Thursday, December 27, 2018

Bird Box Holds Back Everything

Inevitably Bird Box will be compared to the far superior A Quiet Place. We have one sense removed while something lurks about killing everyone and causing the apocalypse. It features an aggressive and ferocious performance by Sandra Bullock (werk!) and a well-rounded cast playing fairly straightforward stereotypes. Nothing gets too deep here and that’s fine.

Horror movies are dependent on suspense and plot so not having fully formed characters is not a deal breaker. However the narrative structure, the jumbled story is told from three different time periods over five years, deflates much of that needed tension giving away crucial moments early on.

Plot wise the story lumbers on with no surprises but there’s blips where it almost gets interesting. Some filmmakers leave much to the imagination and like the survivors, not much is known about the force causing people to kill themselves. Again that’s fine. I don’t need to be spoon-fed answers. However, the restraint here reeks of an underdeveloped concept and really poor directing choices. How these beings operate is never fully revealed. Setting up rules is again one of those needed elements in a horror movie, which this very much is. Invisible supernatural beings that have corporal weight (bending trees and brush) that make you kill yourself firmly puts this in the horror category.

Moreover, movies are a visual medium. Just once, I wanted to get a glimpse of what a victim saw, perhaps at the climax of the film? This movie holds everything back. Without a true sense of the horror the victims experience, the actual impact falls flat. Imagine a vampire story where you never see a vampire - only puncture wounds and dead bodies. A zombie movie with no zombies. Doesn’t sounds like much fun, and there’s no pay off – another cardinal sin for a horror movie. Much like M, Night Shamealot’s abysmal film, The Happening, we have nothing to fear but the wind itself.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Best of 2018: Netflix's Chilling Sabrina and Haunted Hill House

Netflix has been on fire this Fall with not one but TWO fantastic series. Truth be told, many of Netflix’s original offerings have been middling at best so my expectations were not super enthusiastic for a teen witch reboot and yet another Hill House adaptation. Boy was I wrong, and a result I almost passed two of the best horror series ever. Here’s my thoughts on those.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

With the dirge of sitcom reboots cluttering the TV landscape, the last thing we needed was a redux of the campy teenage witch show. Thankfully we didn’t get that. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is wickedly entertaining and deliciously dark visual feast that reinterprets the original comic book into something truly special. Every shot is carefully composed on the screen with sumptuous sets,  darkly whimsical costumes, fish-eyed cinematography adds a disorienting touch, and the perfect cast embodies this vivid world. This is a fun ride that conjures quite a spell.

Conceived as a companion piece to the (often dark) CW show, Riverdale, this show creates its own fully realized world where witches are hidden in plain sight. The remarkable Kiernan Shipka plays the titular role, a teenager about to blossom into adulthood, whose very blood has been promised to the devil in exchange for great power and immortality. It means leaving all that she knows behind, including her friends, boyfriend and school, and it’s all just too much for this plucky and smart girl.

Evoking the devil-centric subgenre of 70’s horror movies, I was surprised at how unabashedly "satanic" the show is. Yet I wouldn’t say that it glorifies the devil since there’s a strong undercurrent of subversion going on. Capturing the zeitgeist exquisitely, it dares to question why the dark one (often referred to as a male) should subjugate witches (females) to his will. Throughout the season, both of Sabrina’s witchy aunts go against their sworn oaths and defy Satan, which leads to the greater question of where the loyalty of this coven lies. There’s a clear struggle of will, further complicated by the distinction made between humans and witches (as if they are a different species) and some puzzling, half-hearted attempts at wickedness.

This leads to one unexplainable fumble. Late in Part 1 characters seem to make a series of decisions that go against their very nature. Normally this kind of strife is good but some of those choices seemed motivated by furthering the plot along than staying true to the characters. This type of character manipulation evokes telenovela shenanigans instead of fully supported actions but perhaps more will be revealed in Part 2 (premiering in April 2019).

The Christmas Special (!!) which premiered Dec. 14 is a delightfully odd duck that takes a look a the darker side of the season and incorporates an interesting bit of folklore from Iceland. Again I'm confused by satanic witches celebrating the solstice with decorated trees, mountains of cookies, and a yule log but perhaps I'm too rooted in Christian traditions to fully recognize alternative pagan rituals. Personally, I would love to spend the evening at the Spellman house.

The Haunting of Hill House

The name Mike Flanagan may not  ring a bell, but he is the mastermind behind The Haunting of Hill House serving as the creator,  writer and director of all 10 episodes. He is also the director of Gerald’s Game, Hush, Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and the upcoming The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep. This guy just keeps knocking it out of the park in horror and has surpassed even the once interesting James Wan. The throughline is clear: he knows how to write scripts that are rooted in very real, deep emotional turmoil, and then films them beautifully in well orchestrated shots. Timing is everything in horror and he knows how to play the beats and stay ahead of the audience.

For these reasons, Hill House succeeds brilliantly first as a family drama that captures the audience and then when the story is well underway, scares them with the horrors inflected on them. Horror series are particularly difficult to pull off since they are episodic and have to repeat the beats over and over, closing the current arc after each episode. It’s almost impossible to maintain any momentum. Which is why binging this show in two or three episodes cycles really helps.

The structure of this story is also quite unique, jumping around in time and space but doing so in smart way that actually adds to the suspense and story (unlike every episode of American Horror Story that uses this same technique to delay gratification and with no artistry whatsoever). The first few episodes revolve around a specific character while fleshing out the exposition and slowly revealing the haunting. By the time you get to episode 5, a crucial horror is fully revealed in a surprising and thought provoking way. Episode 6 is a masterwork of filmmaking with long, uninterrupted takes which happen in both the present and past! We the rush through towards the finale that is both satisfying, emotional, and resolute, which is probably the most surprising part.

