When I saw The Witch several months ago at TIFF 2015, I was already pretty hyped up after having read the reviews out of Sundance several months earlier. The experience didn’t disappoint. The film delivered on its promise of a truly rich and creepy atmosphere, lush visuals, a viscerally affecting score, an impressive level of attention to detail and period accuracy, and a story that would get under your skin and scare you in a refreshingly more profound way than the average new release jump-scare shocker.
And yet, and yet.
Even though it’s a visually stunning film with haunting music and great performances, I left the theatre feeling uncomfortable about something that I couldn’t put my finger on for several days. Eventually, it dawned on me.
My problem with The Witch is that there’s a real witch in it. Or many witches, as you discover by the time you get to the admittedly striking final moments of the film. Many reviews have singled out the ending as especially powerful. And I would agree with them, if the film hadn’t made such a point of highlighting its own historical accuracy (the opening credits even mention that much of the dialogue is lifted directly from accounts of the time).
We all understand that the persecution of witches in our history had far less to do with magic and spells than it did with the subjugation of women. It may not have been the way that the people of the 17th century saw it, but it is obvious to us today that women were persecuted for witchcraft because their voices and their sexuality were seen as dangerous, unwieldy and terrifying to puritanical society – and not because they were actually Satan’s hench-women. The Witch pulls a weird bait-&-switch on this point.
Robert Eggers is fully aware of the above, and The Witch treats Thomasin’s budding, pre-teen sexuality, and her brother’s and father’s fear of it with great subtlety and care. Eggers makes it excruciatingly obvious just how much the simple fact that she is a woman will harm and undermine Thomasin in life. It isolates her from her family and sets her up to be persecuted for something she isn’t guilty for. It’s a no-win situation and it’s really well done.
The exhaustive research and painstaking execution of every historical detail are so obvious in The Witch that every conflict between Thomasin and her siblings or parents seems like a stark, honest snapshot of injustice. That is, until you get to the end and think back on the entire story as perhaps a lengthy and methodical recruitment process of a new, young witch into the local coven. Then, all of a sudden, you might see that her family members were right to fear and condemn her, because even though she may not have realized what was happening to her – it was happening.
It’s like saying “yeah, we made you think that this was about keeping women down but actually this persecution … it’s justified, because those women are actually witches and they are in league with the devil.” Whether intentional or not (my bet is: not), that feels like a wrong and jarring conclusion to arrive at.
Was it just me? Did anyone else have this reaction?
Every year I set a vague goal for myself to “read more”. Much like the “exercise more” or “drink less” or “go to bed earlier” resolutions that dominate most people’s lists, “read more” actually means “change your lifestyle enough so that you have time for this activity that you love (and have always loved) but that requires a certain amount of your actual focus and attention, and is therefore difficult to wedge into the end of a 15 hour workday when your brain is screaming for the love of god, just turn on the television.”
My downfall when it comes to the “read more” resolution is usually an overly ambitious reading list. It’s all well and good if you already have the sort of life-schedule that allows you several hours of quality alone-time every day so that you can really sink into Moby Dick (on my list, btw). But if all you can manage is a half hour before you literally pass out mid sentence at the end of the day … well, that’s fine too but it’s not always conducive to really getting into heavy, dense 1,000 page tomes.
This year, I decided to be ambitious about quantity (50 books! Nearly one a week! Take that, 2015!) but less ambitious about quality. That doesn’t mean I’m reading garbage. 50 Shades of Grey is not on my list (although this blog about it is). I am, however, reading a pleasant mix of literature and just-plain-ol’-fiction. And I’m bringing non-fiction into the mix, because I find that when I get into non-fiction, I love it almost more than anything else I could be reading. But I rarely think to pick it up. Similar to the relationship I have with documentary films.
I’ve done two things this year that are going to immensely improve my numbers, and already have:
A) I got an e-reader. This one.
Let me confirm, first of all, that I am absolutely a “book person”. I love the feeling, the texture, the smell, the heft of real books. I don’t feel at home unless I’m surrounded by full-to-bursting bookshelves. I find it impossible to part with books. Even books I don’t particularly like, or ever plan to read again. I love (LOVE!) books.
