30 June 2019

Horrific Period Pieces

Horrific Period Pieces
by Kristin Battestella

Steeped in gothic mood and bleak atmosphere, this trio of films past and present provides both period piece sophistication and slow burn horrors.

Black Torment – Black screen panting and tense chases through the brush with music to match every snapped branch and booted footstep open this 1964 eighteenth century ye olde horror. It's not a Hammer production, though it certainly feels like it with brutal strangulations, newlyweds in carriages, tricorn hats, bosomy frocks, and angry barons in powdered wigs. Heraldic notes and a lovely country manor house with grand columns and chandeliers belie the ornery blacksmiths, crippled nobles, and village tales of murder and violence. Sign Language is the only way to communicate, but the invalid can see and hear all the whispering servants, giggling maids, and witchcraft rumors – not to mention some casual innuendo about drinking and getting merry with the oh so fashionable butler. Ominous letters, cryptic family mottoes, eerie ancestral portraits, and footmen carrying the clearly pained but unable to object patient create tension amid noises in the night, a missing family bible, and suicidal history. There's romance but also secrets, screams, barred windows, and phantom ladies walking the grounds. Who's imagining what or driving one to madness? Despite obvious doppelganger red herrings, the mystery builds a sinister atmosphere with wheelchairs and evil suspicions while lingering recollections of a first wife provide Rebecca shade. Necking in the stables and townsfolk versus ruling gentry intensify as the seemingly law abiding local militia is also beholden to our baron regarding horse chases and murder accusations. Misunderstandings on a man said to be in two places at once escalate with tell tale ink, staircase frights, fainting spells, fatal revelations, and churchyard toppers. Slow spins, blurred images, askew angles, and up close camera shots of terrified eyes and sweating temples accent the out of control ill tempers and brain fevers while entertaining visions, muskets, and climatic sword fights set off the titular frights with a little foaming at the mouth for good measure. Although the dim, elusive print is in need of a good restoration, this sophisticated period piece pot boiler with horror pacing and flair is well worth the watch for mid-century gothic fans.

The Little Stranger – Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) directs Domhnall Gleeson (The Force Awakens), Ruth Wilson (I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House), and Charlotte Rampling (Zardoz) in this 2018 adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel. Post-war razors, old telephone ring rings, vintage lamp glows, and doctor bags set the scene before house calls to the lovely but overgrown country manor sheltering a burned RAF pilot and a fearful servant. Damaged plaster, a disused service bell system, quaint antiques, and a fine staircase provide former grandeur – our doctor's mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall before the 1919 parasols and garden parties last hurrahs. This fallen Old World charm versus Second war torn onward crossroad is firmly felt, and some cannot let go of the past. Layered dialogue provides the catching up exposition on family deaths, new medical treatments that could heal the wounded, and the once wealthy now like everyone else unable to afford upgrades and estate taxes. Our poor country doctor is more formal and button up in his suit, a stoic spire in the center of the frame interfering with family affairs or land sales when not spending holidays making their tea. Extreme, distorted, close up shots reflect his invasion of this space where the manor's past is still very much in the present, and his narration recalling a visit there as a boy parallels current events – he's “admitted” at the top of the stairs rather than waiting at the bottom, spoiled like a proper little gentleman, and made to feel like a part of the house. Mirrors and careful editing reflect the intermingling while the forties gowns inspire a past within the past trying to recapturing that pre-war class feeling. Awkward parties mixing old philosophies and new pretentiousness begat sudden dog attacks, blood, and screams. Real life troubles, barely understood shell shock, and fears that there's something in the house that wants them dead affect everyone's state of mind, and although our doctor has new opportunities in the city, viewers wonder if his dancing and romancing the daughter is just to complete his mastery of the home. Everything is happy away from the leaky house with knocking sounds, disturbances in the night, and names of the dead inscribed on the walls yet he wants to stay while she's ready to leave once the bells ring by themselves and old speaking pipes echo from the nursery. Many incidents are told rather than seen, which adds to the psychological versus supernatural mystery as more of the manor is explored. After such hear tell subtlety, the scares are more intense when they do happen – slamming doors and desperate pounding are traumatic for the person experiencing the out of control malevolence. Are the ghosts and poltergeists real or merely hysterical women in some collective episode? Memories and self harm escalate to emergencies in the night, fatal falls, ghostly interventions, and who can't or won't let go extremes without the need for anything over the top thanks to fine performances and period touches. This may be slow for some but the characterizations and drama don't rely on run of the mill in your face scares. Elements left unexplained create discussion, and this should probably be watched twice for the subdued setting of the scene – which is perfect for audiences that don't expect chills a minute and can enjoy a simmering sense of dread.

