Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Satanic Panic!

Cult Movies

(I never quite finished writing this post but I figured I'd throw it up anyway...)

By 'Cult Movies' I mean movies about cults... spooky, creepy, weird, dangerous cults.
Movies about singular demons and possessions don't as often work on me, probably because such beliefs aren't part of my upbringing. The thing under my bed was some uncaring and unaligned ghoul with a taste for toes... just hungry, not 'evil'.
The reason cult movies work on me where demons fail is probably because my father was always something of a conspiracy buff... the Republicans, the Jews, the Government... they were all up to something... and it usually, eventually, got around to including UFOs as well.
So vague fears of strangers who mean you harm. That always get under my skin.
I think the first movie about a cult that I remember seeing was Race With The Devil (1975). Two families in a motorhome (my family had a motorhome) trying to escape a bunch of weirdos after witnessing a late night human sacrifice. Not a great movie but it's got a building paranoia to it as the protagonists (and the viewers) begin to suspect that everyone they run into is in on the hunt.
Others that worked on me as a kid were all along the quality spectrum. While I might think something like The Devil's Rain (1975) was ridiculous some other piece of junk like Equinox (1970) would be keeping me up late for a week. Rosemary's Baby (1968) was creepy but I think a lot of it went over my head as a kid... and was Rosemary herself ever really in danger (well, other than the whole 'raped by Satan' thing...)? I mean, everyone seems pretty OK at the end. Right?

Happily, there are a lot of movies that aren't specifically about cults but work on those same fears.
A good number of vampire movies seem to present the idea of a creeping threat as your friends and neighbors turn into something else and come looking for you. Some of the Hammer Dracula movies depicted Dracula as a former/wannabe leader of a cult of the undead. Similarly, Salem's Lot (1979) had a good bit of the cult elements at work in it. 
Zombie movies can also work on much the same level. Groups of malevolent strangers all around you.

I suppose it works on our common insecurities. Fear of the crowd. Fear of being singled out. Being alone.
 As a kid I saw a TV clip of a woman being chased by seemingly cheerful partygoers in weird makeup. A bizarre game of 'tag'? That clip stayed with me for years until I managed to track down the movie it was from, Carnival of Souls (1962). Not exactly a 'cult' movie but still hitting a lot of the same notes.
Right around that time I also saw Night of the Living Dead (1968)... even less of a cult movie but still hitting that fear of crowds.
The same goes for any movies depicting unseen 'others' among us ala They Live (1988)... really though, Society (1989) is my favorite for that sort of freakout. 

Political conspiracy movies can be really effective at raising those fears as well.
3 Days of the Condor (1975), and The Parallax View (1974) both push those buttons for me. Just because they're not worshipping Satan/Cthulhu/Mother Nature doesn't mean they're not sinister and dangerous and EVERYWHERE.

Smaller cults, like the ones in Red State (2011) and the one segment of V/H/S/2 (2013), still get to me, but they work more on my fears of religious zealots, rather than my paranoid delusions about crowds of faceless strangers.

So what, IMO, makes a good cult movie? Why do the robed mutants in Omega Man (1971) make me laugh while the single normal-looking girl at the end of Equinox still creeps me out?

Well, for one thing, I like the cult to remain mysterious.
The cult in The Nameless (1999) are literally a nameless pack of strangers. It's never made clear what they believe or what they do to their victims. Their numbers and motivations are never defined.
Similarly The Seventh Victim (1943) doesn't give the audience too much time with its Satan worshippers. What we see of them is fairly mundane. Just bored socialites playing with the occult, but there is a suggestion of more under the surface.
Kristy (2014) was alright-ish but the best bit for me was during the opening credits, suggestions rather than details regarding the cult's size and motivations. The idea that this was happening in other cities pushed it up out of it's otherwise blah storyline.

Also, I want the threat to be... threatening. Omnipresent and omniscient like the one in Race With The Devil maybe... and at least a bit bizarre.  
The Brotherhood Of Satan (1977) works for me on that level. Despite the cultists themselves being kind of zany, their methods and goals are spooky and weird. Almost, but not quite, comical.  
The Mephisto Waltz (1971) is another that works for me on the bizarre angle. Its cultists are weirdos and aim to do strange things with your body; similar to the cultists in The Skeleton Key (2005), Jug Face (2013), and Martyrs (2008).

It shouldn't be a group you could just run away from or tell the authorities about, but I'm fine if its victim profile specifically counts me out.  
Martyrs cultists seem pretty normal, probably no threat at all as long as you're not a young woman. The happy island village of The Wicker Man (1973) would be a nice vacation spot so long as you're not a virgin. 

