You Can’t Choose Family: A Review of Hereditary (2018)

6bc2265d68140799de67326d813ab6dbRelease Date: June 8th 2018

Director: Ari Aster

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 2 hour 7 minutes

From critics calling it the horror film of the year to this generation’s The Exorcist, there is a veritable critical storm surrounding Hereditary at the moment, but does it really live up to the hype? I first saw the trailer before watching A Quiet Place and knew this was a film that simply couldn’t be missed. Its tragically late release date in the UK meant that I had to wait a little longer to get around to it, but I’m finally ready to share my thoughts on whether or not this really is the must-see horror title of the year.

Hereditary follows the story of a miniaturist artist named Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie has recently suffered the loss of her mother, Ellen, who led an intensely secretive life and who fostered an unusually close relationship with her granddaughter Charlie. In the fallout of Ellen’s death, Annie struggles to simultaneously reconnect with her daughter Charlie and to adequately process her own complex relationship with her mother. I won’t say much more than that on the plot, because the trailer kept the premise deliberately vague and to give anything more away would be to spoil the fun.

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Where the film succeeds almost immediately is in its staggeringly strong cast. Toni Collette is utterly spellbinding in her portrayal of a mother on the brink of emotional and mental collapse, while Gabriel Byrne’s understated performance as the compassionate yet frustrated father is no less powerful. As one of the main focuses of the narrative, Milly Shapiro could have all too easily allowed her character as the troubled daughter Charlie to collapse into the “demon child” stereotype popularised by films like The Omen or The Ring, but instead offers up a character that is remarkably complex and three dimensional. The real surprise performance comes from Alex Wolff as Peter, whose portrayal in the film trailer would have you believe he was relegated solely to the task of a supporting character. Rather than simply being a buffer for the other members of his family, Alex Wolff’s performance offers a realism that is at times extremely disquieting and truly immerses you in his character’s experience of the unfolding events.

In terms of the story, the first half of the film is perhaps some of the greatest cinema that I’ve seen in the past decade. The narrative subverts audience’s expectations in the most shocking and brilliant of ways, which honestly took my breath away and raised my expectations to arguably impossible heights. I would align myself with Mark Kermode’s excellent dissection of the film and say that, unfortunately, it is this outstanding start and those high expectations that somewhat ruin the second half. While the first half of the film is subtle in its storytelling and gritty in its portrayal of the Graham family, the second half is rife with unnecessary exposition and favours the relatively uninteresting supernatural elements of the story over the intense psychological exploration on which the first half was founded.

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Toni Collette is clearly sick of my criticisms

This is not to say that the film is not worth watching; I still believe it one of the greatest horror films to come out this year and would absolutely recommend it. The main problem is that it starts so strongly, but fails to live up to the promises that it makes. The disappointment I felt towards the end of the film was tragically enhanced by how much I had enjoyed the first half and the fact that it starts to lose momentum in its closing acts also diminishes how scary it is. While the first half is undeniably unsettling and the gradual build-up of tension quickly got under my skin, the second half does little to maintain the pace and leads to an ending that is somewhat messy.

There were parts of the closing sequence that were wonderfully eerie and brought back the sense of terror I had felt at the start of the film, but these were undercut by certain scenes that were almost comical and jarred me so badly that I really struggled to properly engage with the ending. With those critiques aside, I would urge anyone and everyone to watch this film for themselves before passing judgement. After all, this is a film that is certain to polarise opinion, and it is only truly great films that evoke such strong feelings.

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Acting: 9/10, a powerhouse performance from Toni Collette is bolstered by incredible performances from Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro.

Storyline: 8/10, the in-depth psychological portrait of a family unravelling in the wake of grief is brilliantly executed, but is tragically ill-served by its more cliché supernatural elements.

Fear Factor: 7/10, though the film is less overtly scary and more psychologically unsettling, it is guaranteed to get under your skin.

Overall: 8/10, in spite of its aforementioned shortcomings, this is a superb psychological thriller that is sure to delight, shock, and terrify.

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You Can’t Choose Family: A Review of Hereditary (2018)

Malicious Myths: The Penanggalan

Penanggalanpic1Brace yourself, because this might be one of the most stomach churning segments of Malicious Myths we’ve ever done (quite literally). The Pennanggalan, also known as Hantu Penanggal, is a variation of the vampire myth that originates from Malaysia and is connected to a wider constellation of Southeast Asian horrors, from the Manananggal of Filipino folklore and the Leyak of Bali to the Krasue of Thailand and the Cambodian Ap.

So, if you’re planning on backpacking in Southeast Asia, make sure to double-check that your travel insurance covers “supernatural encounters”. “Penanggal” or “Penanggalan” in Malay literally means “to detach” or “to remove” and can be perhaps explained by the Penanggalan’s nasty habit of launching its head off of its body.