But (there’s always a but, isn’t there) I can’t afford to buy every book I feel like reading, and I certainly don’t have the space for them all in my home. For better or worse, I’m used to being able to access most things close-to-instantaneously, because that’s my relationship to music and TV and films, so it’s annoying that I can’t do that when it comes to books. I use the Toronto Public Library system a lot, but sometimes I wait for months for a book I really want to read to come available, and by that point I’ve forgotten why I was so excited about it.
I also do a fair bit of reading for research and for work, and that reading usually comes in the form of PDFs – scripts, articles, excerpts from books and so on. I rarely find the time for this kind of reading during my workdays, and I’m not interested in printing thousands of pages to read at bedtime, so the only solution is to read it on a device. A device that’s not my iPad, that is, since that activity is apparently killing us all.
I’m also an avid transit-reader, and I ruin many books that way, by dragging them around in my messy, dirty backpack or wedging them into my too-small purse.
The e-reader addresses all of those problems and more. And I find the e-ink incredibly easy on the eyes.
B) I signed up for Audible.
Actually, Colin did. I log into his account on my phone and listen to books while I’m walking. I never thought I’d have the attention span for anything longer than a 30-ish minute podcast because I’m so easily distracted (I can’t listen to music while I work – too distracting), but in fact, I am loving the experience of having a book read to me by a disembodied voice. I’ve listened to two so far, and it’s been brilliant.
Anyway. It’s the beginning of March, so here’s my first book report! I’ve finished seven books. Three were actual paper books, one was on the e-reader, and three were audio.
1. The Widower’s Two Step, by Rick Riordan
Two summers ago I picked up a $0.50 book at a church sale, a pulp detective novel called Big Red Tequila. It was about a dryly-funny-literature-PhD-having-tai-chi-doing-Texas-living private eye called Tres Navarre. I found it really enjoyable (and not badly written). Turns out it was the first in a series of eight books. Last year, I bought the other seven online. The Widower’s Two Step is #2, and it finds Tres Navarre trying to solve a case of corruption and possibly murder in the country music scene of Nashville producers and aspiring songbirds. I’m looking forward to my third rendezvous with Mr. Navarre, but I’ll probably wait until summer. It is really holiday reading.
2. The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker
I’ve never ready any Clive Barker before, so I figured I’d start with the book that Hellraiser was based on. It was short, full of sharp descriptions and clear, efficient prose. It was like drinking an ice-cold glass of water. Bracing, refreshing, totally thirst quenching. It’s a deceptively simple novella, and in many ways more disturbing than the film. I loved the internal voice of Julia – a far uglier and better picture of selfishness than the more overtly evil Julia in the film. The book made me appreciate short-format-horror, perhaps for the first time? I’m looking forward to reading the Books of Blood and continuing the love affair with even shorter stories.
3. Clay’s Ark, by Octavia Butler
I’d never heard of Octavia Butler when Colin recommended her Parable of the Sower to me a few years ago. I was completely blown away. Why hadn’t anyone else ever told me that there was a brilliant female sci-fi author out there whose protagonists were always women of colour?! I’ve read several of her novels since, and each one has been perfect. Butler knows how to bring a post-apocalyptic world to life, but she’s even better at envisioning those terrifying moments just before the world ends, the moments after you realize the end is inevitable, but you have to soldier on anyway. Clay’s Ark featured the best version of an “alien virus that could kill us all” that I’ve ever read.
4. Lock In, by John Scalzi
This was my first Audible experience. It’s read by Wil Wheaton, which charmed me immediately, but then it turned out to be really fantastic sci-fi in its own right. Lock In is a murder mystery that takes place in a very plausible near future in which a large percentage of the population is afflicted with Haden’s, a disease that leaves sufferers “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move. Two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, in which the locked-in can interact with others. The second involves allowing the locked-in to operate in the “real world” through android bodies. It’s a good mystery that happens to take place in an incredibly well-realized world.
5. Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, by John Scalzi
This bonus novella was attached to the end of Lock In and featured “interviews” with everyone from scientists to politicians to members of the media and the public about the outbreak and spread of Haden’s Syndrome. How it got its name, how the new virus was identified, how the therapies were developed, what the early days were like, everything. Moments that were only subtly hinted at in the novel are described in great detail here. The novella felt like non-fiction, a government report about a real pandemic. Every author’s job is to make you believe in the world they’ve created. John Scalzi accomplished it better than most.
6. Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
This ensemble-cast book weaves together a number of stories about a sculptor-turned-serial-killer, the detective who’s chasing him, her teenage daughter and daughter’s BFF, and an obnoxious blogger who falls into the middle of the investigation. This was my second audio book on Audible, and I found it less enjoyable than Lock In, but perhaps just because it was not as good a book. This one was read by several different voice actors, which I liked in principle, but I found it quite grating when the male actors would do “female voices” (not something I took issue with when Wil Wheaton did it, perhaps because he didn’t make the women sound lame).
7. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
This Pulitzer Prize winner was a title that Kobo recommended to me when I got the e-reader, so I thought “sure, why not” and bought it. It’s narrated by Theo Decker, who starts the story as a thirteen-year-old New Yorker who miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Over the next couple of decades, Theo’s life unfurls, his fate forever tied to a painting that he saw the day his mother died. I couldn’t wait to come back to this book every evening. Even at its most floridly-descriptive or rambling moments, it never fails to be a page-turner. Theo is a compelling narrator, and his observations are surprising and insightful.
That’s it for the first book report!
Books that I am currently reading and might appear on the next report include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Novellas, The Troop by Nick Cutter, The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy by Dave Madden (non-fiction!), and The Genome, a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, the Russian dude behind Night Watch.
My reading list is long, but I am always up for recommendations. If you want to share one with me (newer works especially, since I think my backlog of classics and older books is already too enormous), by all means!!
I love Christmas movies. The heartwarmers, the frighteners, the laff-rioters, I love ’em all, so I made a list. Let me predict in advance what you might say after you finish reading the list. You might say “what?! No It’s A Wonderful Life?!” But honestly, that movie gets enough love. It’s everyone’s Christmas favourite. And I like it too, because I have a heart. I just wanted to give a few other films some attention. Ones that you might not immediately think of when you’re making your “top holiday hits” lists. Same goes for Die Hard. Of course I love Die Hard like every other red blooded human being, and of course I know it’s a Christmas film and deserves to be on every holiday list for the rest of eternity. These films go without saying. I shouldn’t have to list them because DUH!
My list is by no means all obscurities. They’re just ones I’m personally really fond of, not including the obvious all-time-faves like It’s a Wonderful Life, Die Hard, Home Alone, or White Christmas, or even Elf. Although, I did just see Elf for the first time two days ago and it was genuinely funnier than I expected. Or even the greatest A Christmas Carol adaptation ever, Bill Murray’s Scrooged (which I love, and, shameless plug, is playing tomorrow, Friday Dec 19, at 7:00pm at The Royal).
And seriously, I also looooooove White Christmas.
Just try to watch that clip without crying!
Okay? Here we go. Ten films.
A Canadian classic slasher, and probably the #1 recommendation you’ll get from anyone if you’re like “hmm, what should I watch that is scary and Christmas-themed”. But it’s really good. This is the original “the call is coming from inside the house” scarefest (sorry about the spoiler, spoiler queens) and actually holds up great after 40 years. It’s also got a great “doesn’t quite make sense but sure is creepy” tagline: if this film doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight.
Shameless plug #2: it’s playing at The Royal this Saturday, Dec 20, at 7:00pm, and – for the E.N.G. fans out there, actor Art Hindle will be in attendance! If you want to get an advance ticket, it is super easy. Just go HERE.
Everyone loves Silent Night Deadly Night and its glorious sequel (“Garbage day!!”) but my favourite bad santa film is Christmas Evil, in which a man is irrevocably scarred by having witnessed his parents engage in a little bit of seasonal roleplay, and ends up becoming a toymaker who’s mad about the declining quality of the toys his factory manufactures, and creepily keeps literal lists of “naughty” and “nice” kids in his neighbourhood.
Of course, the unstable toymaker snaps, and before you know it, there’s an A+ evil santa rampage going on. No spoilers, but this film’s also got a great ending, I promise.
We all know that Santa’s sleigh is pulled by reindeer, right? But what does he do for all his pre-Christmas test flights? Glad you asked! He has a talking moose who does those runs with him. Unfortunately, the moose is a bit clumsy, and he crashes Santa’s sleigh into a small Dutch town. The moose ends up in a little boy’s barn, and santa ends up at a garbage dump across town. Will they find each other in time to save Christmas? Will Max (the little boy) finally make friends … with a talking moose?! Will there be lovable hijinx and heartwarming adventure? A thousand times yes, my friends.
This adorable Christmas tale from the Netherlands is a kid-friendly delight and only came out last year. If you have tykes who are old enough for subtitles, I highly recommend it.
