to fix a computer, the scene is unmistakably real. Then, as old wounds become new, the film strikes with a humanity so deeply felt we expect to see our own faces in those family albums left out on the table.

Krisha is a timely reminder what undiscovered talents can achieve despite their limitations of budget, cast or location.

Here’s hoping we discover these two again soon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1njjaYizV1Q

 

 6) Zootopia

With Zootopia, Disney – not Pixar, not Dreamworks, but Disney proper – spins an amazingly relevant and of-the-moment political tale with real merit, and they do it with a frenetically paced, visually dazzling, perfectly cast movie.

In this astoundingly detailed, brilliantly conceived, and visually glorious urban mecca, prey and predator have long since given up their archaic, bloodthirsty ways in favor of peaceful coexistence. And while the adventure that follows is a vibrantly animated buddy cop mystery – smartly told and filled with laughs – the boldly expressed themes of diversity, prejudice, and empowerment are even more jaw dropping than the spectacular set pieces.

If you worry that Zootopia is a preachy liberal finger-wagger, fear not. It is simply the most relevant Disney film to come along in at least a generation.

5) Green Room

The tragic loss of 27-year-old talent Anton Yelchin makes this one bittersweet. Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). Bass guitarist Pat (Yelchin) eschews social media promotion for the “time and aggression” of live shows, and when he accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, Pat and his band find plenty of both.

Along with concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots), they’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.  It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint. What Green Room lacks in depth, it makes up in commitment to genre.

Only a flirtation with contrivance keeps Green Room from classic status. It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

 

4) The Jungle Book

Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s new live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.

The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.

Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.

All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the brilliant voice cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.

 

3) Midnight Special

Get to know Jeff Nichols. The Arkansas native is batting 1000, writing and directing among the most beautiful and compelling American films being made. His latest, Midnight Special, is no different. But then again, it is very, very different.

Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon, as well as Joel Edgerton, are armed men in a seedy motel. They have a child in tow (Jaeden Lieberher – wonderful). Local news casts a dark image of the trio, but there’s also a Waco-esque religious community looking for the boy, not to mention the FBI. So, what the hell is going on?

Nichols knows, and he invites your curiosity as he upends expectations.

Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.

You should.

2) The Lobster

How to describe The Lobster?

Imagining how Charlie Kaufman might direct a mashup of 1984 and Logan’s Run would get you in the area code, but still couldn’t quite capture director Yorgos Lanthimos’s darkly comic trip to a future where it’s a crime to be single.

Lanthimos, who also co-wrote the screenplay, crafts a film which ends up feeling like a minor miracle. The Lobster builds on themes we’ve seen before (most recently in Kaufman’s Anomalisa) but bursts with originality, while every setting looks at once familiar and yet like nothing we’ve ever known.

The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, each actor finding subtle but important variations in delivering the script’s wonderfully intelligent takedown of societal expectations.

It’s a captivating experience full of humor, tenderness, and longing, even before Lanthimos starts to bring a subversive beauty into soft focus. The Lobster pokes wicked fun at the rules of attraction, but finds its lasting power in asking disquieting questions about the very nature of our motives when following them.

1) The Witch

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

 

Bones to pick? Join the conversation on twitter @maddwolf!

Fright Club: Coming of Age Horror

For many – perhaps most – coming of age is a horror in and of itself, full of confusion, embarrassment, personality change, even blood. Which is why it is ripe fodder for horror, a genre that has plumbed the depths of adolescent despair for any number of monster movies, slashers, camping horrors, and nasty prom dates. Today we celebrate the unmitigated horror of burgeoning adulthood with our list of the five best Coming of Age horror films, with the help of Get It Together podcasters Pete Stroup and David Huff.

 

5. Ginger Snaps

Sisters Ginger and Bridget, outcasts in the wasteland of Canadian suburbia, cling to each other, and reject/loathe high school (a feeling that high school in general returns).

On the evening of Ginger’s first period, she’s bitten by a werewolf. Writer Karen Walton cares not for subtlety: the curse, get it? It turns out, lycanthropy makes for a pretty vivid metaphor for puberty. This turn of events proves especially provocative and appropriate for a film that upends many mainstay female cliches.

Walton’s wickedly humorous script stays in your face with the metaphors, successfully building an entire film on clever turns of phrase, puns, and analogies, stirring up the kind of hysteria that surrounds puberty, sex, reputations, body hair, and one’s own helplessness to these very elements. It’s as insightful a high school horror film as you’ll find, peppered equally with dark humor and gore.

 

 

4. Let the Right One In

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.

 

 

3. Carrie

The seminal film about teen angst and high school carnage has to be Brian De Palma’s 1976 landmark adaptation of Stephen King’s first full length novel, the tale of an unpopular teenager who marks the arrival of her period by suddenly embracing her psychic powers.

Sure the film opens like a ‘70s soft core porno, with images created by a director who has clearly never been in a girls’ locker room and therefore chose to depict the one in his dirty, dirty mind. But as soon as the bloody stream punctures the dreamlike shower sequence, we witness the definitive moment in Mean Girl Cinema. The “plug it up” refrain, coupled with Sissy Spacek’s authentic, even animalistic portrayal of panic, sets a tone for the film. Whatever Carrie may do, we (the voyeurs, no doubt more like the normal kids than like Carrie) are to blame.

This film exposes a panic about the onslaught of womanhood. The same panic informs <em>The Exorcist</em> and dozens of others, but De Palma’s version offers more sympathy than most. Spacek is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance.

 

 

2. It Follows

It Follows is a coming of age tale that mines a primal terror.  Yes, it’s the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.

Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

Mitchell borrows from a number of coming of age horror shows, but his film is confident enough to pull it off without feeling derivative in any way. The writer/director takes familiar tropes and uses them with skill to lull you with familiarity, and then terrify you with it.

 

 

1. The Witch

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of this film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

There William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) will raise their five children: the infant Samuel, young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), nearly adolescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the eldest, Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), nearly a woman now.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

 

Fright Club: Best Witch Movies

Can’t imagine what it was that inspired us to run through the best witch movies. Oh wait, it was the spellbinding and unsettling The Witch, that’s what it was. So, celebrate that film and many a Black Mass with us as we count down the best films about witches, and invite Junior Emmy-Winning Corresponding Mike McGraner to hash out the pros and cons of The Witch. Listen to the full brawl…er…podcast HERE.

5. Starry Eyes (2014)

Sarah (Alex Essoe) is an aspiring actress in LA and a bit of a delicate flower. She lives in a complex full of other aspiring actors, but she doesn’t hang out with them or participate in their low budget indie circle – they believe she thinks she’s too good for them. Then she auditions for a part, does some things on camera for the audition she regrets, behaves weirdly in the bathroom, and is invited to meet The Producer.

On the one hand, Starry Eyes offers an obvious plot about selling your soul for success, dressed in a cautionary tale about Hollywood. But the writing/directing team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer are much more sly than that. Yes, the insights they provide about the backbiting lowest rungs of the Hollywood ladder abound, but they are far more compassionate than what you routinely see.

Also fascinating is the clever use of the protagonist Sarah – she begins as our empathetic heroine, our vehicle through the daily degradation of trying to “make it.” But the filmmakers have more in store for her than this, and Essoe uncomfortably peels layer after layer of a character that is never fully what we expect.

Look for outstanding, witchy appearances by genre veteran Maria Olsen, as well as a spot-on Louis Dezseran. They will make you uncomfortable.

4. Suspiria (1977)

Italian director Dario Argenta is in the business of colorfully dispatching nubile young women. In Suspiria, his strongest film, American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) moves to Germany to join a dance academy, but the other dancers are catty and the school staff are freaks. Plus, women keep disappearing and dying.

As Suzy undertakes an investigation of sorts, she discovers that the school is a front for a coven of witches. But Argenta’s best film isn’t known for its plot, it’s become famous because of the visually disturbing and weirdly gorgeous imagery. Suspiria is a twisted fairy tale of sorts, saturating every image with detail and deep colors, oversized arches and doorways that dwarf the actors. Even the bizarre dubbing Argento favored in his earlier films works beautifully to feed the film’s effectively surreal quality.

It’s a gorgeous nightmare, bloody and grotesque but disturbingly appealing both visually and aurally (thanks to Argento’s go-to soundtrack collaborator, Goblin).

3. The Witches (1990)

Roald Dahl can spin the most wondrously dark tales for children, and the tale that fits that description best is The Witches. Directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man who Fell to Earth, Performance) from a screenplay adapted by Allan Scott, the film may pull a punch here or there, but it lands others unexpectedly.

Angelica Huston – always an imposing presence – leads a cast of witches whose dastardly plan to eliminate all the children in England is overheard by, well, a child in England. Now he has to save the world, even though they’ve turned him into a mouse.

While this is absolutely a family film, full of Honey I Shrunk the Kids style fun with the tiny mouse protagonist, plus a lot of slapstick humor, Huston is forever frightening, and the film takes an absolutely terrifying turn once all those witches remove their day-to-day faces.

No, The Witches may not be a true horror flick, but it was a terrifying experience for countless kids in 1990 and it definitely boasts some of the scariest witches in cinema.

2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Nearly 50 years after its release, this film remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell. Yes, that crazy pederast Roman Polanski sure can spin a yarn about violated, vulnerable females.

Back in ’69, Roman was interested in Rosemary Woodhouse, she of the fuzzy slippers who doesn’t want to be a bother. Tethered to aspiring actor/bad husband Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary moves into a Manhattan apartment building with a dark past and some peculiar neighbors.

Working from Ira Levin’s novel, Polanski takes all the glamour out of Satanism – with a huge assist from Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her turn as the highly rouged busybody Minnie Castevet.

By now we all know what happens to poor Rosemary, but when the film was released, thanks much to Mia Farrow’s vulnerable performance, the film boiled over with paranoid tension. Was Rosemary losing it, or was she utterly helpless and in evil hands? Not that Roman Polanski, of all people, can be trusted in such a situation.

1. The Witch (2015)

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism and radicalization roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

Every opportunity writer/director Robert Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.

Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

Pick Up Every Stitch

The Witch

by Hope Madden

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

There William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) will raise their five children: the infant Samuel, young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), nearly adolescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the eldest, Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), nearly a woman now.

Each performance is remarkable. The twins are enormously creepy and both parents are flawed in the most necessary and compelling ways. Young Scrimshaw offers layers and tenderness galore, leading to an astonishing scene it’s hard to imagine a child managing.

Still, it’s Taylor-Joy who not only anchors the film but gives it its vulnerable, burgeoning, ripening soul. She is flawless.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

Every opportunity writer/director Roger Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.

Though The Witch is Eggers’s first feature as filmmaker, his long career in art direction, production and costume design are evident in this flawlessly imagined and recreated period piece.

Equally important is the work of Eggers’s collaborators Mark Kovan, whose haunting score keeps you unnerved throughout, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. From frigid exteriors to candle-lit interiors, the debilitating isolation and oppressive intimacy created by Blaschke’s camera feed an atmosphere ripe for tragedy and for horror.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.