Unlike other vampiric creatures, Penanggalan are exclusively female and are able to masquerade as normal human beings during the daytime, transforming into their hideous counterparts only at night. They tend to prey upon pregnant women and new-born babies, which is why they often opt for professions as midwives. After all, sucking the blood out of helpless victims might sate your hunger, but it won’t pay the bills. By day, the Penanggalan largely goes about its business and cannot be distinguished from a normal woman.

At night, however, it twists its head off of its body and flies out into the night in search of blood. Like some awful harbinger of birth, the Penanggalan perches on the roofs of houses where women are in labour and lies in wait. As the woman gives birth, the Penanggalan will wriggle its invisible tongue into the house and begin draining the blood of the new mother. In some instances, it may even eat the placenta, drain the blood of the new-born, and feast on the flesh of its victims as well.

While the Penanggalan rarely drains its victims entirely, those who have been fed on by the Penanggalan will contract a wasting disease that is almost inescapably fatal. As if squeezing another human being out of your body wasn’t bad enough, now you have to contend with a blood-sucking pile of organs hanging outside your window. To add insult to injury, even if you escape the Penanggalan’s invisible tongue, you will still develop incurable open sores if you happen to be unlucky enough to be brushed by its hanging entrails.

d47f55dd94807ff8e691cf9ad8cdc603According to most folk legends, the Penanggalan flies through the air in search of food, although alternative accounts state that they can pass through walls and can even ooze up through the cracks in the floorboards of a house in order to get to their victims. In some instances, they are depicted as being able to use their intestines like tentacles and entangle their victims in a mushy web.

The organised Penanggalan will always keep a vat of vinegar in their house, as otherwise it would be impossible for her to return to her body. After a night of floating-head shenanigans, the Penanggalan will return home to immerse her entrails in this vat of vinegar so that they shrink and can fit easily into the empty husk of body she left behind. That being said, we don’t recommend preparing a vinegar bath for those days when you’re planning on struggling into your skinny jeans.

If you happen to be going into labour in Malaysia, the best way to protect against a Penanggalan attack is to scatter thorny leaves on the roof or loop them around windows. It is believed that this sharp shrubbery will trap or injure the Penanggalan’s dangling viscera as it flies by. In some cases, families will even plant pineapple trees under their houses months before the birth of a child, as traditional Malay houses are built on stilts and the prickly fruit will supposedly deter the Penanggalan from squishing its way through the floorboards. As an extra precaution, the pregnant woman will keep a pair of scissors or betel nut cutters under her pillow, as the Penanggalan is deathly afraid of these items. In short, the Penanggalan likes its betel nuts uncut and its draping entrails firmly intact.

Once an unsuspecting Penanggalan is ensnared on foliage or entangled in a forest of pineapple trees, it can be easily dispatched using machetes. An alternative way to kill the Penanggalan is to first find out where she lives. While they may appear like normal women during the daytime, there are a few key traits that will give the Penanggalan away. They will usually avoid making eye contact, will lick their lips hungrily when performing their midwife duties, and will perpetually stink of vinegar.

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The key is to follow your foul-smelling friend back to their house, wait until nightfall, and then casually break into their home. If your suspect is in fact a Penanggalan, then she should have left her headless body behind as she flew out into the night to feed. All you need to do is fill the empty body with pieces of broken glass and, when the unknowing Penanggalan attempts to reattach herself to her body, her internal organs will be severed. Denying a Penanggalan re-entry into her host body before sunrise or sanctifying the body by cremation will also result in her death.

If you need to prove your friend is a Penanggalan to win a bet, however, then you should simply flip the body upside down. According to the rich tapestry of Malaysian folklore, the Penanggalan is intelligent enough to lead a complicated double life, but not quite smart enough to recognise the front of her own body, so flipping her body will mean she inevitably attaches herself backwards. When she emerges from her house the next day, her head will be facing backwards and she’ll probably die of embarrassment due to how frankly ridiculous she looks.

Appearance

Penanggalanpic2During the day, the Penanggalan appears like a normal human woman. At night, however, this gruesome ghoul detaches its head and flies around of its own accord. As it flies, its internal organs dangle below it and are said to twinkle like fireflies as it glides through the moonlit night. Its long, tangled hair fans around it as it flies and its glowing red eyes pierce the darkness.

While the Penanggalan predominantly uses its invisible tongue to drain its prey, it is often depicted as having fangs. The number of fangs varies from region to region, with some describing it as having two, like the Western vampire, and others stating that the average Penanggalan is adorned with a mouthful of fangs.

