24 July 2016

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

Fun Performances Make Lizzie Borden Took an Ax
by Kristin Battestella

We all know the song, and though campy, the 2014 Lifetime Original Movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax utilizes juicy performances to flesh out the murderous ambiguity and did she or didn't she 1892 courtroom drama. 

Christina Ricci (The Addams Family) stars as Lizzie Borden, sister to Emma (Clea DuVall) and daughter of the soon to be bludgeoned Andrew Borden (Stephen McHattie). A messy barn, biting of luscious fruits, and Victorian white undies imply an underlying saucy to the spinster somber and silent dinners – tea time and full skirts make this largely a women's world with the occasional, overbearing, intrusive man. Fortunately, hatchets are afoot in surreal visions, violent inserts, and murderous dreams, toying with our unreliable narrator and the muddled timeline in a self-aware, campy tone. Talk of previous crimes, grudges, and disgruntled encounters lay more motive drama to Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, rendering the modern, intrusive edge with obvious fake outs or teases unnecessary. Though not super gory, the splatter bash and killer crunch a half hour in do better than any trying to be hip approach. This case is both well documented and a logistical mess, which allows artistic liberties and sensational embellishments on the crowded crime scene, town gossip, erroneous reports, and faulty investigation. Press hysteria and exhumed bodies may seem like standard detective plotting, but period accents and Victorian protocol add to the evidence variables and questionable bloody dresses. Despite staying mostly with Lizzie's questionable point of view, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax admits its stance via legal briefings and police discussions intercutting possible whack scenarios for a somewhat coherent frame on the what did or did not happen crimes. Debates on the unbelievable possibility of a woman committing such violence counters the scary white male jury versus little miss demure defense, and witness testimonies cast doubt on interrogations suggesting sociopath Lizzie did the the deed. However, Lizzie Borden Took An Ax does have some faulty framework – ye olde timestamps onscreen would have helped tremendously and historical conjecture is used as an excuse to waver between cool criminal warped and serious horror drama. Thankfully, this case's moving fast topsy turvy doesn't give us time to inspect the details, and not seeing the killings outright allows for hearsay, jury tours of the crime scene, and a slow horror reveal for the finale


Christina Ricci's Lizzie Borden is “a loner, Dottie. A rebel.” She gets up from the table without being excused, ditches the ironing if she can't hum while she works, and otherwise spies, lies, steals, or worse. After all, she's only a Sunday School teacher on Sundays! Lizzie looks at herself naked in the mirror and wants to go to a party at night without an escort – such not a little girl anymore behaviors imply more than just the bucking of Victorian attitudes when Lizzie gets more up close to her father than her cordial but prudish, dead woman walking stepmother. She clings to her dad, saying he wants her to stay with him forever and loves when she calls him handsome, but questions his suspicious sweat when she hugs him. Lizzie vows that she will neither be a wife nor a spinster, adding lesbian innuendo on top of the implied abuses or incest. How long has she been planning to kill? Lizzie Borden Took an Ax suggests a long gestating preparation with Lizzie's calculated crime scene reaction, careful glances, and a practiced playing to the tears. Lizzie holds up a little too well for the horror that has happened and is more concerned with how polite the police are or how happy she will be to live alone with her sister – almost blissfully unaware of the attributed crimes. These deaths feel premeditated and well orchestrated, yet crazy cracks show once Lizzie faces some tough interrogations. She changes her tune and professes her innocence while dreaming about the killings and resorting to fainting and sensational courtroom antics. We feel she is faking and she says her mind is clear, yet the jury can't tell either way. Despite the misplaced attempt Lizzie Borden Took an Ax takes with original girl power, button up cool facade, and hip badass style, Ricci creates a wild-eyed, slick transparency, and likable, scene chewing performance. Lizzie is a narcissist liar in action stifled by the courtroom and confused when she doesn't get her own way, and Ricci clearly has fun with the party-throwing, attention seeking, and ultimately infamous heiress.

In contrast to bad girl Lizzie, Clea DuVall (Carnivale) as the elder Borden sister Emma is quiet and unassuming. Lizzie Borden Took an Ax briefly suspects her and throws shade her way, but Emma is said to be out of the house helping others when the titular slice and dice happens. Unfortunately, she soon doubts Lizzie's account and comes to live in fear of what her sister may be capable of doing. Lizzie thinks they will be content forevermore in a new home at the top of high society, but Emma realizes her sister is utterly demented and locks her bedroom door at night to avoid Lizzie's violent threats. She doesn't like lawyers visiting the house or so many seemingly unneeded males entering their little world – again, whether it is possible abuses or implied feminine preference, Emma seems somewhat small or shy when it comes to men. Though not the fault of the cast, those men in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax are generally styled as inferior to the ladies parade or backhanded to the little women. We don't have enough time with Stephen McHattie (Emily of New Moon) as the gruff and subsequently late Andrew Borden, yet his hands on innuendo as a potential reason for the crime is felt in those uncomfortable scenes with Lizzie. Billy Campbell (The 4400) as lawyer Andrew Jennings, however, provides Lizzie Borden Took an Ax with the cold facts – a realistic if circumstantial perspective of the situation for the audience compared to Lizzie's loon and swoon. Gregg Henry (Hell on Wheels) as prosecutor Hosea Knowlton also provides fine legalese, not admissible battles, and harsh interrogations. At times, the media judgments and sensational her word against theirs back and forth feels like a contemporary courtroom drama. However, this famous case was modern, the OJ or MJ trials of its day, and the support here keeps the case grounded, balancing the over the top fun of Lizzie herself.