Lizzie – Maid Kristen Stewart (Twilight) gets steamy with the titular turn of the century murderess Chloe Sevingy (American Horror Story) in this 2018 biopic accented with fine costumes, rustic lighting, and vintage Victorian interiors. Six months before the screams and blood, the buttoned up, repressed daughter is already defiant against the patriarchal oppression by going to theatre parties unaccompanied where low cut, colorful frocks contrast the tight collars and immediate sexual tension at home. The Bordens can't have anything too extravagant despite being able to afford it, and Lizzie prefers the barn and animals to people, reading aloud in an innocent but antisocial loneliness. While some dialogue is a little too modern, our eponymous lady has a progressive, forceful, even masculine energy that can't be contained with fainting spells. Our old maid is called a lesbian abomination but in turn rightfully calls her perverse, abusive father a lying coward before creaking floorboards, broken mirrors slid under the door, revenge injuries, and burned documents reveal the truth. The up close camera often peers through the window, catching the glances as each lady looks at each other – the audience is in on the intimate possibilities but when your employer suggests his servant leave the door to her hot attic room open, she can't exactly say no. The strict orders and behind closed doors implications are uncomfortable enough without the often seen exploitative, degrading visuals, and the women bond during intimate undressings and corset tightenings. Theft and rebellious acts increase amid suspicious business deals, threatening letters, and whispering relatives. The women have to eavesdrop to learn what the men are planning for them before violent punishments and one and all sitting at the dinner table like nothing has happened. Is murder the only way out of the hypocrisy? Were the violent tendencies always there or could you be crazy in love enough to kill? The ax is shown throughout the pot boiler, and although the stifling camerawork may be disorienting to some viewers, it mirrors the closeness when it is both welcomed by the women or invaded by nasty men. Regardless of height the unprotected ladies must look up to the creepy uncles, diminished and fearful of physical violence. Retro photo pops accent the bludgeoning editing before jail and witnesses on the stand provide the fallout from this infamous hatcheting. Premeditated accomplices, church bells, deliberate nudity, and out of control horror are worth the wait once the finale reveals the symbolically sexual posturing, vomit, and splatter. Some people just don't have the stomach for this sort of thing while others so smooth have thought of everything. There is some unevenness with the characters – probably from when the project was envisioned as a television piece with bigger roles – and the killer romance meets Victorian women's lib messages are mixed. However despite liberties suggesting what went on in this congested house and a decidedly quiet, not mainstream style that won't be for everyone, this interesting perspective will have viewers studying this disturbing murder case with a sympathetic, personal anew.

27 June 2019

Witches, Writers, and Scary Clowns

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.

12 June 2019

Soylent Green

Soylent Green Remains Delicious
by Kristin Battestella

In 2022, New York City is over populated with forty million people. Unemployment, homelessness, heatwaves, and hunger are rampant – leaving Detective Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston) on riot duty until the murder of a wealthy board member for the Soylent Corporation. Soylent's latest nutritional supplement is made from plankton and called Soylent Green, but quantities are limited and Thorn's aging research partner Solomon Roth (Edward G. Robinson) uncovers a secret, disturbing ingredient. Thorn digs deeper into the case, but politicians want Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters) to close the investigation, placing Thorn's life in danger as he gets closer to revealing the unsavory truth.

