Polarizing Recent Horrors
By Kristin Battestella
This batch of supernatural scares and science fiction fears both foreign and domestic serves up some interesting ghosts and literary twists alongside some meh, skip-worthy, and polarizing frights.
I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in The House – Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair) stars in this 2016 Netflix original written and directed by Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat's Daughter). Poetic voiceovers tell of a house being borrowed by the living while dark screens and period silhouettes come in and out of focus, creating an aged feeling for our colonial house, ailing horror author, and her jilted live in nurse Lily – who must always wear white, can't be touched, and slaps her own hand for snooping. Certainly there are obvious implications with repeated phrases, solitary scenes, one side phone calls, whispering voices, and no outdoor perspectives to disrupt our attention from the suspect footsteps and undisturbed décor. Old music with ironic lyrics, cassettes, rotary phones, typewriters, static TV antennas, and Grateful Dead shirts also invoke a trapped in the past mood implying that the thin veil between life and death is soon to be broken. Shadowed, almost black and white shots and doorways framed in darkness make the audience question which side of the looking glass we are on – slow zooms peer into the dark frames or blacked out night time windows. There are shock moments, but the one woman play design is intense without being loud or in your face. Blindfolds, old fashioned dresses, mirrors, musty papers, and mysterious boxes increase amid moldy walls and suspicious characters from our author's 1960 novel The Lady in the Walls – creating slow burn literary flashbacks, parallel self-awareness, ghostly uncertainty, and feminine duality on wilted old age blooms versus forever beautiful flowers. Is this a linear story or are the past, present, living, and dead blending together? Again, the answers are apparent with book titles and name hints hidden in plain sight. No one eats, sleeps, or bathrooms yet this ghostly rot and repetition may take multiple viewings for full discussion, interpretation, and analysis. Although there are some pretentious arty for the sake of it moments – not the papa Anthony Perkins scenes on the TV! – knocking on the walls, a flipped up rug, buzzing flies, and a will requesting another woman writer come to chronicle this “House of Stories” are atmosphere enough without run of the mill wham bam effects. This individual horror experience remains can't look away intriguing for old school horror fans not expecting thrills a minute and those who enjoy a seventies, no concept of time mood.
Twixt – Washed up horror writer Val Kilmer (The Doors) stars in this 2011 Francis Ford Coppola directed askewer set in a sleepy town featuring zany sheriff Bruce Dern (The 'burbs) and a belfry with seven clocks each telling a different time. One hear tells of twelve ghostly kids playing at midnight and a thirteenth child damned, and bodies in the morgue are free for the viewing since the serial killer's calling card is a giant wooden stake. Bat houses are totally different from bird houses, and the abandoned hotel once sheltered Edgar Allan Poe. Val's ponytail, fedora, and drinking hit home the hoofing it, down on his luck author – his bookstore signing is in the bookshelf half of the hardware store! He's asking for advances so his estranged wife won't sell priceless literary collectibles, and Joanne Whalley's (Willow) angry video chats tops off the backwoods humor. Old fashioned lanterns, fax machines, radios, split screen calls, tolling bells, clockwork groans, and wonky camera angles accent the weird nighttime blues, silver patinas, eerie woods, and decayed buildings. Distorted movements, slow motion fireplaces, skyline perspectives, exaggerate neon signs, specific red accents, and individual lighting schemes become increasingly distorted, and Elle Fanning's (Maleficent) a mysterious porcelain doll-like girl. At times, the Sin City-esque style seems odd for odd's sake, but the onscreen editor wants a vampire book with a story not just bullshit visuals, and a portable table and chair, ritual writing space, and blank computer screens wink at the select all delete that perhaps only writers can understand. Yes, it's obvious we may be in an onscreen fiction thanks to the maybe maybe not dream quality, moonlit breakfasts, and imaginary conversations with Ben Chaplin's (The Truth about Cats & Dogs) Poe blending the titular sense of time together. Is this the creative subconscious, a story in progress, or a purgatory limbo for our author? The interpretive subtext layers the warped atmosphere, but the busy tale within a tale, life imitating art twists end abruptly with typical creepy minister prayers, snakes, mea culpa, and literary catharsis. This isn't perfect and probably too full of itself – nobody is going to red pencil Coppola – but this didn't deserve to be a festival blink with a delayed video release. In fact, Coppola's intentions as a live interactive film with different versions depending on audience reaction remain intriguing, making the picture either all dream, all reality, or all inside story rather than a patchwork narrative with pieces of each. Today, this choose your own adventure concept would be a water cooler Netflix event! Of course, the industry doesn't embrace out there film making, and one also needs Coppola's Godfather clout and financial freedom to do this kind of hobbyist release. Many will hate such uneven indulgence, but the oddities here are worth a look.
