Strange Vistas


The Endless movie poster

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

That quote has become so threadbare that by now it is the horror equivalent to the fading sign at a decrepit funhouse warning the faint of heart away.

There is truth in it, though, and the line itself encapsulates Lovecraft's output well. He was terrified of the unknown, as defined by anything he wasn't comfortable with, and it showed in his literature – whether this discomfort came from the depths of the sea, foreigners with accents he didn't grasp, or people with different skin color. Lovecraft has become associated more with the tentacle-twisting, sanity-melting that became more fashionable as special effects became cheaper, but his characters were more likely to recover from encountering Dagon than from marrying anyone but a white protestant girl and embarrassing their family.

This is the type of dread that The Endless goes for.

Brothers Justin and Aaron receive a Betamax tape in the mail containing a message from Camp Arcadia, a death cult they escaped ten years earlier. It arrives just at the time that Aaron is getting fed up with the dreary tedium of their bare survival. At his insistence, the brothers take a break from cleaning people's houses, boiling packaged ramen, and going to deprogramming therapy, so that they can check if their old friends are still alive. Justin dragged them both out of there, convinced the cult members were about to kill themselves to “ascend”, so how come they are still around a decade later?

Aaron wants to reclaim the past he sees through idealized memories. Justin wants to humor him, but you can tell that – at least partly – he wonders if he made the right call.

They encounter the suspiciously pleasant and accommodating cult members they escaped, who not only have managed to not “ascend” but not age, and don't exactly look worth escaping.

Until things start getting a wee bit unnatural.

The Endless is what a disciplined, cosmic-inclined David Lynch would come up with, and I was so stuck on my preconceptions that I almost missed out on enjoying it.

Benson and Moorhead don't do horror – what they do is supernaturally-flavored drama. They are resourceful, too. The Endless feels like their largest production and it doesn't feature anyone you'd recognize, keeping it so low-key that the pair stars as Justin and Aaron, likely to save the budget for more expensive things.

The trouble with writing these pieces is that it changes how you watch movies. Often, you sit down to see a movie while a few hundred words coalesce in your head about how something matched against what you expected of it. You are not appreciating the ride as much as you are chronicling its major turns.

I came into The Endless expecting a fun romp, a slightly less deranged The Void on a shoestring budget. I was writing even before the credits came up, mostly around its being a prosaic approach to a supernatural mystery (which I didn't mean as unimaginative but as commonplace or unromantic).

Then it hit me that was not what they were going for. Benson and Moorhead, who had also created Spring, get a thrill out of setting the brothers' story against what might be a Shub-Niggurathian backdrop, but they spend as much time with the family struggle as they do with the metaphysical mechanics around camp.

Did Justin make their last decade unnecessarily harder by letting his preconceptions get the best of him? Does Aaron belong there more than in a city? Have Justin's prejudices against an oddball religion and I-know-better-ness irreparably damaged the relationship?

Those are more important questions than what exact brand of weirdos the camp members might be.

#theendless #horror #drama #justinbenson #aaronmoorhead

Poster for Mandy

I saw Mandy early this year. I scribbled on my notebook as I was watching it, transcribed the notes a day or two later, then let the file sit in a folder for months.

I can put some of that on switching sites. I wasn't sure if I was going to continue writing but knew it wasn't going to be at Tumblr. When I started back in here, I had a long queue of things to get through (still do), and a discipline to rebuild (ditto).

Mostly, though, it's that doing one of these requires recapturing a movie's feeling, and with Mandy that feeling was a thick, oily unpleasantness I was in no hurry to taste again.

Mandy is what you do when you need to try heroin so you can hate it yet don't want to take the drug yourself, an electronic moving picture mix of William Blake and Richard Corben.