Origins

minasako_himiju_by_broken_orange-d4s0lnvAccording to traditional Malaysian folklore, a Penanggalan is created when an old or young woman uses black magic in order to obtain everlasting beauty. The woman will typically make a pact with a demon and, as part of this pact, it is stipulated that the woman must not eat meat for 40 days. Apparently these women weren’t great at reading the fine print on their contracts, because breaking this pact results in them becoming a bloodthirsty Penanggalan.

This may seem like an insane lack of self-control on the part of the woman, but imagine going without bacon for over a month and we’re sure you’d crack too. In some instances, the woman either died during childbirth and transformed into a Penanggalan or was subjected to a powerful curse that was outside of her control, although this is far less common.

There is alternative Malaysian folktale that states the original Penanggalan was once a beautiful priestess. One day, this priestess was taking a ritual bath in a tub that originally held vinegar. As she bathed herself and entered into a state of deep meditation, a man entered the room without warning and startled her. Out of shock, she jerked her head up so quickly to look at him that the sheer force severed her head from her body and eviscerated her in the process, which is often known in Malaysia as the “overreaction of the century”.

Enraged by the peeping tom, the priestess flew after him and left her empty body behind her in the tub. In this version of the legend, it’s not entirely clear why the Penanggalan went on to target pregnant women and new-borns, although to be honest we’re willing to question the sanity of a woman who thought tearing her own head off was an appropriate response to anything.

Another more plausible version of this legend states that the original Penanggalan was an ugly young woman who had become consumed by bitterness at her single status and was feverishly jealous of all married women. Her unchecked rage eventually resulted in a murderous rampage, during which she murdered many innocent pregnant women. As punishment for her heinous crime, the people of her village hung her head from a tall tree and tied her legs to a bull.

When the bull charged, her body was torn away and her severed head was left dangling from the tree with all of the internal organs still intact. While the people of the village celebrated their triumph over evil, they were less than pleased when they discovered that the severed head had gone missing later that night and that they had unwittingly unleashed a hellish demon on their small settlement.

Modern-Day Usage

The Penanggalan may not be as well-known as its other vampiric counterparts, but there are a few choice references to our floating foe:

  • There are numerous horror films that feature the Penanggalan, including Penanggal: The Curse of the Malayan Vampire (2013), Mystics in Bali (1981), The Witch with Flying Head (1982, also known as Witches with Flying Heads or Fei Tou Mo Nu), The Resurrection of Angel Eyes (1988), and Mystery of the Merry Widow (1991).

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    The exceptional poster for The Witch with Flying Head
  • In the comic Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others, the titular Hellboy travels to Malaysia in 1958 and comes upon a village that is without a Bomoh shaman. In the Bomoh shaman’s absence, the village has fallen victim to a Penanggalan.
  • In the 2016 comic Cry Havoc, the character of Sri reveals that she is a Penanggalan.
  • The graphic novel Okko: The Cycle of Water features two Penanggalan as its main villains.
  • The short manga comic “Head Prolapse Elegy” by Shintaro Kago is centred around a Penanggalan.
  • The Penanggalan is set to appear as an enemy in the upcoming action RPG Indivisible.
  • Penanggalan feature as enemies in the living card game Legend of the Five Rings.
  • In the SCP series, it is heavily implied that SCP-1060 is a Penanggalan.
Malicious Myths: The Penanggalan

If They Hear You, They Hunt You: A Review of A Quiet Place (2018)

AQuietPlacepic1Release Date: April 6th 2018

Director: John Krasinski

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English and American Sign Language

Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

The main reason why I’m often sceptical of new creature feature films is because, in spite of their attempts to be original, there’s not much room for creativity when it comes to the genre. It feels as though every film is doomed to follow a pre-destined path: the threat of a creature is introduced, typically when it kills off an expendable character; a group of people are charged with the task of killing the creature or risk being devoured by it; the creature picks off characters one-by-one while offering the audience tantalising glimpses of what it might look like; and the film ends with a final confrontation where the audience gets the coveted “full look” at the creature in all of its glory before the main characters find its “weakness” and promptly dispatch it.

That being said, not all creature feature films are this formulaic. Masterpieces of the genre, such as The Thing, It Follows, or The Babadook, subvert these tropes by refusing to placate the audience with a cathartic element. There is no “full look” at the monster, because the monster is not what terrifies us. Instead these films focus on the psychological impact that the creature’s presence has on the main characters in order to generate tension. The creature is largely irrelevant as a physical entity, and serves more as a conduit through which the audience gets to explore the psyche of the characters. The terror we feel when watching these types of films is not created by fear of the beast itself, but by the gut-wrenching realisation that we as a race are completely ill-equipped to deal with anything outside of the realms of our understanding. What scares us more than anything else is that which is unknown and that which cannot, in spite of our efforts, be understood.