The carriages, period interiors, wallpapers, fine woodwork, and Victorian attention to detail also bring the stifling, rugged ye olde of Lizzie Borden Took an Ax to life. Bustles, gloves, feathers, fancy linens, and vintage lamps add upscale alongside mourning fashions and a visual air of sophistication. Despite congested house crimes, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax is well lit with bonus onscreen photography and old camera fun. Arrests and an overnight asylum whiff suggest the deplorable conditions for women against the system of the era, but swift cuts and artistic side shots keep the nudity ironically demure. Although some of the bright clothing, colorful accents, and modern fashion cuts feel slightly too contemporary as if the Lifetime millennial audience wouldn't watch anything too steeped in total historic design, the neckties, cute hats, and shopping scenes are pleasant, subtle ways to update the period without being super intrusive. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the modern musical score used in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax. Perhaps some instrumental rock edgy rhythms from Tree Adams (Californication) could have embellished choice scenes, but Southern Rock lyrics are as out of place as the slow motion musical interlude transition scenes are unnecessary. Are such tunes fitting for a gritty western? Sure – but a winking Victorian crime drama about a lady killer? No. This kind of extra try hard is what ultimately leaves Lizzie Borden Took An Ax feeling rough around the edges with no thorough thinking. We're never going to have a satisfactory definitive on the case so having fun with the yay or nay is forgivable, even expected. However, it's odd that this ninety minute telling of the story in its entirety retroactively becomes the backdoor pilot for the follow up The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Had there been a better plotted progression, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax could have been all about the backstory potboiler leading up to the wielding with the 2015 series left to pull out all the courtroom stops. Instead, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax merely ends with a hammy tie to the jump rope rhyme – because, come on, we all knew it was coming.

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax takes liberties with the eponymous case and can be confusing or inaccurate at times thanks to modern music, contemporary shoehorns, and a faulty need to be cool. The undecided nature of the story plays at both horror serious and Victorian sensationalism, and the presentation could have been a much tighter thriller. Fortunately, the entertaining performances and campy hatchet-work make for enough water cooler did she or didn't she and yell at the screen debates.

18 July 2016

Solo Lady Horrors!

Solo Lady Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

Old and recent, foreign or domestic – this viewing quartet is a healthy dose of solitary moms, virgins, co-eds, and tough ladies single-handedly facing the scares.

Goodnight Mommy – Lullabies and divine outdoor locations quickly turn ominous with dark caves, deep lakes, nearby cemeteries, and underground tombs accenting this 2014 Austrian psychological scare featuring twin boys and a mother under wraps. Despite the bunk beds, wise viewers will of course immediately wonder if there are really two sons – one always hides or jumps out while the other calls, and their mother only acknowledges one boy amid talk of an accident and a separation. Mirrors, windows, blurred portraits, and odd artwork embellish their cool mod home, and eerie visuals heighten the freaky surgery bandages, prying peering, twisted dreams, and creepy bugs. Close the blinds, no visitors, total quiet – the twins become increasingly suspicious when such strict recovery rules and more unusual behaviors don't compare to sing-a-longs and loving tapes made pre-surgery. Naturally, English audiences have to pay attention due to the German dialogue and subtitles, however viewers must also watch for silent moments and visual clues as this TV host mom's obsession with her surgery results increases and the boys' talking back turns into some rough encounters. The sons research videos online and find strange photos while hidden baby monitors and timer tick tocks up the suspense. Who's right? Who's overreacting? What if we could see things from the opposite point of view? They want proof she is their mother and contact the local priest, but these seemingly innocent boys play some gruesome games, too. The situation becomes more and more claustrophobic, becoming trapped indoors and locked in one room with homemade defenses and cringe-worthy torture done with something as simple as the magnify glass with sunlight trick. The audience is swayed with evidence one way before being presented with new unreliability, familial violence, and pyromaniac tendencies in a fiery topper. At times, this feels more like a sad drama than a horror movie and some elements might have needed a bit more clarification. However, the horrible stuff herein and debating on the what ifs lasts long after the viewing, and this is a fine isolated tale using slight of hand power of suggestion for its slow burn unraveling.

The House of the Devil – Creepy menus, cult statistics, and retro credits start this 2009 blu-ray featuring Jocelin Donahue (The Burrowers), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000). Payphones, eighties rhythms, and old fashioned style add period flair alongside onscreen smoking, maps, feathered hair, and a big old cabinet television showing Night of the Living Dead. Even the giant Walkman and slightly corny music montage and dance about the house has a purpose in the narrative. Church bells, cemeteries, and an imminent eclipse lay the scary foundation, and rather than an opening scare fake-out, writer/director/editor Ti West (The Innkeepers) uses zooms and movement within the camera frame to create viewer intimacy, closing in from the chilly exterior and ominous windows as the suspicious phone calls lead to desperate babysitting jobs, desolate night drives, and a maze-like Victorian manor. Yes, our Samantha is at times very dumb and unaware she is in a horror movies thanks to plot holes a collaborator not wearing so many behind the scenes hats could have clarified. Mistakes and convenient contrivances in the somewhat tacked on final act also break the solitary point of view for the audience's benefit. However, that finale free for all with ritual candles, hooded robes, and a sudden twist ending is in the seventies splatter spirit, and the simmering, silent build happens naturally over the film. Instead of hollow thrills a minute, the viewer is allowed time to suspect the scary attic, theorize on suspicious photos, and listen for every noise – we know something is supposed to happen but not when. Though this kind of approach may seem boring to some, this innate alone trickle let's us appreciate the dark basement and the inopportune power outage for when the titular frights do happen. It's nice to have something different from the mainstream horror trite, too – not to mention an $8 pizza! 