We can call it a revenge movie. Red Miller (Nicholas Cage, frantic, feral) lives in the woods with his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, disheveled, doomed). The woods are both home and asylum, as both seem to have traumatic and violent pasts. There is peace for them in the mountains, but it doesn't last, as they get dragged into the libidinous machinations of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache, lascivious, languid), a Manson-like mix of charm and insecurity. When that is done, Red goes on a revenge rampage.

Anything I write could be a spoiler yet nothing could prepare you for how the movie feels when the plunger slams into the syringe and the movie turns into the bad trip version of an 80s metal album cover. Sex-obsessed cult leaders, redneck cenobites, mystical militia negroes, makeshift medieval weapons, and the Nicholas Cage-iest scene Cage has ever made, wading through a nightmarish miasma awash in red and purple hues, scored by Tangerine Dream's long-lost deranged twin.

It makes you feel dirty about having ever lost control, while simultaneously making it an alluring siren song.

It's memorable, it's well crafted, and it has some moments of pure gonzo. It will embed itself in your brain, which is both a recommendation and a warning.

#mandy #panoscosmatos #revenge #horror #nicholascage #andreariseborough #linusroache

Radhika Apte in Ghoul

A movie's autochthonous nature needs to come from more than its setting or cast or direction. It needs to permeate the whole.

There's nothing inherently Indonesian about The Raid, for example. It's set there, and the entire cast is Indonesian, but writer-director Gareth Evans is Welsh. Its pacing is Western – nay, American – and its setting would translate to any other city where crime has metastasized. If you need any other indication of its universality, you can consider how its theme and structure transferred blow-by-blow to Dredd's decaying future North America.

Contrast it with Wong Kar-Wai's In the mood for love, which is not only undeniably Chinese but couldn't be mistaken as anything other than a Hong Kong movie. Its mis-en-scène smacks of back alleys and steamy dumpling shops and steak restaurants that have seen better days, even if photographed by an Australian. Wong's brand of platonic relationships is rooted not only in place but time – he aims to convey the spirit of 1960s Hong Kong – to the extreme that it didn't translate where he tried his hand at capturing Americana.

Throw Ghoul into that whole discussion. It's set in a future, radicalized India, where the Hindu majority considers Muslims to be an infectious vector for terrorism, drags them away for “re-conditioning” and forces those that remain to burn the books connecting them to their past. Even children's stories must go into the too-on-the-nose bonfires.

Maybe if they weren't so busy burning folk talks they would have learned about the movie's namesake, which comes from Arabic myth: the anthropophagus who could turn into the last victim it had devoured.

The ghoul is repurposed here as a spirit of vengeance, haunting a secret prison where police drag suspected Muslim agitators off to so the army can torture confessions out of them. It's a good setting for a labyrinthine cavern, all concrete tunnels and blacked out windows so that prisoners don't have a chance of even getting a hint of the passage of time.

It seemed like a good idea back when the soldiers were in control.

Netflix bills it as a mini-series, but it feels like a movie split into three 45-minute chunks. It's surprisingly restrained, for something with its critter in the marquee. It takes its time, not bringing out the monster right away, even if everyone involved senses there's something amiss. We spend that time with individuals who have been indoors too long, push each other's buttons trying to edge out an advantage, revealing their characters in the process. That pays off when it comes time to let the creature loose – we have a better sense of the people getting chowed down on.

But it doesn't come across as native. It's got a strong Hindi accent, but it might as well be set in Texas.

At least as an outsider, there's nothing that feels Indian about it. There are some color splashes – at a roadblock, a character attempts to hide his bag under a jacket, and prompts the challenge “What do you have there? Books? Beef?”. But when it gets down to plot or characters, everyone but the monster feels like they could be anywhere else.

It oversimplifies the country, making it Hindu vs. Muslim and ignoring the other minorities. While those are the two larger groups, you could also take that situation and transplant it to the United States – specially in the current climate. There's no other politics or flavor or touches that make it feel rooted in a culture.

That's not against its suspense chops. When it comes down to building tension, seeding doubt, making you guess, the miniseries does its job well. In fact, it executes well enough to make you wish it was less Blumhouse and more Bollywood, just so you could see something you haven't seen before.

