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we’ll send him cheesy movies

No other movie is ever going to be Suspiria.

The 1977 original is something of a miracle film, and I’m not at all confident that anyone, even the people who made it, have any idea how or why it is what it is. It’s the film I always use as an example of a movie that would be worse if it was any better; a movie that transmutes, by some intangible magic, its own weaknesses into strengths.

To its credit, Luca Guadagnino’s remake never tries to be the original Suspiria. From the earliest scenes, we are told quite clearly that he is using the blueprint left behind by the original film to fashion a very new edifice. As I said right after seeing it, the differences between Argento’s film and Guadagnino’s are neatly summarized by the distinctions between the buildings in which the two films take place: The candy-colored art deco interiors and Haus zum Walfisch exterior of the ’77 version replaced with dimly-lit Brutalist architecture facing directly onto the Berlin Wall.

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The 2018 Suspiria knows that we already know that there are witches in the walls, and so it doesn’t play coy, dumping us into the reality of the witchcraft early on, even if it still takes most of the film for anyone to react to it. Guadagnino also ties the witchcraft and the dancing much more closely together than Argento’s version ever did. In this Suspiria, dances are spells, and they have very real consequences. In one of the strongest (in most senses of the word) scenes in Guadagnino’s version, the effects of one such spell are graphically, grotesquely displayed in a bit of gruesome body horror that the film never really tops.

The academy in Guadagnino’s Suspiria is also a house divided. That view of the Berlin Wall is more than just a reminder of the times, or the different tones of the two movies. It serves as a metaphor for the divide among the witches themselves, with some wishing to continue following Mother Markos, while others want to throw their lot in behind Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc.

It is this division that drives most of the film to its climactic moments, where a plot twist that can be seen coming like a slow-moving freight train chugging down the tracks leads to an extremely bloody denouement, shot with music video artistic license, one presumes to cover up the fact that the CGI blood splatter effects which it leans on heavily are nowhere near ready for prime time.

Ultimately, Guadagnino’s film is a (sometimes) beautiful one and an ugly one; at times smart but never subtle; filled with horror touches that it doesn’t seem to know what to do with. There were audible gasps from the theatre I saw it in, hands covering eyes, shrinking back in seats, but the images on the screen were often more exploitative than scary. Gasps were more likely to be gasps of disgust than fear. While sitting in the theatre, I scribbled down comparisons to other things, including the video to “Invisible Light” and 120 Days of Sodom.

I will need time to sit with my feelings about this new Suspiria, and something tells me they won’t necessarily get better with distance. But whether the end result is good, bad, or indifferent, Guadagnino took this film’s relationship to the original and used it to forge something almost totally different using the same floor plan. That’s worth something, anyway, regardless of how the finished product may have turned out.

My quest to watch The World of Vampires began with a .gif on Twitter. A delightful image of a flying rubber bat cast in a verdigris sheen with glowing orange eyes, it quickly became my favorite rubber bat of all time. With a little digging, I was able to find other .gifs from the same film and, eventually, to track down that film’s title, thanks to the help of the Facebook hivemind.

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Finding the film initially took me to the Tumblr of Rhett Hammersmith, who had a wonderful collection of .gifs from the movie, including the ones I had already seen. Where he got the oddly color-cast images I still have no idea, but his page gave me enough information to track down the film. Once I had found it on IMDb under its Mexican-language title El Mundo de los Vampiros, I was surprised to discover that my local library actually had a DVD copy in English.

Released by Beverly Wilshire Filmworks and/or Telefilms International, the menu for the DVD had two options, “Bite Me,” which played the film, and “Bite Me Harder,” which took me to scene selections, for some reason. The movie was an American cut produced by K. Gordon Murray, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic Samson vs. the Vampire Women, which, like tonight’s film, was also directed by Alfonso Corona Blake, who obviously knows how to do vampires up right.