Hush – Writer and director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Absentia) and his wife, co-writer, and star Kate Siegel place our deaf-mute author in a pleasant forest cabin for some writing, relaxation, and terror in this 2016 eighty minute Netflix original. Comfort cooking noise fades and unheard laptop tones switch to wild kitchen alarms – immediately establishing the common sounds taken for granted alongside subtitled Sign Language, feeling vibrations for sound, and hearing an author voice in your head brainstorms. Friends speak while they sign, breaking up the quiet for the viewer, and we must pay attention to writing onscreen such as book jackets and manuscript text. Understandably, phone technology and Facetime calls are important, but an over-reliance on gadgets in horror can be tiring and soon dated with wi-fi switches, lost connections, and cut power. Fortunately, the intimate home makes the audience accustomed to the hearing challenges before adding the muffled silence, unseen scares, unheard screams, and instant cyberstalking. Through windows or foreground focus and background action, we have the full perspective when the protagonist doesn't. It is however a mistake to reveal the crossbow and Bowie knife wielding stalker so completely. We don't need to know the sociopath motivation nor should the viewer feel for the killer or care if he has any personality, and removing his mask just creates limp assholery. The frightening unknown with footstep vibrations, hands at the window, and approaching shadows creates a better siege, and the mystery of who and why is lost in the contrived lulls and stupid mistakes while Maddie waits around for his taunts instead of fighting back. Why not set something on fire, smoke signal authorities? Having her inner monologue address the situation and the pros or cons in each course of action is also better than breaking Maddie's point of view and using fake out possibilities. Although it's a pity millennial viewers wouldn't watch something that was all silent, the long periods with no dialogue, sound effects, and score crescendos do just fine in accenting these unique dynamics. While not perfect, this tale has enough thriller tense and innate woman alone in peril – and thus proves exactly why I must know where all the windows, entrances, and exits are in a given location and never sit with my back to any of them!

A Virgin Among the Living Dead – Various versions of this 1971 French/Spanish co-production exist thanks to re-releases of Jesus Franco's (The Awful Doctor Orloff) edition and added zombie footage from director Jean Rollin (Fascination). The trying to be poetic narration is unnecessary, the subtitles are off, and the dubbing is out of sync with the serious close ups. A dockside tense and snotty hotel warnings don't bode well for the boobies and little white panties revealing an obvious brown carpet not matching the blonde drapes, either. Askew angles, empty rooms, and creepy statues make this secluded villa Old World eerie – kind of like the mid-century Gothic look my parents' house had when I was a kid with big, foreboding lamps, tall, arched mirrors, and The Man with the Golden Helmet above an orange settee. Yes, I now realize this probably explains a lot about my interest in horror. (That and being forced to wear pink and bows but that is another story.) A happy nature stroll can't compete with demented music and deathbed vigils, and townsfolk suggestions to run, abandoned chapels, and prayer recitations are ignored in favor of this freaky family's casual views on death. Distorted camerawork accentuates weird eyes, facial oddities, and ritual pursuits as flies and buzzing sounds increase. From voyeuristic geezers and bats on the bed to a giant dildo on the floor and a blind chick getting her seventies bush trimmed by another girl sucking on her bloody boob – it's time to get out of Dodge. Unfortunately, the inconsistent characters and forgetful, stalling plot are very thin with potential psychic connections unclear and a running in circles, going nowhere fast pace. Intercut zooms while everyone squints over the reading of the will feels Charlie Brown wah-wah, and nothing comes of possible sexual awakenings, suicides, and daughters paying for sins of the father themes. There were no zombies in the version I saw – I'm not even sure which version it was. However, the muddled onscreen reflects the messy behind the scenes intrusions, and the overall result is not as good as it could have been. Fortunately, this isn't super bad, and Franco enthusiasts will find many bemusing aspects alongside the saucy violence and undead foretellings.

05 July 2016

Family Frights and Perils

Family Frights and Perils
by Kristin Battestella

Zombies, ghosts, cults, fanatics – daughters, grief, moving, and politics are frightful enough with out these recent good, bad, and ugly horrors.

Maggie – Sad voicemails, outbreak news reports, desolate cities, quarantines, and martial law immediately set the bleak outlook for infected daughter Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and her gray bearded father Arnold Schwarzenegger in this 2015 zombie drama. Wait – Arnold? In a drama movie? About zombies? No choppers?! Nope, this is not an action horror movie, and gruesome gurneys, gangrene encounters, and blackened decay are not played for scares. Here the body horrors and social breakdowns go hand in hand – science can't put a dent into the virus fast enough, and loved ones must wait as the vein discolorations and white out eyes spread toward heightened smells and cannibalistic tendencies. Minimal technology, chopping wood, rustic generators, cassettes, and older horseshoe phones accent the isolated farmhouse as insect buzzing, infected neighbors, and animal dangers mount. Younger siblings are sent away, and step-mom Joely Richardson (Nip/tuck) struggles with her faith, strength of conviction, and the promises they've made despite the deadly risks. How does a teenager keep it together when she has nothing better to do but sit around and die? Do you call friends for a last hurrah? This flawed father won't send his daughter to die in quarantine with strangers, but he can't give the painful lethal injection at home or make it a quick end, either. Creepy doctor visits amplify the stigmas and paranoia regarding these in between infected, and nice teen moments soon give way to growls and necroambulist changes. Where is the line between siege removal authorities and family compassion? Someone has to take control and there's no time for sympathy – just the inevitable breakdown of families desperate to stay together. Governator Arnold produced the film sans salary, and the off-type surprise provides heart wrenching results and must see performances. Granted, most audiences probably expected zombie action thrills a minute and there are unnecessary artistic shots, long pauses, and plodding direction at times. However, this is a strong story with hefty goodbye conversations, and it is surprising such realistically upsetting and horrible circumstances rather than horror went unnoticed. Without mainstream box office demands, indie releases are free to tell their story as it needs to be told, and this tearjerker delivers a great spin on the flooded and increasing derivative zombie genre. 


