Director: Takashi Shimizu
Producers: Taka Ichise, Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert
Writers: Takashi Shimizu, Stephen Susco
Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Takako Fuji, Bill Pullman, Yuya Ozeki
THE GRUDGE (2004)
When it comes to contemporary classics, THE GRUDGE is a perennial favorite. The telltale crooooooooooak of Kayako as she slowly and jerkily makes her way down the stairs was a significant part of my childhood, delightedly uttered to scare the wimpy. Although she isn’t the first to come to mind when one considers horror’s most famous faces, distant from the notoriety of the Michaels and Jasons of all-American slashers, the monster in this American reboot of Japanese hit JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) is no less an icon.
In case you’re sufficiently older or younger than I am to the point that THE GRUDGE phenomenon missed you, here’s the skinny:
A young nurse, Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar, the period’s quintessential scream queen) travels overseas with her boyfriend (Jason Behr) to study abroad in Tokyo. Between studying and staring dreamily into said boyfriend’s eyes, she manages to land a substitute in-home nursing role for an older American woman, Emma Williams (Grace Zabriskie, who, it must be said, bears an unsettling resemblance to the emaciated Ellen Burstyn of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM a few years prior in 2000). Karen is surprised to find that Emma is almost always silent, tight-lipped and all eyes staring straight ahead. Emma’s reticence is only the first surprise in store . . . unfortunately, poor Karen is not informed in advance of the house’s two other residents, Kayako (Takako Fuji, the actress who portrayed the same character in the Japanese original) and her son, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki, also from the original portrayal) . . . unwelcome and undead.
The basis of THE GRUDGE is the idea, originating in Japanese folklore, that a powerful event leaves an emotional stain on the physical setting, often in the form of a supernatural entity, as in this case. (Image courtesy of Takashi Shimizu and Hideo Yamamoto.)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Producers: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Stephen Davis, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Brian Goldner
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Stars: Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser
The Ouija board is a remnant of Spiritualism by now so hackneyed that the archetype does not so much conjure up demons for audiences as it does eye rolls. Leave it to Mike Flanagan (HUSH , OCULUS ), horror’s latest darling, to revitalize a plot device that is otherwise dead (no pun intended).
“Doris, listen to me. A scam is a lie. We don’t lie; we help people. We give them closure, we give them peace, we heal their hearts . . . that’s something that can’t happen without a little showmanship.”
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)
Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), widowed and raising a teenager and small girl alone in the 1960s, is looking to spruce up her business when the film begins. Clients, who come to her to communicate with the dead during séances in her dining room—a con pulled off in part due to daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) who, in the (dis)honored tradition of the Fox sisters, furtively blow out candles and rap on wood to create the illusion of spirit communication—have been fleeing after readings, often without paying, either unconvinced or unsettled by the events of the séance. Fatefully, Lina tools around with a Ouija board at a friend’s party—classic—and on the car ride home, mentions it to Alice: “It was actually pretty fun. You should consider getting one for the act.” Lo and behold, when Alice drops by the store to replenish her candle supply, a board is prominently displayed and she grabs one on impulse. The success of the act shifts in a positive direction . . . everything else, not so much.
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Stars: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley
PEEPING TOM (1960) dir. Michael Powell
It’s safe to say that we all have something in common with Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm): we photograph. We take SnapChats of our craft beers, Instagram our pregnant bellies and college acceptance letters, and update Facebook with family photos on holidays. Mark, for his part, like so many professional photographers, photographs the beautiful. Then, he kills them. Viewers are never once privy to the pictures that Mark takes—no doubt the filmmakers’ way of shielding viewers from what would be a bloody sight indeed—but we can assume that they are somewhat more hideous than your average selfie.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), side by side with his other eye: the projector which plays his films, over and over again. (Image courtesy of IMDb.)
PEEPING TOM (1960) opens with a kill, Mark’s first of the film. A beautiful blonde prostitute perishes and, soon afterward, Mark heads home to his apartment. There, festivities rage as the good-natured redhead downstairs, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), turns twenty-one. In spite of Mark’s apparent eccentricity—not only does he keep stolidly to himself, fail to tell anyone that he is the son of the landlord, and carry a hulking mid-century camera with him everywhere, but he peeks into the Stephens’ living room through the picture window on a regular basis—Helen seems infatuated with him, first eagerly inviting him to her party and then, following his polite refusal, delivering a piece of birthday cake to him. When she begs Mark to show her the films he screens in his apartment, she has no idea that she is in for a disturbing viewing experience.
