Ghosts and Cults, Oh My!
By Kristin Battestella
It's phantoms, spirits, and things that go bump in the night versus masks, torches, rituals, and chanting in these frights be they recent, retro, foreign, or domestic chills.
Kill List – Financial arguments, unemployment, and stressed parents shouting open British director Ben Wheatley's (High-Rise) 2011 slow burn while fade ins and outs create a disconnected passage of time amid his mundane routine, tearful phone calls in her native Swedish, and brief playtime with their son. Clearly they are trying to keep it together just for him, but recession talk and conversations about their military past make dinner with friends more awkward. Despite some wine, laughter, and music; tensions remain alongside bloody tissues, mirrors, and creepy occult symbols. Foreboding rainbows, eerie skies, and contracts signed in blood lead to fancy hotels, mysterious clients, guns, and stacks of cash. This sardonic, violent lifestyle is normal to our hit men – want a hot tub, put on a nice suit and kill a few people to make money for your family! Things should be looking up, but past mistakes, religious conflicts, and hits gone wrong interfere with the fine dining, friendly chatter, stakeouts, and casually executed executions. The deliberate pace may be slow to some, however full moons, hallway zooms, and binocular views set off the lying in wait preparations, silencers, and worship regalia. Thumping body bags miss the dumpster and victims aren't surprised their time has come, but off screen implications disturb both our hardened hit men. They are the righteous torturers breaking knee caps and bashing hands! Dead animals, blood splatter, off list hits, dirty crimes, and graphic skull work are not for the faint of heart as the kills become messy and out of control. Ominous women in white, blood stains, infected cuts – this violence is going far beyond their normal work but there's no getting out here. Nothing good can come from this dreary potboiler as the kills increase from ironic to curious and ultimately brutal in a final act providing throwback shocks and a sense of realism straying into unreliability. Night gear observations at a fancy estate begat torches, chanting, robes, and masks. If you've seen enough cult horror, the ritual foreshadowing is apparent, however there's a warped cleansing to the rain, drumbeats, and sacrifice. Gunfire, tunnels, knife attacks, screams, and unknowns make for gruesome turnabouts that bring the consequences home in a silent, disturbing, grim end.
Ouija: Origin of Evil – 1967 hair flips, pastel colors, and cool Cadillacs accent the seances, candles, and rumbling tables to open this 2016 prequel from director Mike Flanagan (Oculus). Shadows make themselves known as loved ones are told what they need to hear – it's not a scam or a lie, for this widowed psychic mom and her daughters provide closure with their showmanship thanks to orange patinas, period glows, and whooshes that aren't in your face shock booms. Bills are tight, their late daddy isn't talking to them, and our teen daughter is rebelling with go go boots, groovy parties, and the titular games. Relatable moments build the family dynamics alongside palm readings and one of those newfangled boards for their repertoire – complete with magnets under the table. Unfortunately, the youngest plays with the board alone and now there's a new friend in the house to help with homework and tell the ladies where to find cash hidden behind the basement bricks. Now they are the ones having spirits tell them what they need to hear, and the psychic child using the board for paid readings adds to the abusive innuendo – the spirit uses her hand to write, its voice tickles her throat, her mouth is stretched and overtaken. The camera remains on the characters as they look in the dark and ask who is there, building atmosphere with peripheral glances and warped views through the planchette eye before demons in the mirror, contortions, static on the boob tube, and possessions. The letters written in another language, channeling, debunking, buried evidence, and ghosts recounting murder are much more interesting than the generic teen scares of the first film. That said, the bathroom shocks, just a dream gotchas, typical ghosts pretending to be someone else, war time occult experiments, exorcising priests, and mental wards rush the overlong third act. It's as if no one knew how to end this leading up to the original Ouija when it never had to be connected at all. Fortunately, rather than preposterous time wasting panoramic awes, we can see the creepy takeovers and choice zooms despite the increasingly dark picture. Skulls, white out eyes, voice distortions, mouths sewn shut, shackles, and knives leave adults at the whim of the possessed youths, and this remains a spirited piece with plenty of simmer.