We Are Still Here – Grieving parents moving to an isolated country home only to find a deceptive paranormal force may seem like nothing new to start this 2015 eighty odd minutes. However, it's lovely to see older protagonists with a lot to say yet little dialogue. Clearly this couple is disconnected over their loss, and this situation is already tough enough before the snowy bleak, creepy noises, and horrific basement. Exterior blues contrast the warm, seventies orange patterns, record player, and glowing lamps inside – the classic cars and country setting should be quaint but we know better. By being period set, there's no need to bother with technology explanations, either. How do they find the place without GPS? What's the cell phone reception? It doesn't matter, but retro psychics and hippie highs add to the simmering build, fire crackling, and shrewd use of light and dark schemes. The small cast and simple locations are well shot with no shocks and jump scares, just a tight camera focus on people feeling the suspicious or reacting to ghostly smells. Recent horror movies try to scare the audience by calling attention to the gag rather than making us feel the discomfort of a character in peril. Without such orchestration, the viewer is allowed to gasp by paying attention to the suspect baseball and glove, moving photographs, and every other part of the frame. This looks great on blu-ray, and rather than yawning at the usual predictability, it's more fun inching toward the screen for what happens next. Here, creepy neighbors sharing about the Victorian funeral home history is the closest thing to the cliché person who knows research moment, and the awkwardness over cocktails and cryptic warning notes works. The creepy crawlies aren't shown clearly at first – conversations are peppered with words like souls, demons, aura, and hot as hell instead – and our at odds husband and wife need to be on same page to best these horrors. Yes, it takes a half hour for something to happen, but the excellent twists and experienced cast do not disappoint. A superb séance is done with nothing but voice, and the nightmares escalate into siege terrors, plenty of blood, and nowhere to turn. I don't want to reveal everything, but this little picture does all it sets out to do in telling a darn good ghost story. Why isn't this kind of horror movie in the mainstream cinemas instead of the rinse repeat trite?

Split Call

The Attic – A derivative prologue and picturing Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss as 11/17/83 young makes this one tough going alongside throwaway cameras and a giant family computer suggesting a setting older than 2007. Indeed, this melodramatic, diary writing teen daughter feels ten years late in her nineties mood – Emma wears wispy white but is fresh and flirty with older men as her crazy look escalates to a black slip and icky food substitutions. Jason Lewis (Sex in the City) seems dubbed with bad dialogue delivery, and although there would seem to be an internal reason for this, the nasty implications with dad John Savage (The Deer Hunter) also go unclarified. Annoying strobe ghosts, popping lights, dream flashes, and creepy mirrors are also shocks more for the audience than the characters. Ominous clues, symbols, and objects in different places do better gaslighting with doppelganger blinks and head injuries adding duality to the agoraphobia and filming through windows, open doors, and faces in the glass frame. Rattling doors and violent twists layer this spiraling out of control reality, making the viewer unsure if this a ghost, a dead twin, or all in Emma's head. Is she acting out over other hatred and abuse or just enjoying the attention? Brief scenes with parents and doctors away from Emma accent the who's telling the truth unreliable view. Which whispers are real or imagined? Numerous possibilities including Wicca and the occult or evil hauntings are left hanging with poorly edited, nonsensical montages beating the audience over the head with cheap effects and obvious suggestions. This picture both needs more time to explain itself yet pads the eighty minute duration. Did director Mary Lambert (Pet Semetary) not have the time or money needed to finish? One can really see the difference between the direct to video stigmas here compared to the theater quality on demand today. Confusing ghost physicality and figments of Emma's imagination logistics contribute to a weak ending with too many twists and no answers beyond a Matrix believe what you see, what your mind tells you, and what is real to you meta. Leaving the crazy up to the viewer isn't a free pass to throw everything at the screen but leave your premise unexplained. Why would a house spirit make her go crazy with an occult twin theory when it could just do creepy ghost stuff? Fortunately, the cast is good fun – including a looking great Catherine Mary Stewart (Night of the Comet) – and this is shout at the TV trying to be avante garde bad entertainment watchable if one can accept the crazy as an excuse to ignore the plot holes.