Cults can be seductive though. 
Given the choice of being sacrificed or joining the cults in The Wicker Man, The Ninth Gate (1999) and Spellbinder (1988) I don't think I'd have much difficulty. Generally, it's scarier for me if the cult remains a group I would NOT want to belong to. Groups like the ones depicted in Children of Sorrow (2012) or The Nameless.

The most recent cult movies I've seen have been Penumbra (2011), Ritual (2013), and The Invitation (2015). All of them ranked pretty high for me for different reasons.

Penumbra was just odd fun. The main protagonist isn't all that likeable while the cultists are kind of kooky but interesting. The cult isn't huge and we do get a lot of face time with them. While their details and motivations remain sketchy there is a sense of history to them. Like watching a class reunion, it comes across that these people have known each other for a while and none of the sinister goings-on are new to them. In this way they're similar to the cultists in Lord of Illusions (1995) who were like aging hippies returning to their summer of love.

Ritual appealed to me because its atmosphere. It's very successful at creating the atmosphere of being on the edge of some desert town late at night. It's cultists are very ordinary and their conversations swing easily between daily concerns and tales of previous year's rituals and hunts for victims. It's a bit of dark comedy in places and while it doesn't inspire paranoia or work on my fear of zealots it did build on the fear of falling foul of groups of strangers who might otherwise seem safe and friendly under. Like that moment when you find a body in the trunk of your neighbor's car. There are loads of other horror films that are similar to it... stuff like Kristy, Vacancy (2007), and Ils (2006)... which can be decent, probably scarier, but Ritual has a certain charm, it's gleefully gruesome in ways that most of those others lack.

The Invitation was the most recent of the cult films I've watched and, while fairly obvious in its movements, I really liked it. The script was refreshingly free of cliched nonsense like "Everything is going to be OK", the acting was a bit better than a lot of horror fare, and the final moments of the film go down in a surprisingly plausible way. The heroes are not action heroes and the villains are not omnicient, they're not even all that malevolent. 
It's not really scary at all, but some moments are VERY tense and it left me ruminating on its creepier implications. 
Again, it's not a paranoia movie bit it did hit me with the crazed zealot vibe, those smiling friends who just want to share their revelation with you. In fact even the 'normal' people in the movie were a bit too 'California' for me to be immediately comfortable with them. The cult itself remains mysterious and it's motivations are oddly friendly, like a new age weirdo trying to give you a hug you REALLY don't want. Good stuff.

October Horror 2016

I'm going to try to do this again... maybe I'll get farther than previous years.
I don't really have a list going in, but I've got my watchlist on IMDB to scour for stuff I've yet to see. The thing is, a lot of it is going to be tricky finding. A lot of it is small/indie or foreign or old... NONE of it is likely to be found on Netflix.
There are still serious gaps in early 70s horror for me... and there's lots of Asian horror I've yet to delve into. Probably some giallo and spanish horror as well. In a pinch I could go for some old Luchador stuff. If I get really desperate there's the various mid 90s horror franchises I avoided first time around... and truthfully, I've only seen a few each of the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare movies. Slasher's just aren't my thing... so there's a lot of that stuff I haven't touched.
Hopefully I fall across more hidden gems like Absentia and June 9th... but again, they're not at the Redbox or Netflix... so even if I hear of them, tracking them down will be iffy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

This Old Boring House

Like a lot of horror fans I find myself spending more time scanning the lists of streaming horror than I do watching the fear-fests they claim to present.
A long time back I stopped falling for the lure of anything with 'zombie' in the title. The only zombie films I'm willing to try these days are overt comedies like the Dead Snow movies.
Also, I'm generally avoiding anything sporting cannibal hillbillies (unless they're in France), slashers, demonic possession and haunted dolls.
I'm still quite gullible regarding witch cults, weird parasites, fairy tale creatures and plain old bizarre setups for disaster.
Generally I'm more inclined to supernatural or 'weird' horrors than I am the mundane and purely gorey sorts.
So, I'm kind of surprised to find myself losing interest in most of the haunted house offerings I'm seeing these days.
I was good on the first Insidious... even the first Paranormal Activity film... but the last several 'spooky house' movies I've watched have been pretty played out. I find myself just yawning till the next jump scare. I've watched my way through most of the better Japanese ghost films... and those are fun... but again, they seem to end up being the same bag of tricks rearranged.
My tastes have definitely drifted toward 'the weird'. I've been reading lots of Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco and Robert Aickman. Not necessarily 'scary' but definitely haunting... stuff that sticks with me long after I'm done reading. Sadly I'm not coming across many films that capture that feel. Maybe it's something that doesn't translate well to film.
I'd like to find a new Eraserhead or another Banshee Chapter to watch... Bellflower wasn't really horror in the usual sense but it put me in the same zone as The Snowtown Murders and the first season of True Detective. The best ghosts I've seen lately were in my recent binge-watch of Carnivale and its cursed town of Babylon, Texas. Haunting and sad... frightening without jump scares.
Maybe I'm tired of movies trying desperately to scare me when what I want them to do is haunt me and leave me feeling that old Chapel Perilous doubt of my perceptions.
That's harder to do and not something the average U.S. audience can sit still for these days. But that's what I'm hunting for at the moment.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Return to Boggy... oh, wait...