Could have been Better
Good Against Evil – Writer Dack Rambo (Dallas) and a young Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) battle devil worshippers in this 1977 ABC ninety minute television movie written by Jimmy Sangster (The Curse of Frankenstein). Of course the print and sound are poor, but the atmospheric score, orange lighting, black cats, and purple skylines set off the New York 1955 labor screams, abducted baby, and freaky nurse in a Flying Nun wimple. Sure, the delirium and distorted angles capitalize on similar seventies devil seed pictures, but the dark hospital corridors and perilous staircases create a sinister paranoia versus swanky parties, candles, and demonic altars. The creepy persistence continues with 1977 San Francisco galleries, fashion design, cool vans, and hip styles. Our grown up babe thinks this new idyllic romance with boat rides and picnics is good luck from her guardian angel – she's won scholarships and top New York contracts thanks to her mysterious benefactors and it's all picturesque Golden Gate Bridge scenery and young love sappy. Although horseback perils and growling cats reveal the cut production corners on the action filming, there are doubts on this drifter cum writer boyfriend with fortune telling booths, spying photography, shrines, and pentagrams. This ingenue somehow knows she is bad for men and they always end up suspiciously dead around her amid caves, rituals, and cult leaders wanting immortality for her promised virginity as the devil's bride. Priests, cemeteries, tolling bells, and prayers lead to more mishaps as minions are punished for their failures. Hypnosis and church assistance come too late as the maiden quarry is absconded back to New Orleans in hopes of her devilish consummation. And then, somehow the last half hours turns into an Exorcist knockoff with a possessed little girl and a terrified mom. It has nothing to do with the previous hour's destined dame or her rescue from this cult. Our writer and the exorcising priest team up thanks to some silly wind gusts and evil meowing, and it's obvious that rather than resolve the movie's premise, this had hopes for being a righteous duo on the road horror series. While the spooky little occult romance is okay for a late night marathon, it's lack of a proper resolution hurts what could have been interesting.
One to Skip
Winchester – Hammering sounds, lantern light, staircases, tolling bells, and dark corridors accent this 2018 tale of the famed mystery mansion starring Helen Mirren (The Tempest) as Sarah Winchester. Period patinas, maze like designs, carriages, and cluttered libraries add mood, however creepy kid warnings and opium stupors contribute to an unnecessary opening twenty minutes. The Winchester company lawyer wants a doctor to assess the titular widow's state of mind – an unwelcoming, typical start with men hiring other men to outwit a woman in a superfluous modern script that does everything but focus on the eponymous subject. Jump scares and crescendos compromise subtle winds and ghostly movements, and the bright picture and special effects editing feel too contemporary. One and all talk about the construction oddities, spiritualism, and the reclusive Widow Winchester's grief, but it's too much telling instead of seeing her unreliability and the potentially paranormal. Eerie sounds from the call pipe system are an excuse for ill-advised exploring, dreams, and more disjointed flashes. Quiet overhead scene transitions and meandering tours of the house have no room to create atmosphere because there must be a back and forth mirror fake out – it's a bathroom scare at the ye olde wash stand! One can tell this was written and directed by men, for even as a trio there are no checks or balance on how to tell a women's horror story. We don't know her internal or external torment over this spiritual construction as the creepy veils, automatic writing, and supernaturally received architectural plans are too few and far between, and the audience remains at arms length through the keyhole rather than inside with the ghostly connections. Why isn't the possessed kid with the potato sack on his head who's jumping off the roof and shooting at the old lady removed from the house? Why should the spirits leave her family alone when the Mrs. begs them to when the script hasn't given them or us any reason to listen to her? The backward perspective here puts viewers in a skeptical, debunking mindset, leaving the picture with something to prove and audiences looking for the fright around the corner – creating predictable haunts rather than period simmer. Though capable of a one woman show, Mirren is a mere macguffin as old newspapers, flashback splices, and physical bullets bring down one disgruntled ghost as if that's supposed to stop the silly whooshes, earthquake rattling, and exaggerated construction destruction. Maybe the ghostly shocks and turn of the century accents are fine for a spooky midnight movie. However the historically diverging and problematic constructs here shift a unique, one of a kind women's story in an amazing setting into a pedestrian, nonsensical copycat horror movie about a man facing his own ghosts. Good grief.