Producers: Will Allen, Tracey Harnish, Alexandra Johnes
Stars: Will Allen, Michel Gomez, Cristala Allen, Gina Allen
HOLY HELL (2016) dir. Will Allen
What’s in a cult? Our culture is saturated with them. The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, and The People’s Temple (the site of the Jonestown Massacre) may be the most famous of American cults, but they’re hardly the only few. A cult is defined by three characteristics, all of which are rather vague: a charismatic leader, the use of “coercive persuasion,” and some form of exploitation. In movies, cults are glaringly suspicious. The leaders are always heavy-browed and blank-eyed, darkly hinting about “transcending Earth” or “becoming one” or something equally as ominous. But, if in real life cults were so obviously spotted, it’s safe to say that they would have died out long before now. Would you notice a cult if the leader demanded no sacrifices? If the fellow members were the smartest, most creative people you had ever met? If your siblings were also members?
“Annie, Misery is dead.” But already, incredibly, he was thinking, I could bring her back. The thought filled him with tired revulsion but no real surprise. After all, a man who could drink from a floor-bucket should be capable of a little directed writing.
“No she’s not,” Annie replied dreamily. “Even when I was . . . when I was so mad at you, I knew she wasn’t really dead. I know you couldn’t really kill her. Because you’re good.”
“Am I?” he said, and looked at the typewriter. It grinned at him. We’re going to find out just how good you are, old buddy, it whispered.
“Annie, I don’t know if I can sit in that wheelchair. Last time—“
“Last time it hurt, you bet it did. And it will hurt next time, too.”
MISERY (1987), by Stephen King.
by Stephen King
Viking Penguin, Inc., 310 pp., $16.00
When acclaimed author Paul Sheldon finishes writing Misery’s Child, he is elated—finally, he can publish what he believes might be the next great American novel, a fast, clever manuscript he has titled Fast Cars, quite the drastic move for a writer known for a series of pulpy romance novels. To end the series, Misery Chastain has died and, truth be told, Sheldon’s not shedding tears over the matter. But when Paul awakens days after leaving the Boulderado Hotel where he writes, he finds himself in close quarters with his self-proclaimed “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes, an eccentric nurse with a maniacal obsession of Misery and her ilk. When Annie learns of Misery’s demise, it quickly becomes clear that Annie has no qualms about asserting her will, in ways that are bound to turn your stomach.
Director: Claire Denis
Producers: Georges Benayoun, Phillipe Liégeois, Jean-Michel Rey
Writers: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau
Stars: Vincent Gallo, Béatrice Dalle, Tricia Vessey
Little is clear when TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001) begins, dark and skewed imagery of the before and after of a bloody murder juxtaposed with a sustained shot of a couple groping and kissing in their car, a scene which feels even more obscene to behold than the former. Many viewers, like me, will be bewildered by such an ambiguous beginning … yet these images, perplexing as they are—and the gorgeous, brooding “Trouble Every Day,” by the Tindersticks, possibly my favorite horror-pic musical theme of all time—sum up the two most vital themes of the film: lust and destruction—and, inherent in each, raw instinct.
Coré (Béatrice Dalle), drenched. (Image courtesy of Claire Denis and Agnès Godard.)
Mr. (Vincent Gallo) and Mrs. Shane Brown (Tricia Vessey) travel to la ville d’amour purportedly to celebrate their honeymoon. Soon, however, it is revealed that Shane is on a less than romantic mission, determined to find renowned medical researcher Léo Sémeneau (Alex Descas), who specializes in the treatment of an ailment so maligned that other physicians refuse even to speak of it. As the Browns’ sojourn to Paris stretches ever longer—and poor June Brown scarcely leaves the hotel room, more or less abandoned by her monomaniacal lover—Shane must face ghosts he believed he long left behind … and himself.
CONTENT WARNING: The following review contains discussion of white supremacy (including the appearance and activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups) and repeated references to the Holocaust.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Neil Kopp, Victor Moyers, Anish Savjani
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots
“What was the name of your second to last song?”
“Uh … ‘T-Toxic Evolution.’”
“It’s fucking hard, man. That’s the one I did her to.”
GREEN ROOM (2016)
The Ain’t Rights, a traveling punk rock band desperate for cash, know for sure that they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when they reluctantly agree to play at a dive bar where an acquaintance’s cousin works. Tadpole (David W. Thompson) describes the punk rock scene at their new venue as “right-wing,” anathema to rebels Pat (Anton Yelchin, giving a captivating final performance before his sudden death in June 2016), Reece (Joe Cole), Tiger (Callum Turner), and Sam (Alia Shawkat). Still, they reluctantly press on, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, things could not be worse: what Tadpole understated as “right-wing” turns out to be a band of neo-Nazi punks … and that’s only the beginning of the misfortune to come. When Pat stumbles upon the scene of a stabbing, he is detained with the rest of his band and Amber (Imogen Poots), a local punk caught up in the same illicit mess.