#ghoul #horror #india #blumhouse #garethevans #patrickgraham #hongkong #wongkarwai

Get Out's main character, screaming

Catherine Keener, wearing her best shark face, is the scariest thing about Get Out. She looks just like my mother.

Trust a white guy to make a black horror movie write-up all about him.

Here's the issue, though. There's cultural and personal nerves I feel comfortable playing for fiddles. I am all for expounding about what writing says about the writer. But it should tell you how clearly Get Out comes from a place of being black in the U.S. that I don't feel like talking about that aspect of it at all.

Chris Washington and his girlfriend Rose travel to her family's countryside estate. She's white. He's not. Even as an educated black man who – by all appearances – can make a decent living out of art, he's self-conscious about that difference. They have to call a cop to report an accident and there's a defensiveness to him, a desire to comply, that Rose tries to shake him out of.

Then they meet her parents. Wealthy, successful, old money on top of everything else. They doth protest too much about being hip with their daughter dating a black guy. I mean, how could you think they mind? Look at them. They even treat their (too agreeable) black servants like family.

And then there's the social event. Rich family friends stopping by for barbecue. More old white people who just want to talk to Chris, explain how they are fine with there being a black guy among them, curious about what being black in America is like.

It's enough to make a brother want to disappear into the furniture.

So is Get Out a horror movie first and a social message second? Is it an argument against racial discrimination put together in a suspenseful way? Is it a black writer-director following the dictum of writing what you know?

All of the above and then some. It's a story born out of the horror of being treated differently because of a cosmetic difference, the tendency to agree with your abuser to avoid triggering even worse treatment, the knowledge that you aren't welcomed (or possibly even considered human) in your own country. I would never have expected this skill for terror to lurk under Jordan Peele's comedy. It touches a cultural nerve. It is suspenseful and tense on its own right, but if you're black in America, it's probably horrifying.

#horror #jordanpeele

Princess, the hotel woman, in yellow and red

Sion Sono's Tokyo Vampire Hotel is the definition of a guilty pleasure: I cackled my way through it, but also see all the hastily-thrown together bits, amateur acting and bipolar pacing, and would have the damnedest time finding someone to recommend it to.

Not that Sono gives a single Kamurocho fuck about it. He did exactly what he wanted to do. He came up with Tokyo Vampire Hotel when he went to the Transylvanian film festival in 2016, fell in love with the area around Cluj-Napoca, and decided he would set his next project there.

What he came up with is an elaborate mythology about how the Draculas (plural, it's a family) were driven underground by the Corvins (different type of vampire), who then took over the world from the shadows. But there's a prophecy that a child born under a certain date will release them, so centuries later the Draculas steal three Japanese children, feed them with special blood, and wait for the 21st birthday when they'll come into their powers.

Yes, Japanese children.

Cut from Romanian-speaking non-actors in white robes who stare directly at the camera to a panning shot of a Shinjuku yakitori place, 20 years later, filled with giggling young women and a few salarymen who will soon end up dead.

Massacre at the izakaya

Which makes perfect sense since Cluj in Romania and Shinjuku in Tokyo are connected through the Salina Turda, a salt mine just outside of Cluj which (if I understood it right) leads to everywhere in the world.

Of course, there's a struggle between clans to control the Chosen One. Of course, this means gunfights and swordfights and all sorts of murder and dismemberment. Of course, this involves spending half the movie's budget in fake blood. Of course, keeping the momentum for this type of movie is hard, so Sono doubles down on the mythology and comes up with byzantine plot covering a large group of characters and their twisting allegiances.

Yamada, the ancient hip-hop vampire kingpin with daddy issues. K, a grim Japanese terminator who (sort of) speaks Romanian and refuses to die. Japanese Elizabeth Báthory, played by former gravure model Megumi Kagurazaka, perennially on the verge of bursting out of her corset. The unmovable Princess, sitting somewhere in the bowels of the hotel, all toothy smiles and veiled eyes. Poor, confused Manami, the Chosen One with the least agency in the history of cinema.