4. DESK SET
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey are feisty rivals in this charming-as-heck romance from 1957 about the horrors of the rapidly approaching information age. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, the whip-smart librarian who runs the research department at a TV network, where a team of sassy gals hold a world of information at their fingertips. Tracey is the grinch who’s about to bring in a computer into their domain and ruin everything. After all, how could computers possibly replace humans with brains?!
Since it’s Christmas, and since it’s Hepburn and Tracey, you know it’ll end with the two of them falling in love. But the barbs they trade along the way are well worth the ride.
5. FUBAR 2
When we caught up with lovable hosers Terry and Dean in 2010, they were barely scraping by in Calgary, and decided to follow their buddy Tron and move to Fort MacMurray to cash in on some of that sweet, sweet oil money everyone’s on about. Unfortunately, life on the pipeline isn’t exactly what the duo expected, and before they know it, their new high rolling lifestyle nearly tears the lifelong buds apart.
But, obviously, since Christmas is fast approaching, you know there’s going to have to be a tearful reunion. Or something far more ridiculous than that, because this is after all, a Fubar film. It might be sacrilige to say this, but I think the sequel might even be funnier than the original Fubar, which gives’er harder than just about any other Canadian comedy.
Sure, you’ve seen Gremlins and you know it’s a great, not-too-scary-for-older-kids Christmas option. But do you remember just how amazingly bizarre and hilarious Phoebe Cates speech about her dad is? If not, it’s almost worth rewatching just for that. The perfect Christmas movie for (almost) all ages.
It’s Joe Dante at his best, it’s Phoebe Cates at the peak of her perfection, and it gave a pretty good ’90s band its name. I first watched this film in grade 7 or 8 at school, on a day when I’m pretty sure 90% of my classmates were on some kind of skiing field trip that I forgot to get a parental signature for. I stayed at school with a teacher and a small handful of other students and watched movies all day. Gremlins is the only one I remember because it scared the shit out of me.
7. JACK FROST
I have a real weakness for Christmas horror. I could easily recommend many far worse films than this one to anyone who actually wants to go down that rabbit hole, but instead I’ll stick to the “hits”. This one’s not exactly a hit, but it’s probably more entertaining than you think it is? Lots of great “he’s made of snow” gags (melting, steaming, re-solidifying, y’know) and terrific kills that make use of seasonal items like christmas trees.
The premise of this film is stupid (some kind of toxic chemical melts a serial killer and bonds his molecules with the snow that he melted into (?!?) so he “comes back” as a snowman), and the execution is silly. But it’s a really, really fun ride. Avoid the sequel, though. It takes place on a tropical island and has an extended Gremlins-homage-montage.
Everyone knows that Die Hard is the ultimate Christmas action film. But when’s the last time you watched Lethal Weapon? It’s the far darker choice, that’s for sure – watching Mel Gibson’s Riggs trying to screw up the courage to shoot himself in his trailer is a pretty intense way to kickstart our relationship with the charismatic rogue. Luckily, instead of dying, he gets partnered up with veteran cop Danny Glover, and the two grudgingly become awesome together and hunt down some drug smugglers.
This film has heart. For real! It has aged well.
9. RARE EXPORTS
This Finnish film has the perfect combination of deadpan (très Finnish) humour and (mild) Christmas horror. It’s Christmastime in Northern Finland, and a scientist has just unearthed something strange – a “sacred grave”, the occupant of which might still be alive. Before you know it, children start disappearing, reindeer are mysteriously killed, and shit is getting crazy. Soon it’s up to a plucky little boy to figure out what the hell is going on.
An equal parts terrifying and hilarious imagining of the real Santa Claus myth, this film was the first one I’d seen in a good long while that added something truly new and inventive to the story of Christmas. This ain’t your grandma’s evil Santa. Or something. Anyway, it’s a great film.
Everyone loves James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, but how about giving him a shot in this delightful romance that’s basically the original You’ve Got Mail? The film takes place in Budapest, where Alfred (Stewart) and Klara (Margaret Sullavan) work at a general store, Matuschek and Co. They butt heads constantly, disagree all the time, and just can’t get along. Meanwhile, they’re both quite smitten with their respective pen pals. I’m sure you can see where this is going.