The version I watched was dubbed and featured plenty of long monologues about the night and the power of vampires and the kind of stuff that you wouldn’t be surprised to hear if you’ve ever seen Samson vs. the Vampire Women. What it didn’t feature was much in the way of ambient noise, to the extent that a scene of people clapping was absolutely silent. It also looked like it was recorded off television half a century ago, complete with missing frames and plenty of visual noise.

All of which is a shame, because the movie is kind of a goofy delight, as you might imagine if you’ve ever seen the .gifs that led me to it in the first place. It opens, as these movies so often do, with our lead vampire, Count Subotai, who looks like he just stepped out of a telenovela, rising out of his coffin. As most of us like to do when we first wake up, he goes down into the gigantic cave under his house and plays an organ made of bones and skulls, which would have been right at home in a playset from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

His playing wakes up the film’s various other vampires, who would absolutely be its best feature if those adorable rubber bats weren’t about to show up. While Subotai and the requisite lady vampires all look about like you’d expect vampires in an old black-and-white horror movie to look—which is to say, like people with fake vampire fangs—the incidental vampires are all just people in capes wearing completely immobile vampire masks. It is a conceit made all the more charming by its absolute lack of necessity—it would have actually been easier to just give them vampire teeth, but no, it’s exaggerated vampire masks from hell to breakfast.

Subotai talks at length, if occasionally contradictorily, about his plans to get revenge on the Colman family who apparently killed him a hundred years ago, and also killed his ancestor three hundred yeas ago in Hungary, I guess. The Colman family has been busy, and I like to imagine them as precursors of the Belmont clan in Castlevania. As luck would have it, the only three remaining Colmans in the world, the older Sr. Colman and his two predictably lovely nieces, happen to live right nearby and are already acquainted with Count Subotai, who shows up at their house unannounced to interrupt some piano playing and then immediately leave again.

The piano playing in question is being performed by Rudolfo Sabre, who has some sort of romantic attachment to one of the Colman nieces. He studies music that produces “peculiar effects” and, wouldn’t you know it, happens to know a song that drives away vampires.

From there, the film devolves into the usual sequence of vampires showing up at peoples’ bedsides, those wonderful rubber bats, underground rituals complete with sacrificial altars, and long vampiric monologues. One of the nieces, Leonor, falls almost immediately under Subotai’s sway and becomes a vampire, while the other, Mirta, takes on the role of the film’s damsel in distress. Rudolfo, our ostensible hero, also gets bitten by a vampire fairly early on, and for the rest of the film undergoes a slow transformation which primarily involves his hands getting progressively hairier.

There’s a lengthy fistfight between Rudolfo and the count’s hunchbacked assistant, who looks more than a little like Gomez Addams, before the film’s final reel. In addition to being disabled by that one particular melody, the vampires in The World of Vampires seem to be particularly weak against punching, as Rudolfo manages to beat up an entire room full of them in order to rescue Mirta from their clutches. I hypothesized that this was because their masks made it hard for them to see.

In the end, Subotai is defeated and the vampires all disappear, except for Leonor, who looks to be cured, though at the last moment she flings herself down onto the same stakes that destroyed her “master.” Our theory was that she couldn’t stand to return to her old life after seeing how much better her makeup and wardrobe were as a vampire. Also, who could give up being able to turn into such an adorable rubber bat?

MV5BMTA4OWQ0NGYtNDgxNC00MzI4LTgzNzktYzAxMDcyMGI3OTFmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTIyODMzMzA@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_Way back when I attended Panic Fest in January, I saw the trailer for Ghost Stories for the first (eight or so) time(s), and it instantly became pretty much my most anticipated movie of the year. If you want to know why, go check out that trailer. It’s a doozy.

Yesterday, I finally saw the movie, and, naturally, it couldn’t completely live up to my expectations. But that has more to do with me than with any failing on the film’s part.

