Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Devil's Candy (2015)

The Devil's Candy was pretty much buried on Netflix, and it's only because I regularly make a pass through the horror section that its artwork caught my eye (see above - how could it not?). So I read the blurb, took a swift look at the IMDB and Letterboxd pages (more to see what its average user rating was than anything else) and that was enough. Onto the list it went.

This was written and directed by Sean Byrne, whose only other horror credit seems to be The Loved Ones. The plot revolves around a close family of three (mum, dad, daughter) moving into a new house and strange, dark forces at work both inside and out of their new home. 

Daughter and father metalheads 

The house seems to speak to those with an open enough mind to hear it, including dad Jesse (Ethan Embry - who has come a LONG way since Empire Records) and Raymond (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a troubled individual who used to live there.

Jesse is a struggling artist and takes over the garage/barn area of the new place to paint. However, even for a metal fan, what ends up being committed to his canvas in this new studio takes an extremely dark turn.

Going into rapture-like states to create these images, Jesse loses all track of time, painting solidly for hours on end and failing to pick up his daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) from school on more than one occasion.

The images he creates are frightening. The reason he's creating them, we learn eventually, is extremely tragic.

Taking place during an unnaturally hot Texas summer, this feels oppressive and intense. Jesse most of all is seen sweating and/or shirtless, a panicked and pained expression permanently on his face as he tries to make sense of what is threatening his family. 

He's no mask in a Halloween store, he's not what you see in the movies. He is an active, violent, anti-God personal reality. And as much as we refuse to admit it, he lives through us.
− TV Preacher

An "active, violent, anti-God personal reality" is a perfect description of the villain in this movie.

I could not shake how much Raymond looked like Harvey Weinstein, too. Just to add another layer of evil repulsiveness on top of an already detestable character.

It's not just in atmosphere that this film succeeds; stylistically too, The Devil's Candy knows what it's doing. Watch for the use of light in the final shot, and for the scene with cross-cutting between paint hitting the canvas and blood spilling from a murder. There really isn't much gore to be had in general here, with the more brutal stuff happening off camera, but the glimpses of a bathtub dismemberment are more than enough to unsettle. 

This one may be my favourite new discovery so far this month. Simple, satanic, stylish, and streaming on Netflix now. At 1hr19mins it's definitely worth the time commitment.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

As Above, So Below (2014)

Well this fits nicely next to Verónica, because writer/director John Erick Dowdle also directed Quarantine, the American remake of [Rec]. It all ties in!

Maybe because it was actually filmed in the Paris catacombs, or that there are some genuine moments of "oh fuuuck", or that I was reminded that it follows Dante's Inferno... and maybe all three, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this the second time around.

This found footage flick follows a group as they break into the intensely claustrophobic catacombs that lie beneath Paris. They're searching, we're shown in annoying scenes of exposition/set-up, for a mysterious ancient stone and possibly treasure, too. Lead character Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a tomb-raider style daredevil daughter of some old bloke who discovered the secrets of alchemy. Or something. I dunno, it's not really that important.

On their underground adventures, Scarlett and her accumulated crew (including Ben Feldman, "Ginsberg" from Mad Men) find both the desired stone and loot, but in the process, they also encounter cults, violent apparitions of their past, and maybe even Satan himself.

Honestly, the plot is kind of secondary to what Dowdle is trying to achieve (down) here. 

Rather than do the decent thing of just losing their minds with fright after the first cave-in, the group continues on as they become repeatedly trapped and blocked in their passage through the catacombs; journeying deeper, further, squeezing through tiny tunnels and dropping down bottomless-looking pits.

For an atheist, I do still find religious/blasphemous-tinged horror pretty unnerving when done correctly (just ask Baskin) and so as the weary travellers realised they may be descending into Hell, I definitely found it an unnerving experience. The imposing darkness and impossibly labyrinthine routes they take don't help to un-jangle the nerves, either.
According to mythology, that's the inscription over the gates of hell.
 − Scarlett.

As the group thins, we learn more about what this system of caves really represent, and how the remaining individuals might escape. The aspect of the narrative with the mystical stone is absurd, but at least it allows for some more scares.

Two impressive set pieces have always stuck in my mind from this film, even when I initially wasn't convinced of its merits. The burning car deep underground, and the manhole cover scene at the film's end. For all the irritation I felt at Scarlett & Co. at times, the inventiveness and audacity to conceive of and execute both of these ideas is something I must tip my hat to. 

As Above, So Below is an effective, imaginatively claustrophobic nightmare punctuated by solid scares. It must have played brilliantly in a cinema environment.

Ignore the earnest jabbering at the beginning and stick with it, it's streaming on Netflix now.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Verónica (2017)

There seems to have been an annoying tradition over the past couple of years, where a new horror film will come out to headlines of "This Is The Scariest Movie Ever!" or "Netflix Users Can't Finish This Movie!". As I recall, Verónica was one of the films that got this treatment.

And I get it. It creates a buzz around the new release and one way or another - through people seeking a scare, or to prove they can handle it, or just plain curious - it gets viewers. The problem I find though is that this buzz kind of infiltrates my brain and creates hype where there wasn't any (and wasn't any needed) before. It's like going to the cinema and right before going into the screen, someone tells you the film you're about to watch is the best film ever! How can it possibly live up to that?