Director: Victor Fleming
Producer: Victor Fleming, Victor Saville
Writer: John Lee Mahin
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Ingrid Bergman
Good and evil are so close as to be chained together in the soul. Now suppose we could break that chain, separate those two selves … free the good in man and let it go on to its higher destiny …
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)
This Halloween season, the Turner Classic Movie channel did not disappoint. (It rarely does.) I was busy enough that I wasn’t able to tune in until the week before Halloween and, when I did, I started off with DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941), director Victor Fleming’s interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous gothic tale. In case you’re unfamiliar with the plot, “The Mysterious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” concerns the Gothic theme of the double (or, as it’s more familiarly called today, the doppelgänger). Dr. Jekyll, a prominent scientist, is fascinated with man’s spiritual duality, particularly after observing the case of a mentally ill gentleman who is transformed from friendly family man to hostile recluse after sustaining brain damage. Jekyll begins to develop a potion that he believes will cure the man, exorcising the evil from his spirit and leaving only the purest good, but the subject dies before he can test his groundbreaking new formula. Left with no other choice, he decides to test the potion on himself, consequences be damned. What emerges is Mr. Hyde, a sociopathic monster who wreaks havoc and threatens to end Jekyll’s life as he knows it.
Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy), hard at work developing a rather controversial new medicine. (Image via IMDb.)
Director: Adam Wingard
Producers: Jess Calder, Keith Calder, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider
Writer: Simon Barrett
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott
BLAIR WITCH (2016)
Dark: the nonnegotiable dark that can only be found in the depths of the wilderness dominates BLAIR WITCH (2016). This much-anticipated sequel—and remake—slowly unveils what we most fear: that which we cannot see, the tangible unknowable that lurks beneath a particular velvety night.
BLAIR WITCH is—and should be—viewed as a direct follow-up to 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as no self-respecting fan acknowledges the first film’s unfortunate follow-up, BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 (2000) as any relation to the smashing first installment. In contrast, BLAIR WITCH will more than satisfy fans of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, echoing all of the Gothic eeriness of the first film, while peppering in new scares sure to thrill a current audience.
When a YouTube video surfaces, depicting previously unseen footage of the night of the Burkittsville disappearances, James Donahue’s (James Allen McCune) interest is piqued. He has a special interest in the case: Heather Donahue, the documentary filmmaker who disappeared in Burkittsville, is his sister. Over the years, he has kept a keen eye out for new evidence, hoping to recover her from the depths of the forest where she vanished—and in the video, he sees a blurred woman’s face. Enlisting the help of his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who is eager to record their investigation as her own documentary film project—a girl after Heather’s own heart!—and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), he sets out to Burkittsville in hopes of solving the mystery once and for all.
Peter (Brandon Scott) and James (James Allen McCune) help Ashley (Corbin Reid) across the creek by Coffin Rock. (Recognize it?) (Image courtesy of IMDb and Chris Helcermanas-Benge.)
Director: Karyn Kusama
Producers: Martha Griffin, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Nick Spicer
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman
THE INVITATION (2015)
Director Karyn Kusama is a force of nature cinema; in 2000, she swept film festivals—awarded at Sundance, Cannes, Deauville, Ghent International, Gotham, and Sitges—with GIRLFIGHT, the groundbreaking tale of a young girl blazing trails as a boxer and, in 2009, JENNIFER’S BODY rocked the worlds of horror fans and lesbians alike. THE INVITATION (2015) is something of a departure—most apparently, the empowered and deeply complex female protagonist typical of Kusama’s films is absent. Perhaps this absence of transgression is what makes THE INVITATION comparably dull … Kusama’s latest film is somewhat lackluster.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has suffered tremendously in the recent past: after his son, Ty (Aiden Lovekamp), dies in a tragic accident, his wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), meets another man at a grief support group and promptly divorces him for her new lover. Given all that, it’s understandable that he is loath to accept an invitation from Eden to attend a dinner party—held at their old home, where she and her lover, David (Michiel Huisman)—now her husband—live. However, with some convincing from his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzi Corinealdi), Will agrees to give Eden and David a chance. When he arrives, Eden’s and his mutual friends are all in attendance, making themselves at home in a strange situation. What only Will seems to intuit is how strange things will become—and how dangerous.
The attendees gather together, at David’s (Michiel Huisman) insistence, and watch a video on his laptop. (Image courtesy of Karyn Kusama, Bobby Shore.)