Ghost Stories is an unnerving helping of existential dread, layered on thick. However, much of its effectiveness depends upon a deft bit of misdirection, so if you’re planning to see the movie and would prefer not to be spoiled, I recommend stopping now and going and doing that very thing, if you’re someplace where you can.

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The bit of misdirection I mentioned up above is also a part of what will make the movie less satisfying for some. It’s not so much that the movie has a twist ending–though I suppose it does, and ultimately one of those infamous “twist endings” that are used in editorial guidelines as examples of the kind you’re no longer allowed to employ–as that the structure of the film makes it seem like the three ghost stories of the title are the main focus, when in fact they are little more than distractions filled with hints of the real story, which is playing out in the framing narrative.

I’ll try to avoid going into detail as to precisely what that “twist ending” is, but suffice it to say that the film ends on more of a spook-block than I would normally prefer. Here it was used to what I think was good effect, but it still isn’t my specific brand of poison.

That said, I also kind of wanted the film to spend more time with our debunker investigating the various stories, and less time with the unraveling of the debunker’s own narrative. A film that joins up my love of ghost stories with my love of movies about people digging through papers and looking at old photographs. But that’s not a failing on the part of the movie. That’s me asking a film to cater to my particular interests, and if I want that, I need to make my own movie, and not get mad when other people make theirs.

Like the ending or hate it, when Ghost Stories is firing, it fires quite well, and does a lot with very little. Shadows and shapes and strange sounds and nods to classic British horror, including an out-of-focus bit straight out of “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” In classic horror anthology fashion, there’s even a “comedy relief” segment that is frequently quite funny but not much of a relief, as it also layers on the discomfort pretty thick.

It also bears mentioning that Ghost Stories has a virtually all-male cast, and the handful of female “characters” who do exist are there mostly to haunt or torment the male characters. Of course, you can find justifications for this in the film’s framing narrative, and it could certainly be argued from the ending that the film contains fewer characters, period, than it appears to on its surface, but it still feels like an observation that needs to be made.

I had a good time with Ghost Stories–any movie that plays the “Monster Mash” over the closing credits is obviously in good standing with me–but perhaps one of the best things it did was to remind me of one of the many reasons I love Richard Matheson’s Hell House (and the cinematic adaptation of same) so much. Spoilers for a 47-year-old novel and a movie that is nearly as old follow:

When you’re telling a story specifically about a paranormal skeptic setting out to debunk frauds and the superstitiously credulous, you run the risk of painting yourself into one of two corners. Either you end up without a supernatural element in your story, or you end up inadvertently proving the superstitious people at least somewhat right, which seldom paints a terribly flattering picture of science and rationality. Of course, there are plenty of ways to dodge this particular trap, but all-too-many things over the years have fallen into it.

Hell House is particularly great for the way it manages to both have its cake and eat it, too. The skeptic and the true believer are both half right about what’s going on, and the only thing preventing either one of them from figuring it out 100% is their unshakable conviction that they already have.

I know that we’re not even quite to the halfway point on our trip back around to Halloween just yet, but if you’re already jonesing for a taste of the spooky season, Jason McKittrick recently turned me on to the existence of a little show called The Witching Season, which is streaming on Amazon Prime or available to watch on YouTube.

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While the show’s humble origins and limited budget are apparent everywhere in its production, that doesn’t stop it from evoking the season better than most more expensive movies ever manage. The episodes themselves range from 9 minutes at their shortest to around 30 at their longest, and you could easily watch all five episodes in the time it would take to watch a regular film.

The end result is a series of short subjects that would feel right at home in the shorts block at any given horror film festival, connected together by a nostalgic yearning for Halloween and a shared style and tone, even as their subject matter ranges from high strange horror to masked killers, possessed toys, and haunted houses.

None of the episodes are necessarily any great shakes in the story department, though most feature a “twist in the tale” that is probably easy enough to predict going in, but satisfying for what it is. Where the show more than makes up for any ground that it loses in production value or originality, however, is in its Halloween atmosphere, which is effortlessly captured in lingering shots of decorations, pumpkin patches, and dead leaves.