Obvious observation time: Verónica is not the scariest film ever, and it's easy to get through it without having to turn off in fright. It kind of reminded me of [REC] which, I learned later, made perfect sense as it's from Paco Plaza, the same director. It's reminiscent in places, rather than in any way similar; way less visceral, more contemplative and creepy. It's the quieter teenage sibling of Plaza's breakout film.

Based on a true police report, this depicts the alarming supernatural occurrences that take place after Madrid teen Verónica (Sandra Escacena) and two schoolfriends dabble with a Ouija board during a solar eclipse.

This is not a standard tale of possession, rather, it's the pursuit of a young woman by dark forces that she never intended to invite into her life. Verónica was trying to contact her deceased father but instead is caught in a week-long struggle against faceless humanoid demon figures stalking her house, threatening to harm her and her three young siblings.

Apart from teachers and nuns, their lives are rather adult-less, with their single mother working hard at a bar every evening and weekend. Verónica as the oldest is caretaker to her sisters and brother, and every weekday is a repeat of the one before: getting everyone ready and walking to school (established early on as a responsibility she takes seriously, so when we see it gradually break down, we know that shit is going wrong).

It must be mentioned that the kids in this film are one of its strongest points; their acting is so natural and the bond between Verónica and her siblings is warm and very apparent. They are cute, good kids - which makes the looming shadow over their existence all the more worrying.

Likewise, Escacena is amazing as Verónica (or "Vero" as she's known), charting the decline from normal 15 year old - old beyond her years nonetheless, due to circumstance - complete with fickle and catty friends who very much reminded me of the pain of being that age; to a bruised, isolated and exhausted husk of her former self. 

There's a couple of really interesting scenes where Verónica watches a girl in an apartment across the way from her, and it's clear this girl is meant to be her mirror image, a representation of everything Vero is not. She's seen dancing carefree to music (at the same time Vero is loading a washing machine with urine-soaked bedding from her little brother), talking affectionately with her father and having a love life. Verónica has none of these things, and the likelihood of her ever getting them becomes slimmer as events progress.

It's been a while since I've seen [Rec], so I can't remember how artistic Plaza was able to get with that found footage nerve shredder, but this had several moments of creative touches I wasn't expecting, including an incredible transition as Vero gets out of bed and walks across her room that was so cool I had to rewind to see it again. Others are not quite as flawless, but still effective.

This probably isn't going to give genre fans sleepless nights, but it is a very decent telling of a very chilling, supernatural story. It's streaming on Netflix now.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Sorority Row (2009)

Shot with dark, grainy, frenetic abandon (like an early 2000's music video) and, a mere 9 years on, pretty fucking gross and insanely obvious in its male gaze, Sorority Row is a remake, based on the script for the 1983 horror film The House on Sorority Row. For a film supposedly about sisterhood, the directing and writing team were all men. And you can tell.

There's frequent, pointless lack of clothes from sorority sisters who looked so similar I had no idea who was dying and who was surviving; jokes about how it's okay to be roofied; questionable doctor/patient power dynamic sex in exchange for meds... Just, no. The kills were not good enough to redeem all this.

There's far better out there. Best thing about this entire mess was Carrie Fisher in a bit part. 

Hounds of Love (2016)

Content warning: Abduction, abuse, rape.

Hounds of Love is the debut feature from Australian writer/director Ben Young and another I'd heard whispers about from the festival circuit. It's been floating around on the edges of my radar ever since. There's a special kind of thrill when a movie you've had your eye on for a long while appears on a streaming service.


Supposedly based on several different true crime stories (I thought it echoed Fred and Rose West quite a lot) it most closely resembles the real-life experiences of Kate Moir, and her abduction and abuse by David and Catherine Birnie in Perth, Western Australia.

Like the Birnies, Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth and Stephen Curry) have a disturbing, mutually fucked up and co-dependent hobby of kidnapping, raping and murdering young girls. 

Their latest victim and the one whose story we see unfold in full is Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), who almost immediately spots the weaknesses in the White's relationship. John, a rapist and probable paedophile with a violent temper, needs Evelyn's help to abduct and deal with the girls; Evelyn, seemingly a victim of abuse from an early age herself, is damaged and manipulated to the point of believing these horrifying deeds count as acts of love. There's an awful lot of awful stuff going on behind the closed doors of this house.

Maybe it's my true crime obsession showing, or that my resistance to bleakness is pretty high, but I didn't find this as soul-crushing as others seemed to (want bleak Australian realism/nihilism? May I suggest The Snowtown Murders. Note "suggest" and not "recommend"). 

Hounds of Love is some of the worst of what humans are capable of, shown convincingly and without exploitation (at least in tone, as Kate Moir has gone on record as saying she was upset at the startling similarities). All three leads are incredibly strong, with a special mention for Cummings, who manages to convey so much when most of the time she's bound and gagged.

Young's vision for this is pretty spectacular, given it was shot in 20 days and was his first feature. He knows what to linger on: the stillness, hopelessness, the surrounding suburban normality; and what is going to be more upsetting to imply than outright show: the detritus left after a rape, the killing of a dog ☹. The cinematography (hat tip to Michael McDermott) is beautiful, dare I say it. It's as stunning as the subject matter is stomach-churning, looking almost fashion editorial/music video perfect in some moments.

It's not without a problematic cloud around it, but if you don't mind that and feeling like your heart is in your throat for 90mins, it's streaming on Hulu now.