Not to mention the dozens of young Japanese men and women who Yamada has gathered at the hotel, who all think are coming for a night of exclusive partying but are there to watch the end of the world.

K in an alley covered in blood

Yes, it's absurd and it's baroque and it goes on for too long. But it's so much fun.

It can be incoherent. But the good kind. The kind where Sono kept asking himself “what is the silliest left turn the plot could take here?” and then did that. Every 10 or 15 minutes.

I can't tell if it's always intentionally funny. Some of the fun comes from the dedication with which the actors throw themselves at their preposterous roles. Some comes from understanding a tiny bit of Japanese, enough Romanian to get around, and hearing people from each country try some gooey Brundlefly of a diction. Some is just from the random mix of violence and soliloquies, wordplay and decapitation, silly situations played straightfaced.

Hence, hard to recommend. I'm in a narrow audience segment. I also happened to see it at an open-air screening at Bánffy Castle, in the same area that inspired Sono, the 15th-century construction and dark Transylvanian sky right behind the screen.

There's a resonance from having a restored castle shield you from the wind while you laugh at the exuberance of a bloody vampire movie.

If I were complaining, I'd say it goes on for too long. It was originally an Amazon TV series which got repurposed as a movie. The script seems to have changed (maybe Sono decided to use scenes that didn't make it into the series or alternate endings) and the various elements don't always gel.

But one can hardly relish the abandon with which Sono created this deranged, blood-soaked microcosm and then complain that he doesn't exercise restraint in the editing room. Stupid as the movie can get, the glee with which they made it comes through, and that's enough for someone to have fun.

Elizabeth Bathory and Yamada

#horror #stupidweek #sionsono

Cairn from The Ritual

The Ritual (2017) is the rare horror movie that derives its tension not from carnage, or trick camera angles, or jump scares, but from good, old-fashioned knowing-your-craft and doing-your-job by everyone involved.

The set up is simple. A group of British friends go hiking in Sweden six months after the death of one of their mates. The weather is miserable, the mood morose. On the way to the lodge, one of them trips and hurts his knee, so they choose to take a shortcut through the woods. Rune-carved trees become the least-ominous discovery on their trek, and they find themselves more lost than they thought.

That's all the background you need. Avoid looking for more – even IMDB photos have spoilers.

The Ritual grasps why we watch movies. They shouldn't just help kill time. For whatever long they last, be it 90 minutes or three hours, they are supposed to take over any other concerns you have in your head, to cause the world outside to cease existing. Good horror is therapeutic – you spend a scene transfixed, unsure of what the outcome will be, gorging in the events, mind racing to process them, trying to figure out escape routes, running right alongside the characters, until it's over, and you realize you were holding your breath when you exhale, slowly, relaxed.

Go through that enough times and you emerge on the other end reborn.

Originally published in my old blog.

#horror #joebarton #rafespall #arsherali #davidbruckner

Cultist from The Void

The man crashes through the door, flees into the night, manages to escape. The woman trails him. One of the pursuers shoots her in the back. As she lays on the grass, crawling, still trying to get to safety, they cover her in gasoline then set her on fire.

That's the start. You get a few minutes of peace before, less than 15 minutes in, The Void becomes flesh-rending, sanity-shattering, Whateley-impregnating unhinged.

It's revolting. It's hellish. It's The Fly and Hellraiser and The Thing and all the best Call of Cthulhu sessions, brought together by the Prince of Darkness.

It's beautiful.

A horror fan's Christmas movie.