In many ways, A Quiet Place straddles this line between formulaic and ingenious.

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Please Note: This review will contain some mild spoilers, but no major plot points will be revealed.

The creatures are certainly physical and visible, but the emphasis of the film is squarely placed on the interactions between the main characters and how they’ve adapted their lifestyle to the presence of these strange beasts. Without giving too much of the plot away, the story follows the Abbott family, who the audience are introduced to as they scavenge through an abandoned town for supplies. The family communicate solely in American Sign Language, take special care with their movements, and use sand to mask the sound of their footsteps when walking outside. We swiftly find out, in a scene that I won’t spoil but which is masterfully done, that this is because the world is now overrun with horrifying creatures, which are completely blind but hunt based on their hypersensitive sense of hearing.

There are a few moments of somewhat clunky exposition, such as a scene in the basement where the camera pans in on a whiteboard containing words like “Confirmed: Blind” and “What is the weakness?”, but overall the storytelling in the film is exceptionally well done. We discover the family are fluent in American Sign Language because their daughter, Reagan (Millicent Simmonds), is congenitally deaf; we learn that the creatures can’t hear quieter sounds if there are louder sounds to mask them when the father, Lee (John Krasinski), takes his son Marcus (Noah Jupe) to a waterfall; we know that a climax is imminent because the mother, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), is pregnant and births are, generally speaking, not silent affairs. It is obvious that a great deal of care was taken when it came to making the film’s core elements believable and ensuring that the audience didn’t feel as though they were being spoon-fed the plot. The film’s storyline has a natural progression that flows rather seamlessly and allows you to fully immerse yourself in the world of the characters.

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“Ssh. We’re on the longest silent streak in office history”

John Krasinski, popularly known as fan favourite Jim Halpert from the US version of The Office, shirks his comedic tendencies and embraces a far more serious role as the father, Lee Abbott. Alongside his real-life wife Emily Blunt, the two offer up a realistic portrayal of a father and mother struggling to keep their family alive in their darkest hour. Millicent Simmonds was a perfect casting choice for the character of Reagan, as she is actually deaf and therefore was capable of lending a far more honest dimension to the portrayal of her character, rather than simply succumbing to stereotypes of how we expect deaf people to behave. She is strong, she is capable, and she does not let her disability hold her back. By the end of the film, she emerges as arguably the main hero of the piece.

The only actor whose performance falls a little flat is Noah Jupe, who was perhaps given the least to work with when it came to character development. After all, while the rest of the family appear to have obvious roles and are each tackling individual demons, the character of Marcus Abbott seems almost solely relegated to that of “the other child” and doesn’t go far beyond that. It’s hard to make your character feel three-dimensional when your stand-out moments largely consist of being sick, crying, and running away. His relationship with his sister Reagan, however, feels genuine and there are some truly tender moments when both the characters interact.

While the storyline is certainly inventive and the standard of acting is praiseworthy, the all-important question remains: Is it scary? As I was watching the film, I became consciously aware of the fact that, during particularly tense moments, I had started to cover my mouth. Some of you may think this was out of consideration for my fellow cinema-goers, since the film is very quiet, but the fact that I spend most of my life watching horror films should give you an idea as to my general disregard for the feelings and needs of others. In those moments of heightened tension, A Quiet Place had engrossed me so fully that I had completely forgotten that none of it was real. I was purposefully silencing myself, as if I really believed that I might be at risk of attack if I made a sound. In my opinion, if a film can get under your skin like that, it is truly a fright fest worthy of watching.

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Acting: 7/10, outstanding performances by John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, and Millicent Simmonds help garner the audience’s sympathy for the family and immediately engage you in their struggle.

Storyline: 8/10, considering how tired the creature feature sub-genre has become, the plot is fresh, innovative, and beautifully executed.

Fear Factor: 7/10, the atmosphere of the entire piece is suitably oppressive and it builds up tension gradually, leaving you on the edge of your seat.

Overall: 7/10, this film deserves to rank as an exemplary work of its sub-genre and is a must-watch for all lovers of horror.

If They Hear You, They Hunt You: A Review of A Quiet Place (2018)

It Doesn’t Think, It Doesn’t Feel, It Doesn’t Give Up: A Review of It Follows (2015)

it-follows-35781Release Date: March 13th 2015

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes

You’re probably all wondering why it’s taken me so long to write a review of It Follows, particularly since the film has been out for over nine months and I’ve been raving about it for nearly as long. The real reason is that I’m incredibly lazy and have a terrible work ethic, but the reason I’ll give you is that it was my favourite horror film of the year. I felt that, with 2015 finally coming to a close, it seemed somehow poetic to leave it to the last minute; one last happy memory of a year so riddled with natural disasters that it pretty much confirmed we are probably all going to perish as a direct result of pollution and global warming. Ah, what a cheerful thought. So snuggle down in your doomsday bunkers and read about why I thought It Follows was the greatest horror film of 2015.