Last night a friend and I watched Willow Creek... Bobcat Goldthwaite's (!) love song to Bigfoot and The Blair Witch Project. I liked it quite a bit... slowly building dread... a long sustained scene of encroaching horror... a sudden chaotic mess of violent weirdness before the darkness... and then some crappy music over the credits that kinda shit all over the mood but... meh, up to the end credits I was firmly on its side.
Anyway... my point isn't to review the thing... it comes down whether you hate found footage movies or micro-budget horror or anything that requires an attention span and imagination (no, you do NOT get to see the monsters)... if so this one isn't going to please. On the other hand... if you love The Blair Witch Project, June 9, Bigfoot in general... or movies that take their time telling the tale... maybe it's worth a watch.
The thing I thought was worth discussing about this one, besides the fact that I found it pretty scary, is that up until the very final moments... and mostly after it was over... I hadn't found it creepy. Scary... but not creeeeepy. And then I did.
From here on it's all about the ending... so... lots of spoilers... so... whatever.

The thing is... at the end of the movie... amidst running and screaming and unseen monsters and weird inhuman noises... there's this woman. A naked woman.
You'd heard her a bit earlier in the film... and maybe seen a photo of her on a missing poster in the diner. She whimpers and jabbers out in the darkness and you're not really sure until that brief glimpse that it's a human woman you hear... but it is.
She just standing there. Huge and naked and obviously a bit past sanity.
Only a glimpse. But it changes the context on much of what came before it... and made the movie haunt me for a good while after.
Being naked is important here... because if she'd been fully clothed it would have implied something much different. 
See, up until that naked mumbling woman showed up I was pretty firmly expecting that this wasn't really about Bigfoot at all... that it was angry mountain folk exacting revenge on the city folk for nosing around in their woods. There would be a violent beatdown... but it would come from fists and axe handles and maybe a gun... and would probably involve rape and/or cannabilism of at least one of the protagonists if not both.
Just saying that was my guess... it seemed reasonable because if the movie just ended up with the couple being smacked by a hairy claw... that would seem kind of anti-climactic, even if it was in fact a climax (and maybe it was just a bear, yeah?)

So anyways... there's this naked woman. Out in the woods, in the darkness, just standing there like she's in a daze.
The obvious implication is that Bigfoot (Bigfeet? The movie implies there's a bunch of them) kidnaps human women... but kills human males (so sorry birthday boy... but at least your beliefs were vindicated).

Now... here's the second squicky aspect of that ending. Earlier in the movie the female of the couple, who has no interest or belief in Bigfoot at all, makes several jokes about Bigfoot's sex organ. How big it must be and whatnot. At one point she mock strokes the (non-existent) penis of a wooden Bigfoot statue.
This seemed like pretty standard joking around early in the movie when it all seems a lark... but seeing that naked woman in the woods... and the final sounds of that girlfriend screaming out in the darkness... followed by multiple howls of her captors... well, there's not much way around the idea that she was about to get up close and personal with cryptozoology in a way she (and I) never expected.
Captured and raped... probably gang-raped... by monsters.
It's a horrid, lurid thought... and in a way a really really black bit of humor giveb her earlier comments about the big hairy guy's privates.
It's creepy... it's horror. It bothers me. That's good right?
So is this a successful horror movie? I guess so... it scared me... then it creeped me out... and it's a bit squicky as well. Not that the idea of monsters raping women is anything new... implied or not. Humanoids From The Deep did it in the Wayback with a whopping lot more exploitation dolloped on top.
The idea of Bigfoot running off with women isn't anything new either.

So should I be 'offended' by this movie? Bothered about Mr. Goldthwaite's choices and such? Is there some nasty undertone of something here? Not that a WHOLE LOT of horror films don't pack in the overt misogyny. But I guess I'm not sure if I should identify this as one of those... or not. There's no exploitation angle... no shots of horny Bigfoot. That one shot of the nude woman in the wood is NOT something I imagine any normal male could build a house with.