Vintage tintype pictures open director Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage) and writer Stanley Greenberg's (Skyjacked) 1973 Soylent Green adaptation of the Harry Harrison novel with ye olde history before speeding slideshows of industry highs, crisis lows, and superb instrumentals to match. Now it's all community removal announcements, prohibited locales, and advertisements for Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and the new Soylent Green. Butter and paper are rare, light bulbs are dimming, and hustling is the only way to obtain goods. Our tough men are both delighted and ashamed of their looting while other people sleep in stairwells or live in cars permanently parked in the streets. Classical music accents meager meals we would take for granted as adults delight over advantageous plastic spoons, never before tasted stew, and a sample of strawberries that cost $150 a jar! Of course, the wealthy live in luxury apartments – privileged with suave ladies called “furniture,” fresh meat, and precious vegetables – and authority figures who should have power are envious of lavishness the affluent don't appreciate such as real beds, lengthy hot showers, and air conditioning. Desperate poor are hired to kill those above with surprising, blunt violence amid the beaded curtains, white furs, and scotch. Bodies are taken to waste disposal centers, but old folks remember when there used to be ceremonies for the dead. Orphans in bunk beds fill the churches instead of pews, and truths told in confession are too much for a priest to bear. 

In Soylent Green, broken people are trying to survive the bleak dystopian atmosphere, numbers instead of names waiting in line for water, food coupons, or death benefits. Long lines of poor and hungry won't stand for short rations, and riots between the haves and have nots escalate alongside disturbingly nonchalant violence in sacred places. Assassination set ups and multi-layered mysteries – when there are one hundred and thirty-seven murders a day, why argue when the higher ups want a case closed? Investigation exposition provides how Soylent came to control frozen food manufacturing, law firms, governors, and sustenance for half the planet. Those in the know are followed and police hands are tied by cryptic conversations about silencing others. Viewers have seen similar Depression angst and more recent meaningless Black Friday mobs, but in Soylent Green, screaming crowds are hauled away, tossed into creepy forklifts, and hoisted into dumpsters. Scenes sans music echo with droning machinery as silencer gunshots narrow the seemingly broad point of view via process of elimination, supply and demand, and two birds with one stone control. There are few options beyond sad euthanasia opportunities – a pleasant twenty minutes with your favorite music, color, and theatrical presentations featuring long lost nature, flowers, animals, oceans, and sunsets. Soylent Green is emotional without saying a word in exceptional one man reveals unknown to the audience thanks to silent mouthings, headphones, and wide-eyed, shocked reactions. Viewers aren't spoon fed in another silent sequence of sanitation trucks, stowaways, and processing plants. We're beside the detective's need to know amid the mechanical hums, buzzing equipment, and disposal center tense as conveyor belts and assembly lines lead to goodbye phone calls, shootouts, and a now famous revelation.

Good Old Post Apocalyptic Chuck strikes again, as Charlton Heston's (The Omega Man) Detective Thorn goes through the motions of his dog eat dog existence. He has a badge, riot gear that's little more than a football helmet, and no protocol – sweaty and unbothered as he pilfers booze and satin pillowcases from his night shift crime scene. Frank turns on the tap just to feel the running water on his face, sniffs the soap, wants a glass filled with rare ice, and treats himself to the puff of a cigarette. He flirts with the ladies as the interrogating man in charge but insists he doesn't have the time to ask them for anything nice. Thorn's envious of what rich men have, angry over how most people aren't angry about their entire situation. He's not afraid to rough up anyone attacking him man or woman but defends abused women and understands when a hungry crowd won't disperse. Frank can't be off work himself for more than two days, fearing for his job and his very livelihood, yet he risks investigating this shelved case despite threats against him. He refuses to see a police doctor, but Thorn's hunched and distraught earnestness is firmly felt. He's wounded and running, still trying to remain upright and take action because he must. At last Thorn experiences all the things he never knew, which lead him to what he doesn't want to know. Soylent Green is the swansong for Edward G. Robinson (The Ten Commandments), and his once revered professor remembers when food was food, water wasn't poison, and soil wasn't toxic. The world was beautiful; meat, eggs, and produce were available everywhere – but people were still just as rotten. Sol's crusty and tired, hanging on only because of Thorn. He's happy when Thorn brings him paper, pencils, and soap – weeping when he sees beef and wondering how men came to this. Sol studies the shocking Soylent reports in a back door meeting with his former contemporaries, emotionally showing both the audience as well as Thorn what is at stake even if he doesn't want to live in such a godless world where Soylent's secret solution makes frightening sense.