The most interesting aspect of this show is how good it is the second time around. A second viewing is requires not only to see all the connections you missed the first time, but also all the ghosts. Every episode has at least one ghost that lingers somewhere in the frame at some point. It’s a little creepy that they were there the first time I watched it and my conscious mind didn’t register it, my subconscious certainly did. Every episode was unsettling in subtle ways that I didn’t even comprehend so kudos to Flanagan for creating a truly unique experience.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Icelandic Christmas Folklore is Terrifying

The most surprising thing about my trip to Iceland this summer was not how shockingly expensive everything was, but the rich folklore that permeates the Icelandic culture. Most notably was the Christmas folklore of Gryla, the mountain witch, the Yule lads, and the infamous Yule Cat. For starters, Gryla is giant, hideous troll that lives deep in a cave on the side of a remote mountain and only sets off as Christmas approaches to snatch naughty children for her yuletide feast. Much like Krampus, Gryla has hooves instead of feet, two horns, and an eye in the back of her head. Lovely.

She also happens to be the mother of the yule lads, a lot of 13 petty and mischievous imps that each have a particular obsession with one thing. Among their compulsions is a pot licker, a door slammer, a yogurt glutton, a sausage stealer, a window peeper, and a door sniffer. They’re prankster trolls, but are also known to leave little presents for good children (or rotted potatoes for the bad ones) in shoes left on window sills for the 13 nights leading up to Christmas.

If all this wasn’t terrifying enough, Gryla is also accompanied by her pet know as the Yule Cat, an ill-tempered giant black cat that prowls around the town looking through windows. If you haven’t received at least one article of new clothing to wear on Christmas Eve, he will take you and eat you. Those socks from grandma aren’t looking too shabby now, right?

I learned much of the folklore on the Haunted Walk of Reykjavik and perused the many gift shops in the downtown area. Even in the middle of summer I found lots of interesting black cat ornaments, stuffed toys, books, and sweaters. I found out that even adults who don't entertain such "fancy stories" would never be caught without new clothing on Christmas day. "Rather be safe... just in case it's true," said the shopkeeper with a smile at Jolahusid, the best Christmas shop in Reykjavik.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Gruss Vom Krampusnacht

Illustration by James Bousema
Krampus is the goat-man demon that accompanies Santa Claus in Central European folklore to punish the bad children. What? Did you think Nicholas, that saint, would get his hands dirty? While the origins of such a figure remains a mystery, experts believe it predates Christianity and has been considered as troubling in many regions. In Austria, Krampus was labeled “evil” and prohibited early in the 20th century. True he carries birch branches to whip the children and a basket to collect them and take them to the underworld for dinner so its entirely reasonable to have qualms.

Nonetheless, celebrations persist from Krampus festivals to parades and bonfires where participants don horned masks and furry costumes to amuse and terrify onlookers. This culminates on December 5’s Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night, which is the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas, which brings equivalent Christmas Day celebrations with gifts and food. Many regional variations exist but the message is always the same: be good or else you’re lunch meat for demons.

American awareness and celebration of Krampus is growing steadily. From books of vintage Krampus postcards (Krampuskarten featuring "Gruss Vom Krampus" or Greetings from Krampus), to novels, to a major motion picture (2015’s Krampus) the horned devil is taking hold. Columbia, SC, Portland, OR, Olmsted Falls, OH, Bloomington, IN, Philadelphia, PA, Rochester, NY, Los Angeles, CA, and of course New Orleans, LA all have notable Krampus celebrations. There was even a Krampus musical in Minneapolis, MN!

It’s clear that this yuletide demon is not for everyone, but why do so many people love it? It is counterculture rebellion at the most wonderful time of the year? Is our fascination with all things magical and fantastic beasts? Ahem, is it a refusal to let Halloween go? Maybe it's just kind of fun to see creatures stirring in the night. To learn more I recommend two books (both available on Amazon): The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas by Al Ridenour and Contemporary Krampus: A Modern Look at An Ancient Legend by Mike Drake.

Have a scary (and safe with all that fire) Krampusnacht!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Terrified is One of the Year's Best Horrors

Terrified (Atterados) is an Argentinian horror film making it’s debut on the Shudder streaming service and it is one of the best and most terrifying movies of the year. (This film is not be confused with the film, Terrifier featuring one bad clown.)

Strange occurrences bring three investigators to a sleepy suburban neighborhood in Buenos Aires in search of paranormal evidence of a strange phenomena. The set up sounds mundane, I know, but the ensuing chaos multiples the dread, consistently delivers scares, and the horror it delivers veers well off into bizarre territory that evokes movies like Insidious, Event Horizon, and In the Mouth of Madness.

This is one efficient, tension-filled horror movie that hits the ground running from the very first scene and does not let you catch your breath. As the gruesome events mount, you never have a chance to consider all that is happening and like many unexplained mysteries much is left in the dark. The film is plot centric with very little character development and the story at best can be described as thin. You will need some imagination (it knows what scares you) to fill in the gaps. None of this however spoils the otherworldly atmosphere the movie creates, aided by the marvelous cinematography, unique sound design, and perfectly timed practical effects. I can only hope this is a first entry to a series of films. They seem to have so many sights to show us.

As a “Shudder Original” it’s tied to the streaming service and wonder if it has a chance to beget a cult following. For starters, it won the best horror feature at this year’s Fantastic Fest. and reported last week that Guillermo del Toro is producing an American remake of the film. Don’t let the Spanish language stop you from seeing Terrified now. No American film will ever recreate two particularly effective but disturbing scenes here – I can practically hear the pencils snapping in two at the MPAA.