I'm also on the record for thinking that modern horror films often shy away from sexual horror, particularly when it obviously SHOULD part of the story.
Chief on that list would be the Hostel movies... because it just seemed so damn weak that they failed to address what very likely would have gone down in those filthy little rooms before the final cut/drill/saw. And I don't mean just to the female victims. 
Sure, there are lots of nude women in horror films... and there's often some sexual predation on the minds of the hillbilly cannibals or mutants or whatever is chasing them... but it hardly ever comes to pass. Male characters are generally pretty safe from anything rapey happening to them at all.
Compare that to a rarefied something like Calvaire... where the protagonist seems to generate unrequited lust in everyone he meets... and DOES get the blunt end of it eventually.
Things seem wilder in 70s horror... could something like They Came From Within even get made nowadays? Maybe/probably? Even if it did those little girls on leashes would NOT be there.

I'm not saying I WANT to see rape and other genital nastiness in horror... but when it really should be present and it blatantly isn't... AND yet tosses in loads of topless women in the non-horror sequences... what's that about?
So... circling back to Willow Creek... yeah, I guess it makes total sense and feels appropriate that the female protagonist ends up in THAT sort of awfulness. It's a much more shocking and confrontational ending than anything else I can think of. The movie didn't pull its punches and I appreciate that. Even if it does leave me feeling a pretty icky.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

More October horror!

So... more with the October horror viewings... 

After The Whip and the Body I was in the mood for more Mario Bava... if I could find something I hadn't seen... so I remembered this:

Lisa and the Devil... which I think I must have skipped over because of the presence of Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas... which is of course silly of me. Did Telly start his lollypop thing with this movie or with Kojack (started the same year)?
I was never a huge Telly Savalas fan but I think he's just right here. Not too malevolent, not too comical. The lollipop thing is a bit distracting though.
I particularly liked the music and opening credits in this one, very 70s... and the atmosphere/sets are great. The plot is a bit of a mystery... reminding me both of Nightmare Castle and Carnival of Souls. I love anything that hints at old forgotten tragedies reaching out from the past... sad/tragic horror, which is what this is. The basic tale is pretty easily discerned but murky in the details... which I'm fine with and somewhat expect in Italian horror. My only real complaint is the location of the very end... which kind of takes it out of its otherwise solidly gothic mood.

Next up I watched:

I'd been wanting to see Deliver us from Evil for a while and finally got the chance. Its idea of a rash of demonic possessions had me thinking of Rec and Fallen... which I had liked a lot. Once it got started it was obvious they were going after the style of Seven... with near constant rain and darkness and filth... a theme of madness and corruption (one of the secondary characters even has the seven deadly sins tattooed on his upper back). It's an obvious 'homage' but they did it well and the first three quarters of the film are genuinely creepy.
Where I lost interest was in that last quarter when the mystery has been pretty much solved and the films shifts over into Exorcist territory. The Bible and crucifix come out for the big exorcism extravaganza we knew was coming. For whatever reason (maybe my not being Catholic) this sort of stuff never much works on me and I found it all a bit ho hum. Not scary... and fairly predictable.
Pretty good horror flick though. 

Last night I finally got around to watching:

I'd heard mention of Banshee Chapter in some of the darker internet holes I frequent. Probably in some vague connection to Slenderman and the Marble Hornets videos (which it kindasorta reminded me of). 
It's a weird/uneven movie, stylistically... jumping in and out of 'found footage' and traditional styles. It probably moves a bit faster than it should have. Obviously low budget but doing a lot with what its got. 
It made me jump at least once and set up a very creepy tone that lasted after it was over. A lot of that lingering fear was due to the wise choice of never defining or showing what exactly the threat was. There are various suggestions... and Lovecraft is pulled in at one point (the movie is basically a re-imagining of his story From Beyond)... but the extent and nature of the 'monsters' is left mostly to our imagination, which MUCH better for me than whatever CGI fest we would have gotten if someone had rained cash on the production.
I think the low budget really helped the atmosphere in general... many of the spaces feel quite real (because they are) and not like sets at all.
Outside of the atmosphere, by far the best thing going for Banshee Chapter is having Ted Levine along as a Hunter S. Thompson/William S. Burroughs avatar. His performance brought the whole thing up several notches for me. I've seen some folks complain that his character brought too much comedy... but for me it was the sort of humor that just makes the scary parts even scarier.
Uneven and quirky but I really enjoyed this one. 