Red State – This 2011 eighty-eight minutes establishes its small town mood quickly with bigoted protests, homophobia, and rebelling against redneck Middle America ignorance and hypocrisy. The too chill classroom and modern teens are however immediately annoying – three dudes spewing gay slurs and lame, compensating gang bang talk deserve what comes to them and the audience never has a reason to care. There are smartphones and porn sites, but mullets, back road car crashes, a trailer in the woods, cages, and sex being the devil's business comments forebode a rural horror potential that instead gives way to misused hymns and Biblical quotes in uncomfortable cult dressings. Disturbing family congregation cheers and askew, from below camera angles are meant to reflect this warped, but the gross, in real time sermon steers the picture into heavy handed commentary. The first five minutes were already unnecessary and I really wanted to skip over this icky segment and turn the movie off all together in the first half hour. If I wanted to get disgusted by corrupt shit, I'd watch the news. Every fifteen minutes viewers are continually betrayed with a pulling the rug out bait and switch combining for some kind of clunky horror FBI raid meets zealot save the children siege. I see why stars like John Goodman and Melissa Leo were interested in the subject matter, but there's no finesse in the attempted statements or falling flat scares. Hate crimes and horror really don't mix. Trying to be witty dialogue ends up as corny misses – and I love Kevin Smith's humor in Clerks and social winks in Dogma. Once again, a one and the same writer/director really should have had another person tell him you can't squeeze a bigoted drama horror movie political action film together and expect something fulfilling. While I applaud the edgy approach and true indie notion of for the people by the people film making, the self promotional on demand distribution and lack of recognition here is not surprising. Not only does this toss in every taboo possible, but the wanna be shrewd controversial never makes up its messy mind.

28 June 2016

Schoolgirl Spooky!

Schoolgirl Spooky!
By Kristin Battestella

Ah, young love, coming of age, high school, sorority parties! These aren't such fond memories for the past and present students in this trio of international girl horrors tackling frights, naughty innuendo, the supernatural, and killers on the loose. You know, the usual. 

The Falling Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams leads a group of hysterical English schoolgirls in this 2014 period mystery complete with creepy folk tunes, beautiful landscapes, and old time school bells. The similarities with Picnic at Hanging Rock are also apparent with latent BFFs, a budding blonde, the awkward brunette, the chubby girl playing an instrument, and a science girl in glasses. They sit outside with umbrellas with their pretty teacher, swans, and stopped watches while resentful older crones roll their eyes, and its discomforting to see virgin girls in pigtails discuss orgasms and solving one's pregnancy problems via spells, knitting needles, and a medical book – with icky tips from your brother, too. Maisie's Lydia talks sophisticated but remains a little girl hiding in a nursery cupboard perhaps unaware of why she wants her pretty friend to herself. She browbeats her smoking, washed up mother – the unrecognizable Maxine Peake (Silk) – and is too full of herself to consider her mother's reasons. There should have been more of the adult perspectives bolstering the school and religious structure against the natural, tree loving girls growing up too soon. These teens are trying to be shocking, rebellious, and acting out vicariously – regrets, sexual activity, unhealthy obsessions, and experimentation escalate into fainting fits and faux orgasmic hysteria. Unfortunately, unnecessary music video styled transitions, subliminal strobe inserts, and modern meta interference detract from the repression and grief while external music and spinning cameras make the fainting spells laughable. Did they practice falling? How many flopping on the floor takes were there? Characters calmly step over the girls on the floor, and bemusing “thud” closed captioning accents Lydia's falling and taking everything off the table with her. The middle aged women have a good laugh over these young kids thinking they are older and misunderstood, and faculty debates on science and attention seeking are much better – are the occult, local lay lines, nearby supernatural trees to blame? Do you ostracize one or hospitalize the entire class? Faking or follower questions layer the second half alongside school consequences, perception versus reality, lesbian whispers, and sexual violence. Although the medical testings feel glossed over, the intercut eye twitching, body language, and question and answer psychiatry suggest more – as do other shockers dropped in the last ten minutes. Writer and director Carol Morley's (Dreams of a Life) long form narrative does get away from itself, and this try hard can't always be taken seriously. However, this tale both glorifies femininity and vilifies budding women and the spinster the way society both pedestals and shames, adding enough food for thought to some of the inadvertent chuckles. 

The House on Sorority Row – Pranks and murders on campus, oh my! This 1983 cult slasher opens with a risky pregnancy, pulsing heartbeats, and emergency scalpels before trading the stormy past and blue patinas for some sunny eighties happiness. Everything is so young, beautiful, and babealicious when you graduate from college! It's still fun to see retro cars or rad vans, huge cameras, records, waterbeds, fluorescent fashions, and colorful wallpaper – though there's too much teal and pink for my tastes. Coiffed older women also look quite forties with floppy satin bow shirts and stockings, visually creating a generational divide to represent the living in the past mentalities or old fashioned thinking – they'll be no goodbye parties, beer, or horny and useless frat boys in this house! While there is no chubby gal with glasses, there are some ugly guys used for humor and splatter, and in true eighties horror movie requirement, there is a girl too old to be in pigtails alongside the sex and boobs. Why don't these graduated girls just leave instead of pranking the old lady that wants them to abide the rules of her house? Not to mention they are some pretty poor party hosts – one should always wait to kill somebody till after the festivities so arriving guest don't interfere in your getting rid of the body blundering. Creaking rocking chairs, nursery rhyme music, creepy jester dolls, and a nasty looking cane perfect for bludgeoning accent the good girl versus bad girl slaps, gun play, and deserved turnabouts. Granted, there are some chuckles thanks to stupid actions, some identity of the murderer obviousness, and an overall tameness on what is now a cliché genre formula. Perhaps the one by one kills are predictable – there's a dame alone in the dark basement, because, of course – however the suspense, shadows, and unseen killer editing are well done. The primary location intensifies the bathroom traps, warped mothering, and well paced pursuits while surprise color, angles, and apparitions add to the solid final act. Although the gore isn't elaborate for the sake of it, there are some bloody, creative moments, and this fun, half a million dollar ninety minutes does everything it sets out to do without resorting to today's in your face spectacle.