There are some nice touches of local color, as well, as certain episodes bleed into each other, often through radio shows or late-night TV vaguely reminiscent of the WNUF Halloween Special or the wraparound segment of Ti West’s The Roost. Honestly, The Witching Season is worth your time for the opening titles alone, which summarize the season beautifully, in a series of shots vaguely (and, based on the rest of the series, probably intentionally) reminiscent of the great opening titles of Halloween 4.

It feels like the height of ingratitude to complain about The Ritual: a quiet and slow-burning but ultimately satisfying horror tale that is superbly cast, well-acted, and beautifully shot, and which contains [SPOILERS] one of the best monster designs in recent memory. And yet, while all those things are true, I never felt like The Ritual ever quite became the movie it so very nearly was.

Trading in plenty of familiar horror tropes: the woods are scary, so are people who live in rural communities and keep to “the old ways,” The Ritual juxtaposes these early on against a backdrop reminding us that the brightly-lit modern world can be quite scary and dangerous, as well. The parallel comes up again and again throughout the film, in shots that are production designed beautifully, as the off-license that is at the heart of the film’s galvanizing moment is subsumed gradually by the forest in successive dream-like sequences. Yet for all that this reminder seems at the heart of the film, it never connects completely with the film’s final act.

For the first half or two-thirds of its running time, The Ritual is carried, in no small part, by the performances of its leads, and by their dialogue, which never feels strained, even while it conveys a relationship that is always straining at the seams. These early moments seem better than anything that the movie’s climax could deliver, and there’s the fear that we’re looking at another Autopsy of Jane Doe situation, but then, at the last minute, the monster shows up.

Much has been made online of the monster design in The Ritual, and rightly so. It’s something pretty special, a mix between Laird Barron’s “Blackwood’s Baby” and the Kothoga from The Relic. It combines uncanny folkloric resonances with the scope of the monsters in Trollhunter, though never quite deployed with the same devil-may-care success as that film’s many creatures. The monster in The Ritual–which the film calls a jotun–is seen both more than you expect and less than you want, and its implications are played up to be just as effective as its unusually solid execution, which suffers only a very little from the clutter which so haunts contemporary creature design.

Maybe it has to do with when I watched it–after an extremely long day, when I probably should have been in bed but was too tired to sleep– or maybe it’s something in the changes that, I’m told, have been made from Adam Nevill’s source novel, but while The Ritual is good, truly, genuinely very good, and while it has a creature that will be hard to top for best monster of the year, it feels like it is comprised of a bunch of parts, all of which are quite good on their own, but which never feed into one-another in the way that they need to in order to create a sum that is more than themselves. Which is, again, a petty and ungrateful complaint to lodge against a movie that does so much so right, but there you go.

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There’s really limited utility for a review here. By the fourth installment in a franchise, you’re either on board for what the Insidious series is peddling or you’re not, and The Last Key isn’t going to change your mind, one way or the other.

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The main reason to get excited about The Last Key prior to going in was Adam Robitel in the director’s seat. His debut feature, The Taking of Deborah Logan, was surprisingly great, with at least one indelible image that has made the rounds in .gif format so much that you’ve probably seen it by now, even if you’ve never seen the movie and didn’t know what it was from. Sadly, while Robitel sets some really nice mood early on, there is nothing in The Last Key to quite live up to that particular legacy, but there is a big, creaky ghost with skeleton keys for fingers, played by Javier Botet, of course, who has carved out a nice niche for himself playing big, weird, gangly ghosts.

Like all the previous installments after the first, The Last Key is guilty of not going big or weird enough in its final leg, though there are some welcome changes of direction midway through. And while the temporal shenanigans of Chapter 2 never make themselves apparent, there is a moment that feels much like one of them near the end of The Last Key, with one of those pesky red doors.