#thevoid #horror #jeremygillespie #stevenkostanski #callofcthulhu #johncarpenter #davidcronenberg

Carla Gugino tied to a bed, viewed from above

Jessie Burlingame ends up handcuffed to a bed, keys just out of reach, not a single person for miles. Living person, at least. Her husband, the one with the bondage kink and the rape fantasy, is dead on the floor. The heart attack probably did it, but banging his forehead on the tiling didn't help. She's pretty sure he's dead, at least. There's too much blood.

This rekindling of the flame is going worse than she expected.

I'd said while writing about Before I Wake that Mike Flanagan likes his crucibles. The characters in his movies are always trapped in a situation and squirming to get out of it. Jessie is the personification of that narrative device.

On the one side of the bed, Gerald's Game is a sensational example of how to adapt a book. It tweaks details, focuses on the performers, retains the story's strengths while enhancing it with the right cinematic language.

Carla Gugino gives a protean performance as Jessie. There's little artifice she could default to, no gimmicks she can pull. She has to spend most of the movie in a single position, handcuffed in place as Jessie is. She doesn't even get a change of outfit. It's all expressions, intonation, what little body language she gets to show.

Bruce Greenwood does a great job as her husband Gerald, whose eponymous game put her in that position. He has a rakishness to him, with Greenwood looking better at sixty-two than I expect I'll ever look, but it's balanced out with a husband who still wants to care. Gerald is someone used to getting things his way, but who wants to make it work with the wife instead of going out for the hookers and mistresses he could have.

(And I'm sure does)

On the other side, there's the issue that as a faithful adaptation of Stephen King's book, it'll carry the weaknesses of the material.

For instance, what's up with her background?

We need a new term for what's going on with characters, where what used to be considered a tragic backstory is now the baseline. People have to be sadder, had to have had a worse life than you thought. A good tear-jerking story doesn't bring in as much waterworks as it used to. Their drama needs to be more dramatic.

It's so much misery inflation.

Is it not enough for a woman to be in handcuffs, ogled by a ravenous dog gone feral, dying of thirst, losing her mind and talking to both herself and her dead husband, terrified by (one would hope) hallucinatory threats?

No? Not enough?

Does she also need to have been sexually abused as a child as well?

I'd have been freaking out at the handcuffed thing myself. Maybe “being eaten alive” at most. We wouldn't need dredging up any past horrors to compound the present ones.

It's Stephen King's fault, not the movie's. There are too many echoes from his other stories, from the solar eclipse to name-dropping Cujo. He writes these things for himself now, all the stuff he's put out blending into one big gumbo pot in his head.

And then there's the inspiring, talky, tacked-on ending. King is a great tease, but when it comes to fucking, he climbs on top and writhes around for a couple of minutes before declaring he is done.

Before it gets to that duct-taped apocrypha, though, you'll get some masterful scenes. Gugino's arguments with herself are impeccable. Greenwood is the perfect bastard, released from all social constraints by death and her agonizing wife's imagination. There's a scene, as Jessie finally figures out a plan, which felt like it went on forever, me squirming on the couch, calling out “oh fuck no” several times. I exhaled when it was over. There's constant tension before and after that horrifying moment.

That's what we watch horror for, so the movie succeeds. Even if the coda feels like someone stapled it on right before release because they felt we needed to get an uplifting lesson out of the whole thing.

#mikeflanagan #stephenking #geraldsgame #carlagugino #brucegreenwood #horror #miseryinflation

Movie poster for Before I Wake

A family home, a widowed mother feeling cornered by her sister's return.

A mirror, full of ghosts, and the siblings who take it back to the house where it took their parents, trying to destroy it before it possesses someone else.

A couple alone with an adopted otherworldly moppet, bringing it back to the isolated house where their child died.

Mike Flanagan likes his crucibles.

It's not surprising. He makes movies for horror fans and crucibles make for a convenient horror setup. There wouldn't be much suspense if people could easily walk away from the problem, would it?