Next up I'm going to try to get back to more gothic fare... my original plan was to stick to movies I hadn't seen and which exemplified atmosphere and ghoulish fun over gore and outright violence... Wolf Creek 2 was my only big step off that path so far... so no more serial killers.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

October Movie Challenge... worse and better

Despite the fact that for the past couple days all I've watched were more old episodes of Dark Shadows (which I'm enjoying but not feeling inspired to write about) I was inspired to keep posting after reading Undead Johnny over on The World Of The Weird Monster Blog... 

So tonight I watched this:

I knew nothing about it, picked it mostly because of the title (being a sucker for anything with Witchdoctor in the title) and the kindasorta 'grindhouse' poster art. 
Anyway, it was utter crap... so why waste any space on it?

Really, utter crap.

So... to wash that bad taste outta my brain I moved on with another something I'd never seen but had little doubt would be much better:

And... it was indeed much much better. Hard to go wrong with Mr. Bava and Mr. Lee and loads of creepy gothic atmosphere.
I'd certainly heard of The Whip And The Body... and love Mario Bava's films... but had somehow never gotten around to watching this one.
It might just be residue from too much Dark Shadows but Christopher Lee here reminded me quite a bit of freshly decanted Barnabas Collins... no fangs but cruel and conniving.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

So once again I'm trying to do the October horror challenge and watch a new-to-me horror film each day of the month.
So far I've kept up despite not having written about them... so... catching up:

Oct 1st. I Vampiri. A B&W Italian horror with Mario Bava's influences all over it. It's got a 'vampire', a mad scientist, a resurrected corpse, a dungeon full of skeletal victims, a creepy castle w/ nearby creepy crypt accessible by secret passageways, nubile coed victims, determined reporters and an electronic gargoyle burglar alarm.
The story is nothing special but that's more than made up for by all the gonzo elements at play.

Oct 2nd. The Demon. Another old B&W Italian movie. This one is much more cinema verite... most of the cast seem to be non-actors and there are no overt FX or gore to be seen. The sets seem to be real buildings though in some cases I wondered why people were living in what appeared to be ruins.
Here it's the story that's of main interest. A young woman named Purif is romantically obsessed with a local stud named Antonio... based on some earlier roll in the hay it seems. Purif goes a bit nutty when she learns that Antonio intends on marrying another local girl and sets out to put a curse on him that will either ruin him or bring him to her arms.
I'm not real clear on what Antonio has against Purif, she's the definitely the prettiest girl in town and has a load more personality than the bland woman he's betrothed to.
Anyway, the curse leads to the rest of the townsfolk wanting to chase Purif out of the village. Purif herself gets so distraught over Antonio's wedding that she tries to chase a herd of goats into the church and then... appears to become possessed.
At some point she has a chat with a dead boy... undergoes and exorcism that might include being raped by a priest... does the Linda Blair spider-walk (a decade before Linda did)... and generally acts like a bit of a loon.
The scary/creepy stuff is a combination of Purif's bizarre behavior and the rampant old world superstitions of the townspeople. Purif might just be insane but the local nuns just seem to think she's got a bad attitude... meanwhile the townies are running through the streets with burning branches looking for her.
This one is kind of bleak and doesn't have much nice to say about rural Italy.

Oct 3rd. On the mention of someone in my reading group I watched Wolf Creek 2... which I'd been avoiding after only barely enjoying the first one.
The first one played a bit coy with its villain, not giving him all that much screen time and kind of lulling you into thinking he might be an OK guy to have a beer with. The sequel just drops all pretenses of such mystery and puts him on camera, spouting wise-cracks, every chance it gets.
In the original the guy was menacing, creepy, mysterious... a decent monster. In this one he's just fucking annoying. I kept hoping someone would manage to kill him, or at least break his jaw... but that obviously wasn't in the cards.
Another thing that bugged me was how the sequel felt the need to be much BIGGER... we've got Mick driving all over the outback, shooting random locals and police... using a semi truck as a torpedo, riding a horse into the sunset, showing off his fancy new tunnels of terror complete with pit traps and attack dogs. It's MORE not less. 
About midway I was actually considering turning it off and looking for something less stupid... but then it kind of got better... or less bad... as it closed frame and got up close and personal between the two leads. Still not good, but less annoying... and I made it to the end.
I fully expect the next installment to have Mick on a Carribean cruise ship or maybe in space.

Oct 4th. I kind of copped-out here and watched the first several episodes of the original Dark Shadows... which were new to me since I'd only seen later episodes and even on Netflix they usually only have the later episodes from Barnabas onwards. I've always had a soft spot for the show... despite it's soap opera failings... and it's fun watching the pre-Barnabas episodes, knowing that Barnabas was only ever intended to be a brief storyline, not the primary protagonist he became.