One Science Fiction Horror Questionable
The Last Days on Mars – This 2013 science fiction horror British co-production boasts a fine cast including Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan), Olivia Williams (Manhattan), Elias Koteas (Chicago P.D.), and Romola Gari (The Crimson Petal and the White). Their six month Martian stay in claustrophobic habitat buildings has nineteen hours left, yet some work up to the last minute while others dread the coffin-like sleep and ride home. It's been a testy unglamorous trip with little scientific research to validate their efforts, and sunny swing music contrasts the dust, sandstorms, rocks, and bitter mood. Realistic effects, spacesuits, equipment, and rovers fall prey to patchy communications, offline systems, and flickering lights – adding more tension to the mundane repairs, decompression, and radiation. Everyone's already frazzled before the hidden evidence, deceptions, and accusations over scientific credit lead to maydays, disappearing crew, bottomless caverns, and underground organisms. Depressurizing airlocks, contamination, monstrous attacks, and gruesome drill uses enforce the perilous environs, quarantines, and suit tears. Pointing fingers at who's infected, proactive antibiotic experiments, and intravenous versus vapor distribution accent the race to the exit rendezvous and radio chatter horrors heard but not seen. However, the helmets and dark, hectic scenes make it tough to tell what's happening, and one can certainly argue that no alien zombie morph mutations were necessary when the isolated people on edge is SF horror enough without bringing the Z word to Mars. Somber moments also come off as too pretentious, trying to be more sophisticated than the Alien and Aliens imitation – strong women defending protocols, travel through a pipe to restore communication, and only one person able to contact the incoming ship amid double crossings and cliché panic attacks. Such derivative cheats proceed as expected, claiming any moody atmosphere with too many endings resulting in unsatisfying cop outs. While initially entertaining, too many wrong turns just run out of steam in final act.
And a Skipper!
White Settlers – A city couple moves to a too good to be true Scottish fixer upper on a medieval battle site in this 2014 British snoozer also called The Blood Lands. After the usual cool opening credits, are we there yet driving to the horrors, a somewhat shady estate agent, no phone signals, and a move in montage; the very unprepared wife realizes she's afraid of being in an isolated handyman house without power. Of course, her jerk husband makes Scottish jokes, refusing to let up on his bullshit attitude even when there's a scary break in and unseen attackers. The outdoor saucy, surprisingly immature and incompatible couple, and nighttime suspicious are typical clichés, and the divine scenery, historical references, and great house are never used to their full potential. When the description refers to ancient battles, one sort of expects something wild like ghosts or cults and past meets present horror – not guys in pig masks angry at the new neighbors. It's tough to feel any of the supposed English versus Scottish subtext because the horror is so substandard. Eden Lake had better us versus them twists, and I swear I just saw this terrorizing hooligans in animal masks trope in at least three other horror house siege movies. Although flashlights and fog make it difficult to see much of anything here, and our wife has to apologize to her asshole husband for her being afraid even while she's the superior fighter. Maybe this isn't that bad on its own, but it's certainly disappointing if you are expecting anything more than Brits chasing some other Brits through the woods in the dark. Nothing here is horror sentient – people go back to check the still body, bads talk rather than act to create a contrived victim escape, and who trusts the creepy little boy for help? Hello, McFly. If you didn't want any English buying your Scottish property, why not blame the real estate lady who sold it to them? Or the bank that made the price so high? How is unrealistically terrorizing and ridiculously kicking out the new owners so you can move in going to get rid of any of the real world consequences?
Despite tens of thousands of newer horror movies available between Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime, Starz, and other free streaming sites; I find its becoming increasingly tougher to find the small percent that's quality horror thanks to an overwhelming saturation of low budget yarns, unimaginative knockoffs, no name derivatives, and second tier rehashings with woeful video covers and abysmal ratings or reviews. I feel like I need to do an essay alone on how to spot a bad horror movie, as there is just a ridiculous amount of sludge sinking the genre – and drowning its viewers. I protest such drivel!