Tab Fielding can also read and write – unusual traits for his position in the era of Soylent Green, but Chuck Connors' (The Rifleman) bodyguard only remains loyal so long as his contract is paid. Fielding escorts the ladies to peruse the luxury inventory and has a decent apartment himself – including his own “furniture,” the svelte and strawberry eating Paula Kelly (Night Court). It might have been interesting if Soylent Green had focused more on this cool but ambiguous cucumber instead of other anonymous henchmen, for it's always entertaining to see these two Chucks go mano y mano. Unfortunately, police chief Brock Peters (Deep Space Nine) owns a rare watch that doesn't run – so much then for chastising his late officers. He dislikes when the aptly named Thorn won't listen, but Chief Hatcher knows he's a good cop. He tries to convince Thorn to walk away from this murder case thanks to pressure from the top, however, in this world, his word and trust in his men isn't good enough to assure their survival. Likewise high up but risky and unreliable Joseph Cotten (Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte) goes along with the pain when his company says it is necessary. He attends church and treats Leigh Taylor-Young's (Picket Fences) Shirl with respect, letting her shop and not abusing her despite his right to do so. Shirl comes with the apartment, and she'll be there for the next tenant whether she likes him or not, mere entertainment for his guests. While she does get into bed when Chuck tells her to get into bed, their relationship becomes one of freedom rather than force – a rare dalliance amid Soylent Green's patriarchal control.

The lavish apartments with sophisticated sliding doors and anonymous white science fiction infrastructure contrast the overcrowded slums and dark one room hovels cramped with simple cots, rare books, and older technology. Matte paintings are somewhat obvious and certainly the boob tubes are big because this is an old picture, however that back dated design also provides a realistic touch to the futuristic factories. The people at the bottom have no advances or access, and must peddle a broken bicycle to keep a tired generator going. Likewise, the police station looks as seedy and hazy as the downtrodden streets its men patrol. Bodyguards and officers wear khaki clothing and plain hats – subtly hinting at the mass produced, lookalike garments of a totalitarian regime. The classical scoring is so sweet, but the occasional swanky sexy music is corny, detracting from the bright luxuries versus homeless crowds that work well enough on their own. Fortunately, more often Soylent Green knows when silence or diegetic sound is best amid choice blood reds and well done violence be it congested strong men battles or round ups and rioting. The Soylent Green DVD provides commentaries and vintage behind the scenes shorts with Robinson tributes, but I want to have my cake and eat it too with more retrospectives to match the crisp and refreshed 4K viewing experience. Thanks to its iconic ending, it's tough to truly catch a virgin viewer for Soylent Green. However, this bitter pièce de résistance remains disturbingly relevant with its past parallels and eerie predictions providing plenty of food for thought. 

Even knowing the big surprise here, Soylent Green holds up thanks to exceptional performances and well paced storytelling. This is not a horror movie yet has disturbing elements. It's science fiction but not a ninety minute action adventure and too fantastic to be a straight drama. Despite knowing the truth, those in control won't ruffle any feathers while the eating is good. They'll do anything to keep themselves cushy – especially at the expense of others. Soylent Green is a delicious parable blending all its genre elements to give us a taste of our own medicine.