Gothic Ladies and Ghostly Chillers
by Kristin Battestella
Though some are better than others are, these retro monsters, avante garde witches, and not so nice ghosts provide for some unusual humor, bleak atmosphere, and gothic allure – all with a decidedly feminine touch.
The Love Witch – Artist, witch, and murderess Samantha Robinson's (Doomsday Device) romantic spells go awry in this 2016 comedy written and directed by costumer/producer/Jill of all trades Anna Biller (Viva). Rear projection drives and teal eye shadow establish the tongue in cheek aesthetics while cigarette smoke, colorful lighting schemes, purple capes, and nude rituals accent flashbacks and sardonic narrations. Magic has cured our dame Elaine's nervous breakdown after her husband's death, and she's starting fresh in a quirky tarot themed apartment inside a sweet California Victorian complete with a bemusing chemistry set for making potions with used tampons. Kaleidoscopes, rainbow liners inside dark retro clothing, blurred lenses, and spinning cameras reflect the “vodka and hallucinogenic herbs” as magic bottles, local apothecaries, and pentagram rugs set off the pink hat and tea room pastiche. Our ladies are so cordial when not plotting to steal the other's husband! Her dad was cruel, her husband had an attitude, and her magic guru is in it for the sex, but she's spent her life doing everything to please men in a quest for her own fairy tale love. When is Elaine going to get what she wants? She's tired of letting the childlike men think they are in control, but she puts on the fantasy each man wants nonetheless, impressing a literary professor with her libertine references as the to the camera elocution and intentionally over the top Valley acting mirrors the courting facade. Psychedelic stripteases tantalize the boys onscreen, but the actresses are not exploited, winking at the customary for male titillation while instead providing the viewer with a sinister, if witty nature and classic horror visuals. Different female roles as defined by their patriarchal connections are addressed as ugly old eager dudes tell matching blonde twins that stripping or a rapacious sex ritual will be empowering – because a woman can't be content in herself or embrace sexuality on her own terms unless there is a man to ogle her – while our man eater must break a guy down to the emotional baby he really is for her gain. It isn't Elaine's fault if men can't handle her love! A man not in love can be objective while one wanting sex will excuse anything, and the shrew wife or female black subordinate are put out to pasture for an alluring white woman – layering the women in the workplace and racial commentaries as similar looking ladies must switch roles to keep their man. Tense evidence creates somber moments amid police inquiries, toxicology reports, and occult research – so long as the casework doesn't interfere with their lunch order, that is. Is this woman really a witch or just a bewitching killer in both senses of the word? Is it batting her eyelashes lightheartedness or is she really an abused, delusional girl masking her trauma as a blessed be? The serious topics with deceptive undercurrents and feminist statements will be preachy and heavy handed for most male audiences with uneven pacing and confusing intercuts. However the fake blood in the bathtub, renaissance faire ruses, and melodramatic humor combine for a modern Buffy trippy satire dressed as a retro gothic That Girl homage that takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate.
The Reptile – Mysterious notes and silent pursuits open this 1966 Hammer tale amid thunderstorms, turn of the century antiques, Oakley Court locales, and villagers not surprised to find another hastily dumped dead body. Scaly attacks and foaming at the mouth fatalities lead to last rites, meager funerals, and tolling bells, but the deceased's brother doubts heart failure as the cause of death on a fit and healthy man. Of course, these townsfolk are not hospitable to strangers, and the inherited cottage is ransacked before the local barkeep suggests the inquisitive newlywed relatives of the departed sell it and move on from these moors instead of poking into unexplained deaths. Carriages, hats, capes, and trains accent the suspicious gothic staples, monstrous secrets, and charming pip pip Englishness as a creepy neighborhood doctor snoops and the amphibious twists escalate. There's a mystique to his daughter Jacqueline Pearce (Blake's 7) and questions on what the titular monster afoot actually is as prowlers lurk, shocked hermits beg for whiskey after an encounter, and horses fear to cross its path. Frothing at the window, leathery skins, greenish hues, and swollen tongues add to the fang bites on the bodies, exhumed corpses, and wild bug eyes when we do glimpse the monster – but it's all excused as epilepsy from the doctor of theology who admits to knowing nothing of medicine. Eerie hear tells of exotic India pasts and cult vengeance create unique Eastern motifs alongside saris, sitars, and mute Indian manservants while harmful flowers, pets in cages, cats in peril, and slicing the bite wounds to drain venom invoke natural dangers. The awkward culprits just want to be left alone, but they can't escape the consequences of the flaky skin, shedding husks, swampy moors, and moist, bubbling nests under the manor. Though similar to The Gorgon, there's a sadness to the ladies and bittersweet explanations justifying the case. The suspense, sword work, fires, and one on one battles are also well done. This may proceed on the gothic formula expected from Hammer, but the unusual mysticism makes up for a lack of bigger Hammer names. My only real complaint is that we don't see Jacqueline Pearce enough. I mean, she's Servalan, people, Servalan.
