Demonic and Witchy Viewings 4!
by Kristin Battestella
Foreign or domestic, historical, vintage or modern – these scary thrillers up the ante with a full serving of devilish deeds, Salem persecutions, exorcisms, and deadly spells.
Satan's School for Girls – Mysterious suicides lead earnest sister Pamela Franklin (The Legend of Hell House) to a private school cult in this 1973 Aaron Spelling produced television movie. Sure, its as over the top as one suspects, and the streaming print is flat and jumpy with hisses and low volume. Fortunately, that dated charms adds to the in medias res start as a fearful pace, dangerous driving, screams, and unseen scares hit the ground running. And wow, a phone booth with a rotary dial, you call the operator with the name of the person, the town, and boom, connected! Assorted seventies hairstyles – short and feathered, pixie cropped, long and straight hippie – help tell the girls apart while classic cars, old time coppers, long cigarettes, and colorful fashions add to the fun. Mid-century mod California homes and lakeside views give way to an obviously not filmed in Massachusetts campus. However the not so idyllic “Salem Academy” art school led by gloriously classy but totally suspicious Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden) does have a rural spooky atmosphere with old-fashioned oil lamps and antique water basins and pitchers. Who's wearing red hints, shadowy stairs, storm outages, and lightning strikes accent the snooping where one shouldn't in creepy buildings and cluttered basements while lantern light only filming drafts a natural ominous. Granted, some of the witchy legends, colonial timelines, and hanging stories don't make much sense. So-called undercover investigations are soap opera melodramatic, and the inexplicable plot turns to hysterics or jumping to conclusions as needed. Spelling's subsequent Charlie's Angels Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd seem a little too old for this kind of college, but there are wine parties hosted by cool and surely up to no good professor Roy Thinnes (The Invaders). Eerie paintings, artwork clues, and rats in a maze experiments suggest a brainwashing beyond average school pressures, and these girls grow desperate as the gunpoint confrontations, drownings, and sacrifices mount. Ritual robes, fun jump scares, surprise twists, fiery shockers, and a wild finish keep this campus cult creeper entertaining to the end.
Superstition – This 1982 family home with burning at the stake roots is at times a laughable eighty-five minutes with a cliché Winnebago, creepy caretakers, and exploding heads. They clean up these derelict places so quickly, too! The uneven bad music cues and loud shouts are frustrating as well, and the dream montage recapping all the spiffy gore and under the sea monster motifs is pretty hammy. However, today's viewers must admit these nostalgic bemusements are the same as contemporary horror gimmicks that won't necessarily stand the test of time, either. Fortunately, the abandoned interiors, sheeted furniture, trashed kitchen, and ominous microwave feel like a good haunted house attraction – we know the pranks and jump scares are coming, so we can chuckle whether they get us or not. An icky green pond, dangerous dock, elevator mishaps, and a mysterious little girl in white make for nice locales and set pieces where the bads can happen while police afoot investigate these seemingly random and accidental deaths. The new minister is stuck with this 1692 gruesome parish property and its killer history, and church suits versus baba yaga huts make for an interesting mix of ignorance and aid. Rather than a beleaguered family calling in a priest, here we see the house from a pastoral perspective first. Unfortunately, blessing a house during construction leads to some disastrous tool mishaps. I did not see that one coming! Of course, the drunkard minister moving in does have teen daughters in short shorts and a nippy wife in a tight white shirt, adding more scares and eye candy. Past rituals, crosses, and exorcisms in a ye olde tyrannical flashback are also perfectly medieval with robes, chanting, and stoneworks. Perhaps it would have been better to start with this period setting, but the storms, torches, rack-like strap downs, and satanic voices provide fiery consequences to match the finale twists. The what you don't see here keeps the freaky discoveries and wild monsterworks self-aware and enjoyable fun. After all, it's not every day the hand pulling you down in the lake comes up with you as somebody's dead detached arm. Hehehehe.