This rather unconventional “creature feature” (for lack of a better subgenre) follows a young girl named Jay (Maika Monroe), who has just begun dating a ruggedly handsome guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). The couple appear to be hitting it off and, in spite of his occasionally suspicious behaviour, Hugh seems to be solid boyfriend material. That is, until they finally have sex. Unlike most scumbags, who just drop you an impromptu phone call when they discover they may have given you the clap, Hugh takes the whole ordeal a step further by strapping Jay to a wheelchair and informing her that he’s passed on a ghastly plague; a sort of supernatural STI that will follow her around and try to kill her. It takes the form of a human being (technically any human being it wants) and is invisible to everyone but her. The upside is it can only walk, so hop on a Segway for the rest of your life and you’ll be fine. Jay must find another unsuspecting victim to sleep with before she too falls victim to this sexy curse.

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Perhaps not the best way to deliver bad news

What immediately attracted me to this film was its unusual premise. While most creature features entail a flurry of violence and tease out the monster’s eventual reveal, It Follows is punctuated by just a few moments of graphic violence and is instead more of slow-burner. The emphasis is taken off of the “creature” and is placed on the protagonist, focusing on Jay’s attempts to escape this entity with the limited means at her disposal. In this way the film feels far more real, since she reacts in much the same way as you imagine that you would. In real life, there are no occult specialists or voodoo princesses knocking around in every high school library or on every street corner. When faced with a supernatural entity that is almost beyond our comprehension, chances are most of us would choose to just run. After all, how are we supposed to fight something that we know virtually nothing about?

As a slow-burner, this film depends almost entirely on the realistic performances of its actors and they certainly deliver believability in spades. The interaction between the characters felt eerily real, as if I was re-watching conversations from my awkward teenage years. There was no Hollywood sparkle, no witty one-liners, and no painfully cheesy dialogue. There was simply the heartfelt and confused rhetoric of a bunch of goofy kids desperately trying to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it. I bought into the dynamic of Jay’s friendship group immediately, and this was what hooked me into the storyline from the beginning.

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On a far more technical note, the cinematography and score of the film are fantastic. Some of the shots are not only breath-taking; they also serve to capture the essence of the film. When Jay leans out of the car after having sex with Hugh and the camera pans over her hand gently caressing a flower, we instantly understand what is being said without the need for dialogue. In many ways, this is a film about growing up and the innocence that is lost in the process. The film’s soundtrack, which was masterminded by US composer Disasterpeace, is a wonderful blend of jarring synth and eerily soothing tunes that are deeply reminiscent of classic 80s horror flicks like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. The violence may not be there on screen, but it exists in the music and atmosphere that David Robert Mitchell has masterfully created.

In terms of the horror elements, it is not the most immediately terrifying film, but it certainly sits with you. One could almost say, it follows you (oh yes, I went there). While I only felt a few twinges of fear whilst watching it, I found myself constantly checking behind me after I left the cinema, swivelling my head around like an owl on meth and wondering which of the many yawning cinema-goers could be “it”. I even gave my family dog a wide berth. Personally, what makes a successful horror movie for me is something that sticks with you long after you’ve watched it, gnawing at you and leaving you with thousands of delightful questions like: What exactly is “it”? What could “it” be a metaphor for? And how do I overcome the suffocating malaise of facing another year on this planet? For these reasons, It Follows holds a special place in my heart and is, without a doubt, my top horror movie of 2015.

If you want to know what other films I’ve loved this year, be sure to check out my reviews of Spring and Krampus.

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Acting: 9/10, all of the performances in the film are solid and the characters are easy to identify with, as they portray teenagers with startling believability.

Storyline: 9/10, the storyline is fresh and original without seeming absurd or unworkable.  

Fear Factor: 8/10, it may not get you while you’re watching it, but it’s sure to send a few shivers down your spine when you’re in the supermarket and you notice that creepy lady with the “come-hither-I-wish-to-murder-you” look.

Overall: 9/10, the performances, score, cinematography, and fascinating premise come together to make one of the finest horror films I’ve seen in decades.

 

It Doesn’t Think, It Doesn’t Feel, It Doesn’t Give Up: A Review of It Follows (2015)

Time to Spread the Christmas Fear: A Review of Krampus (2015)

krampus-movie-posterRelease Date: December 4th 2015

Director: Michael Dougherty

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 1 hour 38 minutes

Apologies for all of those who were waiting for a Malicious Myths segment, but sadly that will be postponed until next week. If you really need to get your fix, why not go back and read our post on good old Krampus himself?