Picnic at Hanging Rock – The Criterion blu-ray has almost two hours more features discussing this 1975 Australian spooky drama based on the Joan Lindsay novel about schoolgirls gone missing in 1900. The innocent white lace and valentine wishes are soon to be ill foreboding thanks to eerie music and budding whispers. These girls tighten each others corsets in parallel shots with mirrors, BFF poetry, latent suggestions, and repression abound. The seventies breezy fits the late Victoria ruffles, hats, and parasols – gloves are permitted to be removed for this excursion! Capable Aussie help and buttoned up British elite mark a strong class divide, and pretty mountain vistas, wild vegetation, and rocky mazes contrast the lovely yet out of place English manor. Straightforward, controlled camerawork captures the society at home, but surreal, swooning outdoor panoramas invoke Bermuda Triangle suggestions alongside dreamy voiceovers, rolling cloud rumbles, and red symbolism. Insects, reptiles, swans, disturbed bird migrations, fickle horses, watches stopping at noon – the metaphysical or transcendental signs imply something beyond mere coming of age and sexual awakening. Trance like magnetic lures radiating from the titular nooks and crannies stir these Gibson Girl naps, and askew slow motion reflects this layered beauty meets danger. The enchanting blonde, the nerdy girl with glasses, an awkward brunette, and the complaining chubby girl – standard horror stereotypes today – all talk as if they are up to something naughty with self-aware doomed to die chats before scandalously removing their shoes and stockings. A flirty French teacher, the severe math teacher in red reciting lava flow build up and volcano rising statistics with an uncomfortable kinky – we don't see what happens. However, hearing the screams and watching the resulting hysterics make it creepier. Incomplete searches, Victorian speculation, and unreliable witnesses muddle the investigation, but most importantly, doctors assure the survivors are still chaste. Such delicate interrogations and polite society leave newspapers and angry townsfolk wondering while the school faces its own fallout with withdrawals, unpaid terms, drinking, and guilt. Yes, there's some artistic license with absent families, poor forensics, and missing evidence ignored. Surprising connections, however, and good twists in the final forty minutes keep this damn disturbing – and it's all done without gore or effects. The innate power of suggestion, period restraints, and our own social expectations drum up all kinds of unknown possibilities, and I don't know how anyone doesn't consider this a horror movie.

24 June 2016

British Thrillers and Tales

British Thrills, Chills, and Horror Tales
by Kristin Battestella

Let's travel across the pond and back a decade or two for these British crimes, English folktales, night terrors, and cult fears. Pip pip!

Bluebeard – Aerial accolades, colorful balls, and a lavish mansion aren't enough for Welsh titan Richard Burton as he creatively works his way through Sybil Danning (Chained Heat), Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C.), and more dames in this 1972 retelling. Dark room red lighting, old time photography, ink blot artwork, and portraits of the dead add a sinister sense of sophistication as wartime flashbacks and flight disasters explain the flashy facial hair. Unfortunately, tense hunting accidents are too realistic in their animal killings, putting a damper on the well shot action alongside a confusing setting with Nazis talking Aryan beauty, World War I inserts, and a mod mood that feels too sixties. Saucy lace and classy nude women keep every frame pretty, however the famous ladies are dubbed, barely named or developed, and naturally come and go quickly save for singer Joey Heatherton in the first hour. A photograph of each Mrs. with her name and date would have helped heaps in documenting the fatalities rather than haphazard trips down memory lane dragging the middle and stalling the forward discovery. The uneven, meandering focus between the psychosis and a current escape undercuts the audience's emotional attachment – no guillotine pun intended. Burton is having a great time, but we never really get inside the killer's mind thanks to a superficial, lighthearted tone glossing over the potential sexual impetus or mother/son suggestions. Impotence jokes interfere with the women hatred and warped lust deserves death theories, and the prostitute girl-on-girl practicing isn't as tantalizing as it should be – just inadvertently humorous like the score. Dusty suits of armor, wine vats, mysterious keys, secret cameras, and electric chairs do much better in hitting home the peril amid cobwebbed passages, secret spiral stairs, and gruesome taxidermy everywhere. Perhaps the thin points of the original tale are at fault, but this account relies more on the viewer knowing fun deaths are afoot and enjoying the merry-go-round instead of embellishing the story all the way. Despite lacking polish and being a bit too tame, there are fortunately some delightful performances to be had here – especially Welch as a hot nun who seriously got around before the habit.

Fear in the Night – Writer and director Jimmy Sangster (Lust for a Vampire) opens this 1972 Hammer creepy with playgrounds, children singing hymns, and sweet Tudor mansion turned school locales. Judy Geeson's (Mad About You) 22-year-old Peggy should find such quaint idyllic well and jolly good when she moves to the school's cute cottage with her new husband Ralph Bates (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde). Unfortunately, bathroom break ins, masked attacks, prosthetic arms, and others claiming the intruder wasn't there add mentally unstable doubts alongside prior hospital stays and chats with an unseen therapist. This out of term school is empty – covered furniture, set tables with no one there, little beds waiting – not to mention the creepy sculptures and isolated uncertainty. The viewer is invested in the characters thanks to such underlying suspicious, Latin classroom whispers, and charming but surely up to no good headmaster Peter Cushing. His innocent gentlemanly teacher facade quickly becomes old school imposing with “Do an old man a favor” innuendo when Peggy sits in a child size desk while he compliments her. The audience sees clues she doesn't, but we are also cut away from other attack details, adding to the non-believer questioning. Likewise, pre-Alexis Joan Collins is simply too stern, self-assured, and beautiful to be the little old headmaster's wife. Rabbit hunting, loaded guns, home alone at night fears, and scary noises about the house just don't add up, and although slightly sloppy, the intercut sessions with the therapist askew the timeline, creating more unreliability on what has happened. Interspersed awkward meetings and slow burn tensions are somewhat uneven as well, lowering scenes into a lull before false happiness and then topping the act off with a scare, however the rural setting allows for both large scale frights and smaller, intimate interior terrors. Individual sequences are well shot with tense shadows, staircases, echoes, and odd behaviors accenting the unexplained action, trauma, and twists. Shrewd viewers will peg some of the gaslighting obviousness and psychological games at work and there is a certain dull lack of Hammer panache at times, but the cast and final pursuits give this one an entertaining finish.