The Monk – Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) stars in this 2011 French/Spanish historical genre-bender based on the 18th century Matthew Lewis novel, and superb cinematography, locations, stonework, and Renaissance color harken a fittingly medieval yet surreal mood. This is the Inquisition past but cemeteries, ghosts, and dreams invoke spooky while potentially real or imagined magic and possessions represent repressions, sins, and twists. Once you get that first taste with a small, easy temptation, those transgressions just keep snowballing! Cassel is both perfectly gothic and seemingly pious but no less rousing at the pulpit and desperately sensuous. The eponymous, hitherto isolated Ambrosio is pent up rather than repenting, and his lofty ecclesiastic skills degrade into sinister trades. Morality debates and hypocritical ways play tug of war as religion and society at once pedestal mothers, pregnancy, childbirth, and babies but shame the out of wedlock or perceived sinful sex and wanton behaviors. Unapproved relations and a fleshy existence compromise our purity, and Lucifier is among these brethren with trick roses and myrtle to take the illusions and sexuality past the point of no return. Is this a miracle or a devilish spell? Do the exorcisms and possessed nearby spread their demonic touch to Ambrosio? Is the mysterious and masked monk Valerio real or merely another vision? The entire viewpoint here is suspect – as if we are watching an internal battle of wills or a purgatory fight for the soul. Though the complex tale is paired down to 100 minutes, some of the abstract can be confusing thanks to lookalike ladies and French dialogue that doesn't always match the English subtitles. The somewhat still, portrait styled presentation also feels too tame at times, going for a high brow meta but leaving what should be clarified as unexplained, too open to interpretation, or lost in translation. Fortunately, that numb, highly contemplative tone also feels deliberate – a reflection on our outwardly righteous, unassuming cleric suppressing an internal villainous allure. While not outright horror, the monasteries, naughty nuns, young medieval maidens, and sacrilege or worse keep the audience in a discomfortable, unsettling, can't look away atmosphere. The repression suspense, evil escalation, wicked toppers, and wonderful performances combine for a well done picture worth a look.
The Witch – We don't get many Puritan period pieces anymore much less ninety minutes plus of simmering 17th century horror as seen in this 2015 festival darling. Big hats, white collars, thee versus thou court room arguments, and family banishments immediately establish the ye olde alongside natural lighting and authentic thatch buildings for a rural, simplistic ambiance. Unfortunately, such exile to these empty, harsh, unyielding lands turns devotions to desperation with gray crops, bloody eggs, abductions, and babies in peril raising tensions in the humble hovel. Spooky forests, fireside red lighting, blood, nudity, ravens, and primal rituals suggest a dark underbelly only partially seen with hazy splices, shadows, and moonlight. The screen is occasionally all black and certain scenes are very tough to see, but such visual bewitching adds to the folktale surreal. Personal, intimate prayers are addressed directly to the camera, and we feel for Anya Taylor-Joy (Atlantis) as Thomasin when she apologizes for her sin of playing on the Sabbath. The scripture heavy dialogue and religious names are fittingly period yet remain understandable as coming of age children question how an innocent baby can be guilty of sin. Both parents' faces are shadowed with hats, dirt, and impurity, yet snapping mom Kate Dickie (Red Road) gives Thomasin all the difficult work. Increasing dog problems, ram troubles, and creepy rabbits contribute to the toughness – the young twins chant oldeth nursery songs to the goats and claim there is a witch at work, but dad Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones) isn't totally forthcoming with his grief, hopeless trading, and family pressures. The isolated, starving couple argues, debating on sending the children away as the strain, zealousness, and fears mount. Ominous lantern light, alluring witchcraft, and almost ritualistic in itself bloodlettings stir the finger pointing hysterics while great performances hit home the wild bed fits and exorcism-esque prayers. Somebody has to be blamed. Where do you get help when evil would take advantage of such hypocrisy and social failings? It's easy to imagine the fantastic or confuse apparitions of the dead as angels when the devil answers your pleas instead of Grace. Maybe one has to be familiar with Puritan history or Biblical texts to fully appreciate the struggles and references here. However, contemporary audiences should realize that there's more to the horror film genre than today's rinse repeat wham bam boo gore. Although a brighter picture would have been nice, the genuine designs here are much more pleasing than any digital overkill. Doubt, what you don't see, and the power of suggestion escalate the horrors with maniacal laughter, screams, and one scary voice leading to a deliriously delicious finale. Why aren't these niche indies that do film making right really the mainstream cinema?