From the director who masterminded the magnificent Trick ’r Treat, comes a movie about the true meaning of Christmas: consumerism, greed, and a reminder of your deep seated hatred for your dysfunctional family. When I first heard about Krampus, I was convinced that it was going to be a train wreck. It’s incredibly difficult to make anything Christmassy seem scary without it coming off as trite and kitschy, not to mention I have an extreme dislike for comedy horrors in general. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and Shaun of the Dead as much as the next person, but I’m a firm believer that incorporating horror elements into a comedy film doesn’t make it a horror comedy; it’s just, at best, a parody. It wasn’t until after watching the trailer for Krampus, however, that I became truly intrigued.

The film is set three days before Christmas, when Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), along with their children Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony), welcome their much maligned extended family members into their home to celebrate. This motley bunch include Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her gun-toting husband Howard (David Koechner), their raucously redneck children Howie Jr., Stevie, and Jordan, and the vile Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). When Max is driven to distraction by his relatives and ends up destroying his letter to Santa, his German grandmother warns him that the power of the Christmas spirit is not only a force for good, it also wards off evil. Soon, the family find themselves at the mercy of something older than good old Saint Nick; the dreaded shadow of Santa Claus.

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Just your typical family get-together

It’s a stellar cast, and one that blends the comedy and horror elements of the film perfectly. The opening sequences, in which we are introduced to them as a family unit, feel incredibly genuine and are delightfully funny without coming across as too cliché or hammy. In a world where at least one new Christmas comedy comes out every year, it’s hard to maintain any sort of originality and yet Krampus manages to play with the genre’s stereotypes without necessarily succumbing to them. You’ve got the brothers-in-law who just can’t get along, the hateful older relative who drinks his/herself into an eggnog-fuelled coma, the mother exasperated with her ungrateful family after slaving away over a hot stove; yet it’s all done so seamlessly that you forget you’ve seen it all before.

krampus04In fact, the humorous elements are so well-executed that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a fully-fledged comedy. Yet it’s when the horror begins that the film really starts to show its teeth. The snow and stunning set pieces (resplendent with the most terrifying snowmen I’ve ever seen) create a suitably oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere that was chilling in of itself. Without giving too much away, the monsters are beautifully well-realised and stunningly designed. They’re the perfect mixture of the festive and the grotesque, with a certain ridiculousness that makes them both comical and horrifying. The celebrated (and rightly so) film critic Mark Kermode compared it to Gremlins in its delicious nastiness and Poltergeist in terms of its family feel. High praise indeed, but one the film has certainly earned. It’s refreshing to see a family comedy that’s not afraid to show its monstrous side.

There were moments where I laughed myself to tears and times where I gasped with fear, which really speaks to how effective this was as a comedy horror. But what marred my enjoyment and what I’d describe as the film’s major problem was pacing. It started off as a slow burner, which served it well when it came to establishing the family dynamic, but then it seemed to introduce the titular character far too early. I was eager to see how they were going to portray Krampus, and his opening sequence is a work of pure art, but the initial reveal came just a little too early for me. Not only that, but thereafter the pace slowed once again and the film unfortunately dragged for a good ten minutes. This sets a regrettable yet recurring pattern, as the pace suddenly quickens and then just as rapidly drops far too often.

With that out of the way, Krampus is not only by-far and away the best Christmas film this season, I personally found it to be one of the most enjoyable horror films of 2015. Its sharp, its witty, its delightfully dark, and I felt sucked in by the narrative from beginning to end. So if you’re sick of those cheesy carollers’ smiles, tired of encountering random objects covered in fairy lights, and shiver inwardly at the thought of hearing “Fairytale of New York” one more time, treat yourself to a little holiday horror and go see a film that is sure to amuse and terrify.

Cloven
Please God, not The Pogues

Acting: 8/10, all of the actors were perfectly cast and really sell the family dynamic. Koechner and Ferrell are particularly charming and elevate the comic elements of the film.

Storyline: 7/10, the storyline is an interesting take on the Krampus mythology and sets the film apart from other Christmas-based horror films.

Fear Factor: 7/10, some of the creatures are honestly disturbing and are sure to satisfy the most morbid of curiosities.

Overall: 7/10, Krampus is a clever and entertaining romp that doles out fear and fun in equal measure.