The Lair of the White Worm – Sleek Amanda Donahue (L.A. Law), posh prick Hugh Grant (Bridget Jones' Diary), the obviously dubbed princess Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty), and scientist Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) star in this 1988 Ken Russell (Lady Chatterley) vampire comedy drawing from Bram Stoker and earlier English tales. Granted, there are no subtitles, making the assorted dialects or cheeky banter tough for some. Folk rock stylings combined with neon and line dances are out of date, too, however the music does provide critical pieces on the eponymous legend. The horror gross buffet winks on English cuisine – setting the quaint country mood alongside a deputy who can't come to the scene because the chief has taken their one car and the lone taxi driver is locked up for drinking. Alas, backyard archaeology uncovers giant, inexplicable fossils amid Roman foundations – leading to vanished parents, cavern evidence, and spelunking for dragon-like earthworms. Ominous short cuts culminate in garter belts, black lingerie, thigh high boots, and steamy baths from one suave ladyship neighbor. The trouser snake and one-eyed monster meets vampire penetrations provide eighties wit and sexy yet absurd self-awareness while nudity and girly temptations accent the creepy paintings and stewardess dream sequences. Fiery flashbacks with nuns, crucifixion, nasty worms, and rapacious Romans look effects poor, yet the bizarre and scary visuals remain effective. Christian versus pagan virgins and scarifies call out both schools as warped angles, hypnotic camera zooms, and well shot frames capture the background crucifix or the monstrous altar in front. Victim paralysis, hissing, lengthy fangs, and spitting venom create a unique reptile design matching the snakes and ladders symbolism and heavy rituals interrupted by the gosh darn bloody doorbell. Although this has a very British, over the top cheerio tone, that bemusing pip pip bungling at times impedes the heroes. It's not scary and snake charmer musical moments are laughable today – but those bagpipes do come in handy! Evil manor surprises result in an intense monster ritual finale complete with green effects, blue body paint, snake gods, visions of bloody bodies on spikes, and a bonus scary looking strap-on giant pointy dildo thing...ouch.

Nothing but the Night – Lovely seaside waves escalate toward explosive cliffside accidents and townhouse suicides in this 1973 ninety minute thriller full of fun seventies interiors and retro British stylings. Funky patterns and zany lamps catch the eye while cool cars, phone booths, tape recorders, old science equipment, teletype machines, and printouts accent the rowdy school bus, suspicious orphanage, and hospital experiments. Meddling newspaper reporters uncover mysterious trust organizations with cult connections, and scholarly doctor Peter Cushing and personally invested police colonel Christopher Lee work together as membership fatalities, red tape, politicking, and aristocratic histories impede the case –leaving a traumatized young girl in the balance. Yes, oft onscreen rivals or villains Big Pete and Our Man Christopher are good guys (!) on the same side (!!) unraveling past traumas and fiery experiences with hypnosis and tender child moments as they battle against a prostitute mother and shady trustees. Both the doctors and the law are trying to do what's right, and Georgia Brown (The Raging Moon) holds her own against misogyny, little woman in the workplace tensions, and some mixing business with pleasure. Fedoras, spotlights, and silhouettes also invoke a noir mood over the seemingly straightforward corruption – initially there really isn't much horror or sinister to the procedural and press conferences. However, freaky deaths, fine child performances, and possibly supernatural twists soon imply something is not right about this island orphanage beyond the converging crimes. Some viewers may find the plot basic with too many layered possibilities lacking a cohesive finesse, and perhaps this should have decided on being all spooky or only straight crime rather than tacking on science and brain talk versus paranormal connections. I also wish Lee's Charlemagne production company had done more films, but the cast, period investigation, increasingly creative kills, and ritual murders do hit home the occult history with shocks, surprises, bonfires, and a crazy good Guy Fawkes finale.

16 June 2016

Just Vamps 6!

Just Vamps 6!
by Kristin Battestella

Here we are on our sixth vampire viewing list – this time with a hungry helping of foreign, avante garde, and saucy little bloodsuckers to tempt your toothy grin.

Dracula's Widow – Red titles, neon signs, and late night storms set the Hollywood horror noir tone for this 1988 vamp moody from director Christopher Coppola (Deadfall) and starring Sylvia Krystel (Emmanuelle). Wax museum artifacts, rattling crates, and jar specimens add an old fashioned Gothic creepy while antiques, retro film reels, red spotlights, and colorful shadow schemes invoke period style. Musty books, horseshoe phones, swanky jazz, and classic cars are sweet, too – better than the dated hairstyles, shiny suits, and symbolic red splash screens inserted over the toothy bites. Krystel's forties femme suit and silky white shirt also mystically remain blood free despite claw-like webbed hands and bemusing gore. Camera irises, stockings, garters, and mid century hats do more for the noir update than the unnecessary bitter detective voiceover and cranky cop clichés – bad dialogue and unfortunate scene chewing miss the attempted dark comedy mark. This movie is very specific on the eighties does forties hot minute, and while audiences from those eras will recognize the look, most viewers today will just end up confused by the seemingly mishmashed genres thanks to the uneven then-contemporary hip and devil worshiping punk gangs intruding on the otherwise careful noir design. Fortunately, there are some good moments here, a lot of the campy works, and the eighty-eight minutes moves fast with investigation clues and vampire research – complete with a crazy, feeble Van Helsing who still has enough amazing strength to stake some vampires in the morgue. Interesting Renfield transformations and conflicts accent boobs, rack torture, bathtub perils, rituals, and slice and dice montages so laughable they are actually kind of good. Despite seriously Saturday morning cartoons ridiculous flying bat graphics and hammy interference, the eighties visual schemes do make for a unique yuppie horror retro and late night suave to fulfill your unintentional vampire comedy needs.