In Before I Wake, Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth play the Hobsons, a couple whose own kid drowned in an accident. The adoptee is Cody, an adorable, all-too-well-behaved child who you just know is hiding something – even before it the social worker talks about his string of failed adoptions. It doesn't take too long to find out what: Cody chugs energy drinks and pops caffeine pills like they're Flintstones Vitamins, trying to keep himself awake.

Strange things happen when Cody is asleep. Some of them are pleasant, colorful, things borne out of dreams. But every kid has nightmares. There be monsters.

Flanagan has a talent for tension but flounders with actors. Near the start of the movie, he shows us the Hobsons' tragedy, makes us feel the desperation of a boy who can't help himself and knows he is dying. It lasts only a few seconds, but it adds weight to the Hobsons' situation in a way that ten minutes of character discussion wouldn't – particularly considering how Jane and Bosworth phone in their performances.

Before I Wake gets the cat out of the bag right away and starts flinging it around. Characters pick up on what's up immediately. It avoids those annoying moments where you just know someone who had seen at least a couple of horror films would have saved themselves a lot of grief. Instead, it uses that same character knowledge, the normalization of the unreal, a grasp for how to play with the rules of the supernatural, to fuel one of the most uncomfortable behaviors one could expect from a grieving parent.

If only Jane didn't sleepwalk through the whole movie, or Bosworth hadn't become a discount Rachel McAdams.

At least that lets secondary players a chance to shine. Jacob Tremblay plays Cody with a light touch that's surprising in someone so young. The kid is too cute by half – he'll be playing a serial killer in no time flat. Dash Mihok, who I've seen in at least a dozen movies but never noticed, is a bundle of raw nerves and gets to deliver one of the movie's best lines (”I wouldn't say that around here. They'll fit you for slippers”).

It just doesn't come together. It's not only the leads who are to blame, though. The monster's origin feels arbitrary, its moniker something retrofitted because they felt a thriller needs some sort of revelation. It all leads to an ending that, had the actors been better, could have had the weight of two people brought together by tragedy yet managing to find a way forward.

It doesn't. The whole thing instead feels like a kludge, the tacked-on optimism half contrarianism and half pandering. Not every horror movie involving children needs to be The Babadook, but it wouldn't hurt for them to try for its single-mindedness.

#horror #mikeflanagan #thomasjane #katebosworth #annabethgish #jacobtremblay

Soma title card

He woke up, and remembered dying. Ken MacLeod, The Stone Canal

That line stuck with me ever since I first read it. Not only it's a killer way to start a book, but it has always seemed an apt description for games.

SOMA, Frictional Games' first since their nerve-wracking Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is a worthy successor to both Amnesia and the long line of existential science fiction that begat The Stone Canal. And it starts in almost the same way.

I've been excited about it ever since I saw the Mockingbird teaser they first put out, which contains some very minor spoilers. My main fear was that SOMA would succumb to the cheap horror of Amnesia's successors like Outlast, which are nothing but a string of jump scares and gore. SOMA scales back the horror from Amnesia, instead, and replaces it with a growing, pervading sense of dread.

Much like in System Shock, another brilliant game about a lone individual wandering an abandoned, abomination-infested station, SOMA's story is not told to you directly but found among the detritus of the inhabitant's former lives. A notebook here, a drawing there, a cargo manifest, a garbled info dump, all gradually fill in the many gaps in your character's consciousness. Its universe is fully built, and the extra color provided by the universe's bric-a-brac helped keep me guessing. What's actually behind everything? How deep in are we? Am I Legend? For once, I guessed wrong. It's a nice change.

Eventually, SOMA gets to asking some questions of you, and you will be forced to provide an answer either by action or inaction. These quandaries will be more unsettling for those who haven't read much science fiction, but anyone who has will have answered them before.

Even beyond them, though, SOMA is still effective at getting an emotional response. It's less of a game and more of a well-written movie you get to play through, but if more movies were as well crafted as this, I'd be in the theater more often.

Plus, how often do you get to think of a game as Baby's first transhuman existential horror?

#soma #games #horror #transhumanism