 

 

Time to Spread the Christmas Fear: A Review of Krampus (2015)

Life Probably Seems Short No Matter What: A Review of Spring (2014)

Release Date: September 5th 201446f

Director: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes

After watching Crimson Peak last week and feeling soul-wrenchingly disappointed, I thought it only fitting to review another film that ended up on my list of Top 10 Most Anticipated Horror Films of this year. Spring nabbed the number two spot, because the concept of a romantic sci-fi horror sounded refreshing and the trailer, resplendent with stunning cinematography and a subtly beautiful soundtrack, promised a solid release with an intriguing premise. So, when it was finally released on DVD this April, I dutifully badgered my other half into buying me a copy.

The story revolves around a young man named Evan Russell (Lou Taylor Pucci), who flees the US after his life begins to fall apart. Vulnerable and afraid, he travels to Italy and meets the broodingly beautiful Louise (Nadia Hilker), a mysterious and beguiling Italian woman who simultaneously appears to encourage and rebuff his advances. As the two grow closer and Evan finds himself falling deeply in love, he also comes ever nearer to exposing Louise’s dark secret. What follows is a tender portrayal of love at its most beautiful, and its most terrifying.

Note: There will be some mild spoilers in this review, although no major plot points are revealed.

From the outset, the cinematography in the film is superb. It was filmed on set in Italy, and the sweeping panoramas of the small rural village that Evan finds himself in are breath-taking. They also serve to propel the film forward, as they heighten the sense of romance while maintaining tension. The soundtrack complements this perfectly, with its soothing mixture of downbeat piano pieces and stark use of jarring synth tracks. In short, the set-up and atmosphere were enough to draw me in long before the “horror” element of the film began.

The performances of all the actors are phenomenal, as each one is as believable and engaging as the last, but Nadia Hilker and Lou Taylor Pucci are the real driving force behind the film. Taylor Pucci redeems his lackluster performance as that Jesus lookalike who gets completely brutalised in Evil Dead (2013) with his portrayal of the kindhearted and lovable everyman Evan, while Hilker gives a commanding and compelling performance as the enigmatic Louise. The vast majority of scenes depend upon them, as the film’s focus is primarily on the budding romance that develops between them. They have fantastic onscreen chemistry and their love story feels authentic, causing you to subconsciously root for them and become engrossed in the progression of the plot.

This makes it all the more distressing when the supernatural elements do start to kick in, as you fear for both of the main characters’ well-being. The film isn’t necessarily an out-and-out horror flick, in that it is not particularly scary, but this is forgivable as the narrative it weaves is genuine, enthralling, and thought-provoking. In many ways, what happens to Louise and Evan is a metaphor for love as a whole. The fear of intimacy, the craving for affection, the dread of exposing your vulnerability to someone else; these are feelings we can all relate to. And the film explores them through the medium of the sci-fi horror genre, providing a fresh take on a topic that has fascinated mankind for centuries. What does it mean to fall in love? How do you know when you are? And what would you be willing to sacrifice for it?

Louise’s secret, or should I say condition, also makes for an interesting commentary on the horror genre. As she attempts to explain herself to Evan, she expands on the deficit of human knowledge and how we often fear the unknown. There are no such things as ghosts and ghouls, she expounds, but simply a lack of scientific understanding. This ties in with the concept of love, as it too is a thing that we fear simply because we do not fully understand it. In short, Spring isn’t just a better love story than Twilight (because seriously, what isn’t), it’s a beautifully crafted exposition of two young people falling in love, overcoming obstacles, and learning what it means to trust in the unknown. After all, love only comes around a couple of times if you’re lucky, and movies this good only come around a couple of times a year.

Acting: 9/10, all of the actors put forward startlingly good performances, but Nadia Hilker and Lou Taylor Pucci are what make the film so delightfully and exceptionally watchable.

Storyline: 8/10, the storyline is a refreshing take on the sci-fi horror genre and also a fascinating exploration of young love.

Fear Factor: 5/10, the film isn’t particularly scary, but that doesn’t detract from the narrative as a whole.

Overall: 8/10, this is by far one of my favourite films of 2015 and, although it may not be a horror aficionado’s cup of tea, it’s just the ticket if you’re looking for a gentle, intriguing watch.

Life Probably Seems Short No Matter What: A Review of Spring (2014)

Ghosts Are Real, This Much I Know: A Review of Crimson Peak (2015)

Release Date: October 16th 2015

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes

Crimson Peak was by far my most anticipated horror movie of 2015. As October 16th approached and my impatience reached fever pitch, I waited with baited breath, checking the cinema website every few days (hours…okay minutes) to see if I could finally book my ticket. And it wasn’t just because I wanted to see Tom Hiddleston’s bum. I have loved Del Toro’s work ever since, at the tender age of sixteen, I sat down to watch Pan’s Labyrinth and swiftly made the horrifying realisation that it was not a children’s film, as my mother had previously thought. The deliciously dark atmosphere, the mingling of the real and the fantastical, the strange and beautiful creatures that populate a world barely hidden behind the veil; these are the things I love about Del Toro. And the trailer for Crimson Peak, with its gothic opulence, colourfully twisted ghosts, and creepily sexual undertones, promised not to disappoint.