Lips of Blood – French Director Jean Rollin gets right to the mausoleums, Winnebagoes, shrouded bodies, coffins, and rituals in this more upscale than his usual 1975 tale. A somber score, beautiful but spooky memories, and a mysterious woman in white are immediately eerie while a colorful, swanky party and retro fashions create drama and a sophisticated foundation. Blocked childhoods, an overprotective mother, and castle ruins maybe real or imagined add to the secret cemetery passages, hidden tunnels, and questions regarding perfume, scent, and memory. Naturally, there's nudity both male and female complete with a bonus photography session, seventies bush, and masturbation. However, the saucy isn't as rampant here, and this has a more put together story compared to Rollin's usually thin plotlines. Although there is a bit of walking around filler, blue street lights and a moonlight ambiance anchor the after hours aquarium pursuits with an abandoned about the city feeling – there's a dead body in the water fountain and The Shiver of the Vampires is playing at the late night movies, too. Mysterious men follow on the subway while bells, alarms, abductions, and straight jackets intensify the bats, toothy vampire nurses, and undead who help one and hinder or kill another. Phone the mayor the hungry, naked, vampire chicks are loose so gather the staking posse! Though rushed in the end, the unique finale is well edited with an interesting mix of doubt, mystery, character drama, and a sexy creepy. Who's the worse villain – entombed vamp ladies or the village torch mob? And who knew coffins would float so well? Did we know this?

The Shiver of the Vampires – Pall bearers and a black and white graveside set the 1971 Jean Rollin mood before colorful castle ruins, overgrown greenery, and edgy music both embrace the heady and keep the medieval flair with torches, goblets, and candelabras. Howling winds, red lighting, and askew camera angles accent torture chambers and sacrifices, creating a surreal dreamscape with saucy vamps in ye olde but tie dye dresses. The bride in white contrasts those mourning in black while gruesome skulls belie the cathedral architecture, canopy beds, and rustic yet cozy fireplaces. She's too distraught for the marital bed – but our bride strips downs when a hippie woman humorously pops out of the grandfather clock and they lez be friends no questions asked. Sheer clothing doesn't cover the perky naughty bits, so they need all those furs to keep those caressing ladies warm. That poor lonely groom gets left out in the cold! More camera panning, vampire opportunists stepping in and out of the frame, and overhead shots parallel the us versus them debates and whirlwind talk of undead religions and vampire persecutions. Although flashbacks add to the dreamy tone, they also confuse the wild library scene and talk of past crusades, former vampire slayers, and predestined deadly fates. But hey, killer nipple spikes! Yes, the premise is thin with strung together coming to and going fro or looking cool, meandering scenes. Rather than one vampire perspective or the young couple viewpoint, the focus constantly resets. Who's dead? Who's alive? Who's undead? Rival vampire hierarchies at first seem tempting, but twists and true colors ultimately show. Granted, you can say that if you've seen one Rolling vampire movie, you've seen them all. However, had there been seriously proper writing, The Nude Vampire, Shiver of the Vampires, and Requiem for a Vampire could have been a fine trilogy. Fortunately, the nicer production values keep this bizarre romp brimming with an avante garde but no less creepy atmosphere.

Tale of a Vampire – A delicious Julian Sands (Warlock, people, Warlock) leads this 1992 brooding character study brimming with “Annabel Lee” and Poe references to match the bleak back alleys, dark morgues, abandoned blue buildings, and dreary British mood. Despite the underlying urge to bite, predatory love, black cats, creepy vampire beds, and sucking on some bloody fingers, this isn't a gorefest thanks to multilayered social awkwardness, melancholy, loss, and conflict. This lovelorn vampire spends his time in the rare books section of a sweet old library – you use that card catalog! The plot is unfortunately very slow, the isolated characters have no sounding board, and confusing flashbacks of lookalike women and lost bliss don't explain much. The centuries ago golden patinas are well shot, however the uneven pacing and flawed constructs interfere with the storytelling. We should have seen the past to start, using that previous to accent the current torment and slightly unreal, demented fairy tale tone. Why is the audience more sad than creeped by this thirsty stalker? Fine performances carry the drama once the characters actually interact by quoting history and poets in insightful two-handers. “'Tis better to have loved and lost” and all that. Lighting and shadow schemes add to the mysterious rivals, for good love or ill pain possibilities, and strange seductions. Can it really be love if a vampire's idea of romance is to consume the life of his lover? It's oddly pleasing to see this kind of twisted vampire bite symbolism rather than teenage moon eyes, and this simmer builds to a fine finale with some interesting surprises. While not scary, the Gothic romanticism and Victorian waxing on forever and death not being the end of love provide a solid helping of morbid and memento mori.