You Make the Call
A Dark Song – Psalm warnings, beautiful skyscapes, and an old house with no heating paid for up front set this 2016 Irish tale amid the train station arrivals and others backing out on this specific plan with west facing rooms, twenty-two week diets, and purified participants having no alcohol or sex. More fasting, dusk to dawn timetables, serious interviews on why, and reluctant rules of the procedure build the cryptic atmosphere as the price for this dangerous ritual rises – speaking to a dead child isn't some silly astral projection, angel psychobabble bollocks, basic Kabbalah, or easy Gnosticism you can find on the internet. The isolated manor with salt circles and invocations feels seventies cult horror throwback, however the metaphysical talk and extreme meditation bring modern realism as tense arguing, religious doubts, and questions on right or wrong match the bitterness toward the outside world. Hallucinations, sleep deprivation, and vomiting increase while physical cleansings and elemental phases require more candles and blood sacrifices. Some of the slow establishing and ritual minutia could have been trimmed in favor of more on the spooky half truths, suspect motives, need to be pure, and distorted state of mind. Black birds hitting the windows and missing mementos don't seem to get the waiting for angels and forgiveness rituals very far for the amount of time that has passed, and heavy handed music warns us when something is going on even as more should be happening. A third character also seeking something he cannot find may have added another dynamic rather than two extremists getting nowhere, and short attention span audiences won't wait for something to appear in those first uneven forty minutes. After all, with these symbols painted on the body and awkward sex rituals, wouldn't one suspect this is just some kind of scam? Untold information, vengeance, backwards baptisms, near death extremes, and knife injuries meander on the consuming guilt and mystical visions before demons in disguise make for an obvious finale treading tires when the true angels, spirits, and goodness revelations were there all along. Maybe more seasoned hands were needed at the helm or a second eye to fix the pacing and genre flaws, for the quality pieces suffer amid the bleakness. This really shouldn't be labeled as a horror movie, but it doesn't capitalize on its potential as a psychological examination and surreal stages of grief metaphor either.
And if you like Horribly Bad Horrors...
Carnage – Writer and director Andy Milligan (The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!) has his creepy gothic setting for this 1984 haunt with chandeliers, stained glass, old fashioned candles, and wedding music on the record as the bridal veils and white lace lead to revolvers, blood, and tolling bells. A new carrying across the threshold couple moving in adds lighthearted if amateur dialogue, but the sound is poor and the presentation seems even older than the early eighties – that's either a delayed release or really low budget! The out of service phone rings, dishware is moved, music plays by itself, and unexplained gas stove dangers increase amid barking dogs, knife play, and tool mishaps. While some objects moving by themselves and ghostly appearances are spooky, most attempted frights are laughable – complete with a hysterical maid and convenient burglars to pad the body count as the blood goes from weak trickles to absurd splatter. This story is nothing new, and the plot or ghostly actions don't make much sense. Why go after the housekeeper fast and cruel with strangulation and straight razors when the new owners are getting off comparatively easy with phantom paper and pencil movement? Why kill yourselves if you don't want anyone else to live in your house, then kill people who trespass before inviting others to stay? Most scenes are slow with idle transitions, and comical cutaways to cranky relatives are unnecessary domestic spats with no purpose but to waste time. This production is content to be cheap rather than trying for any horror potential, and after all the poltergeist related deaths, they still hold a housewarming party without telling the guests about the fatal happenings. Attempted comedic bathroom perils misfire because what's meant to be scary has already been funny. This isn't so bad it's unwatchable, but it gets worse as it goes on and viewers can't expect something polished or scary. We never spend enough time with any of the couples or the house itself to understand any of this induced til death allure, and I honestly think the constant barking dog soundtrack was just a production inconvenience. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