While engaging in many of the same kinds of jump scares that have been a hallmark of the series and its imitators, Robitel also resists the temptation of them more often than he is probably being given credit for, dragging out sequences of tension to almost excruciating length, occasionally to the point where the tension just dissipates rather than snapping.

What the film does do well is to remember that Elise is the beating heart of this franchise, and to give Lin Shaye (as well as screenwriter Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, playing Specs and Tucker) plenty of screen time. We also dive much more into Elise’s backstory. Which probably wasn’t strictly necessary, but doesn’t really do any harm, either.

I’m a notorious Insidious apologist, and I’ve loved every installment in the franchise so far, even the mostly forgettable third film. And I loved this one. But even I’m ready to hold up my hand and say that The Last Key should probably also be the last Insidious film. At this point, the snake has well and truly eaten its own tail, so it’s probably time to call it a night. Unless you want to give me the TV series where Specs, Tucker, and the ghost of Elise solve cute mysteries. I’d be down for that.

 

 

I flew out to Portland for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival (for the third or fourth time now) in large part because I knew that Strix Publishing would have the new deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil there. (And they did, and it is glorious, and I’m looking forward to sharing order links with everyone who wasn’t able to back the Kickstarter or make it out to the Festival very soon.)

Apparently, while I was out getting a burrito, Barbara Steele actually came by the table and asked about the book, which is honestly probably better than had she come by while I was around, given that, earlier in the course of events, when confronted by a potential customer who wanted to know what the book was about, I replied, almost word-for-word, with, “It’s a collection of short stories; I think there’s ghosts in it or something.” From then on, I was banned by Simon from attempting to interact with customers or otherwise make sales pitches concerning my own book. I had to avoid eye contact with all future customers, and if they had questions for me they had to ask them of Simon, who would then relay them to me. It was really for the best.

Even had I not been flying out to help hinder Simon’s attempts to promote Never Bet the Devil, however, I would have made it a point to attend on the strength of the fact that this particular HPLFF was the world premiere of Philip Gelatt’s They Remain, the first official adaptation of a Laird Barron story, since Kill List and Sicario don’t count, no matter how much they might feel like they do.

Astute readers may have noticed that I asked Phil to blurb Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, and that he was generous and patient enough to do so. If I didn’t already consider Phil a friend before I got to this year’s HPLFF, I definitely would after the events of the Festival. So there’s no way for me to render an unbiased take on They Remain, I say as if there is any such thing as a completely unbiased take on any movie, ever.

With all that in mind, They Remain is a triumphant, beautiful, meticulous, difficult, challenging, intentionally abstract and recursive film. As such, it’s likely to also be a divisive one. For those who didn’t have the patience for, say, The WitchThey Remain will probably drive you nuts. But for those who are willing to meet the film where it is, rather than expecting it to come to them, I think that you will be amply rewarded.

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I hesitate to even call They Remain a slow burn. The words “slow burn” give the implication that it takes a while for things to get started, that they smolder for a long time before finally bursting into flame. When the first frame of They Remain flashes up on screen, things have already gotten strange, and that strangeness just continues to accrete on every surface, on every character, on everyone and everything for the remainder of the film’s running time. It’s a recursive movie, as I said, which means that it doesn’t have a typical movie’s build to some sort of satisfying (or unsatisfying, for that matter) climax. It turns back in on itself time and again. Do things get stranger? Sure. But do they really, or have they been that strange the whole time?

They Remain isn’t a movie that offers easy answers. In fact, it isn’t even a movie that offers difficult ones. It’s a film that opens itself up to myriad interpretations, all of them potentially valid, without ever offering even the most astute observer one particular “solution” to seize upon. For some viewers that may prove infuriating, but when a movie tells you repeatedly that you won’t understand it, even as early as in the quote that shows up before the first shot of the film actually appears, you may only have yourself to blame if you walk out of it unsatisfied.