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.