Witches, Writers, and Scary Clowns
by Kristin Battestella
This contemporary potluck provides unexpected horrors in unique places thanks to scary witches, trapped writers, and killer clowns.
The Witch in the Window – A distant dad and his withdrawn twelve year old son move into to a New England fixer upper in this 2018 creepy billed as a Shudder Original. Although there is a driving montage with a pee stop and complaints about nature; the family arguments, hardware dialogue, and real estate questions are more realistic than the oft seen teen horror cliches. Mom dislikes the flipping gamble, dad's trying to make up for past mistakes, and the kid who doesn't want to be there has been in trouble for some shady internet exploring because he's too big for his old action figures and frustrating Magic Eye hidden pictures. The scenery and house are wonderful, however ominous windows, a spooky basement, thumping within the walls, and no neighbors for quarter of a mile provide mood - and the local terror tales of our eponymous lady weren't disclosed in the sale. Brief, disturbing glimpses of corpses and dead crows in the chimney acerbate heart conditions as men and boys are admittedly freaked out over eerie reflections in the mirror and warning voices about the house's past. Filming within frames or windows are well done, and the audience must pay attention to the solitude. We see apparitions the protagonists do not, but the chills aren't in your face boo shock crescendos for the viewer's benefit. Instead, the increasingly crowded setting gets freakier by doing almost nothing at all while crackling electricity and natural lighting make us speculate further on what we see or don't see. The title tells the audience what's coming, however, ghosts don't appear on the smartphone camera and silence makes the ghoulish silhouettes all the more terrifying. What are our boys to do when the house they intend to flip already has a resident? Men talk over beers, debating if a haunted house can really hurt them after sleepwalking, questionable phone calls, and deceiving appearances. Can a bad home be made good again? Work progresses during the day, for all are afraid to stay there at night when the scary truths are revealed. Viewers shouldn't let our guard down as eerie doubts on who's inside or out and real or illusion escalate to disturbing contact and bargains to stay with the frights or abandon the home. At only seventy-seven minutes, there's no excess fluff necessary to tell these well-paced scary metaphors and surprisingly heart warming horrors.
Writers Retreat – Novelists face their fears in more ways than one at this 2015 island workshop with high tide isolation and no internet or cell phones. Awkward book signings, contract deadlines, angry agents, dead vermin, and highway mishaps assure this meeting is off on the wrong foot for our introverted strangers. There's one emergency landline, and the ice breaker exercises, manuscript focus, and writing discussions are more like therapy for this diverse group. Writers are weird by nature, however some are more pretentious than others, rolling their eyes and creating tension over what they consider hack manuscripts if the wounded amateur is upset by their critique. Staring at the blank laptop screen, long hand journaling, inspirational photography, and subjects going off by themselves provide withdrawn writing routines but the notebooks, clicking keys, and angelic, panning montages make it seem like we're witnessing something mystical in action when writing is a lot more complicated than that. Brief sentences read aloud reveal much about these characters in need of validation, for a few aren't even writing at all before sudden disappearances, red herrings, and inside/outside, voyeuristic camera framing to match the lurking men, misogynistic threats, and gory evidence. Private moments away from the workshop make the viewer pay attention to the individual prejudices, flirtations, preferences, drinking, history, and self harm. Everyone has their issues, but is anyone willing to kill for the 'write what you know' experience? Mysteries and relative truths escalate into horror with hammers to the head, stabbings, and rap tap tapping on the windows let in for some slicing and dicing. Vomiting, blood, pointing fingers, and power outages accent the writing angles and slasher styles as deliberate reveals, torture instruments laid out in the kitchen, eyeballs on the platter, and a glass of wine provide scene chewing villainy. Unfortunately, the intriguing, sophisticated start does devolve in one fell swoop with haphazard running around, dead body shocks, and knockouts or tie ups that happen too easy. There's no one by one crafty kill or time for our intelligent writers to piece the crimes together – or not reveal what they know because that nugget would be a great piece for their manuscript. Creative corkscrew uses, torture porn, and one on one gruesome go on too long, unraveling with loud boo crescendos for every hit, stab, and plunge making an injury seem so severe before the victim inexplicably comes back for more. Although the final act and the predictable bookends deserved more polish, this is worth the late night look for both writers and horror fans.
You Make the Call
The Clown at Midnight – Teacher Margot Kidder (Black Christmas) and her drama class clean up Christopher Plummer's (Somewhere in Time) abandoned theatre in this 1999 Canadian horror cum unintentional comedy. Pagliacci posters, candles, roses, and backstage juicy lead to ominous theatre staircases, knocks on the star's dressing room door, and violent shockers accented by opera. The murderous history, killer clowns, vintage costumes, and grand stage scale create atmosphere, however the death by Pagliacci is too on the nose Seinfeld laughable before restarting with typical teen exposition. There are theatre nerds, gay drama queens, a black BFF, the bad boy who drives a hearse, and the conscripted football star and his prom queen serving the poor dialogue, terrible acting, and Scooby Doo clichés. Fortunately, rats, falling lighting, suspect relatives, and whispers of ghosts accent Kidder's much needed sassy and Plummer's underutilized suave. Viewers miss the adults when they're off screen – we don't care about the kids sneaking beer and pizza behind the teacher's back before deliberately trying to scare the emo daughter of the theatre's famous victim. It's ridiculously convenient that her school has received this grant to fix up the scene of the crime while she's having inexplicable psychic visions and hysterical episodes. This blending of the past and present would have been better if the ensemble was just a little older or more defined – college parapsychologists or a film crew rather than leaving the love triangles, strangulations, axes, and beheadings amid the teen lame jumping to conclusions just because the script says so. Naturally, there are giveaways from the beginning that a killer clown is on the loose, which takes away the ambiguity on top of bemusing clown phobias and dream fake outs before cleaning montages and terrible music. Rope mishaps, electricity sparks, and stage sword mishaps are also ruined by a crappy sex scene that's spliced with the thrusts, panting, and give it to me voiceover from a mock sword fight. It's stupid enough to tune out then and there, yet the appeal of seeing these teens get what they deserve is greater thanks to creepy elevators, maze like stagings, trap doors, and spears. Rooftop scares and freaky props don't have enough time to fully utilize the atmosphere, and there's no real mystery like there should because the dark comedy winking on the genre falls flat. Despite unique potential, the fatal Pagliacci cues, terrible punchlines, and lack of resolution underestimate the audience. There are better teen slashers out there, and one has to be able to laugh at the low budget gore or enjoy shouting at the television to forgive the obviousness here.