Yet, in many ways, disappoint it did. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps the film had been marketed incorrectly, but it certainly wasn’t the film I had envisioned it to be and wasn’t really the one I wanted to see. With that aside, I’ll start with the plot and what I liked about it before I become too damning and potentially unlikeable (no one likes a critic, after all).

Crimson Peak follows the story of a hopeful writer named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who has just completed her first gothic horror novel. As a young girl, Edith is convinced that she was able to see ghosts and has since become fascinated by them. Meanwhile, a sexy young baronette named Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) has left his home in England and arrived in America to drum up funding for some fantastical steampunk-esque machine he’s been working on.

He’s come with his clearly evil sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), whose main function is to play the piano and give people that “bitch-I-will-cut-you” look every now and then. Unsurprisingly Edith and Thomas hit it off immediately, get married, and proceed to return to his creepy mansion in England, named Allerdale Hall. Edith shows absolutely no concern for the fact that the house clearly doesn’t have a roof and that there’s horrifying red clay seeping down the walls. Yet all is rather unsurprisingly not what it seems in Allerdale Hall, as Edith begins seeing ghosts once again and starts to piece together the horrible truth behind the Sharpe family name.

Evidently the costume designer for “Natural Born Killers” needed work

The cinematography throughout the film is absolutely stunning and many of the scenes are beautifully well-realised, with the costumes, backdrop, and choreography coming together to form some of the most stimulating and visually nourishing shots I’ve seen in a long time. The luxurious furnishings, plush dresses, crisp white snow, and deep red…well…everything combine perfectly to form a set that screams gothic literature.

The style employed in the first half is deeply reminiscent of 1930s horror films like Frankenstein (1931), where it looks as though the shots have been filmed in a theatre rather than on a typical film set. This gives the first half of the movie a suitably oppressive feel, while paying homage to the forefathers it is trying to imitate, but I found that it jarred aesthetically with the second half, which is filmed on the grandest Hollywood set money could buy. Allerdale Hall is full of character and, with its dilapidated walls, oozing floors, and creaking pipes, has a certain ruined beauty to it. Essentially, it’s the perfect set for a gothic horror film of this calibre.

That’s one sexy looking…house…

The unique and vibrant designs behind the ghosts are refreshing, as they’re not your usual “creepy child” or “eyeless woman” fare (I’m looking at you, Paranormal Activity). In spite of some dodgy CG, they are beautifully realised and insanely creepy, though some of their fear factor is lost by them getting a little too up close and personal with the camera. After all, less is more, and this is never truer than in horror flicks. The Del Toro influence is most obvious here, as several of the ghosts reminded me of their wispy counterparts in Mama and The Devil’s Backbone.

Jessica Chastain plays the role of the quietly malevolent Lady Lucille perfectly, striking that fine balance between being terrifying and still believable. Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam, who plays Edith’s childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael, boast solid performances but it was Mia Wasikowska that proved to be the real surprise as she was actually rather good. I had incredibly low expectations for her and she shattered them with her on-point performance of the delicate yet feisty Edith Cushings. Another surprise delight was Jim Beaver, an actor that I’d never heard of, who plays father Carter Cushing and provides a much-needed slice of comic relief.

Where the film fell down for me personally was the storyline. It’s unfortunately hugely predictable and several of the ‘subtle’ hints towards the mystery behind the house were as obvious as a stab to the face (you’ll get it when you see it). Not only that, the plot itself is deplorably unoriginal and left me wondering whether I had missed something crucial. Surely all that build-up couldn’t have been for nothing? Well, in many ways it was, but the build-up was deeply enjoyable, so I can’t fault it too much. In short, it’s essentially like getting onto a rollercoaster and making the nerve-racking climb up, only to reach the top and find that you’ve accidentally entered “Mr. Froggy’s Mild Ride” and not “The Pants Soiler”.

Acting: 7/10, there wasn’t a single actor whose performance I could fault, although Jessica Chastain is the real powerhouse that drives the narrative forward.

Storyline: 5/10, the storyline was deeply disappointing as it was predictable, unoriginal, the supernatural elements were largely inconsequential, and it spent far too much time building up to an unsatisfactory ending.

Fear Factor: 7/10, its chock full of far more violence, tension, and scares than you’d expect for such a low-rated film.

Overall: 6/10, perhaps my expectations were too high, but Crimson Peak barely came close to some of the stronger horror titles this year.

Ghosts Are Real, This Much I Know: A Review of Crimson Peak (2015)