I wasn’t just drawing a loose parallel when I said it was the original You’ve Got Mail. Meg Ryan’s character in that film owns a store called “The Shop Around The Corner”, so the homage is out in the open. Although, both are apparently based on a 1937 play called Parfumerie. Anyway, give the Ernst Lubitsch joint a try.
TIFF roundup time. Here’s everything I saw, in alphabetical order, with a sentence or two of commentary. Links below are all to trailers or clips of the films, unless one was not available. I saw around 25 films and didn’t see anything that I really disliked this year, so I’m not going to rank the films in any kind of order.
Although I will say that Crime Wave, The Duke of Burgundy, The Guest, Luna and Ned Rifle were my best experiences, and Alleluia, which I didn’t technically watch at TIFF, rounds out my “top six”.
1001 Grams – The story itself was quite simple, but the fact that it was set in the strange world of international weights and measures really charmed me. Where is Canada’s prototype of the kilogram held, I wonder?
Alleluia – Technically I did not see this at TIFF. I saw it in Cannes, but it remains one of my faves of the year so I’m including it anyway! Based on the same source material as The Honeymoon Killers, this is one of the most gorgeous films of the year.
Big Game – The craving deep in my soul that can only be satisfied with Amblin Entertainment-style kid adventure films was fed a substantial meal by Big Game. Unapologetically silly and kid-friendly action. Anyone who thinks this isn’t one of the best and least phoned-in Samuel Jackson performances in a while is nuts.
Cart – A simple but affecting story (based on real events) about the plight of South Korean temporary and contract workers (who make up 60% of the population and make 50% of their full time counterparts’ wages) and their attempts to unionize or at least force the supermarket that unfairly dismissed them to hire them back.
Crime Wave – I’ve said enough, right?
Cub – A straight-up fun horror movie. Just the meat and potatoes of scary movies, where a pack of cub scouts gets it from a psycho-killer and a feral child. Sometimes, it’s satisfying to go back to basics.
The Duke of Burgundy – One of my faves of the festival. Gorgeous, stylish, original, funny as hell. The strange story of a relationship between two women that you think you understand, until you realize it’s something else entirely. Plus, I learned a lot about mole crickets.
The Editor – If you’ve ever enjoyed a Giallo film, then the loving parody/homage of The Editor is for you. If you enjoyed Father’s Day or Manborg or just like funny jokes, then The Editor is probably also for you.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films – Mark Hartley is the champion of documentaries about the “wild, untold stories” of cinema, and while this one was less of a “to watch” list than Not Quite Hollywood (because I’ve already seen way more Cannon films than Ozploitation films) there were still a few that I will definitely be watching post-TIFF. Like all the Ninja films.
Goodnight Mommy – This film starts out as a drama about a woman recovering from recent facial plastic surgery while trying to keep her rowdy twin sons in check at their country house. And then it becomes something far more dark and disturbing. Great film, intense viewing experience.
The Guest – Ah, the uninvited guest film, the Terminator-esque dangerous android film, the “fun American action” film, that old chestnut! Thanks for making a brand new chestnut, Barrett/Wingard. The Guest is already out in the US and opens in Toronto soon. Go fucking see it!
Luna – One of the most beautiful and moving relationship dramas I’ve seen in a long time, by Dave McKean, the visual genius behind all those Sandman covers, and Arkham Asylum, and lots of other great stuff. Perfect blend of illustration, animation, real feeling, and magic realism.
Maps to the Stars – A bit too hysterical (and I don’t mean that as a synonym for funny) for me, but filled to the brim with a lot of very good performances. What was the point, though? That Hollywood is a horrible place full of depraved monsters? I expect better, less obvious points from Cronenberg.
Ned Rifle – Hal Hartley’s best since Henry Fool, for sure. And a great end to the trilogy that Henry Fool and Fay Grim round out. Featured a cameo by every Hartley actor in the stable, which was nice to see. Truly “one for the fans”.
Over Your Dead Body – Leave it to Takashi Miike to make me squirm and feel vaguely nauseous while looking at something incredibly striking and beautiful. Gorgeous story about a group of actors rehearsing a play (the story of which echoes their real lives). Some of the best production design I’ve seen all year.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – is it “reflecting on” or “contemplating”? The programme said one but the subtitles on the film said the other. Anyway. Great film. Bonus fact: all the backgrounds are matte paintings, and they are very impressive.
Spring – I’ll try to resist the “X” meets “Y” description that this film has been getting a lot of, but let me just say this: Spring is a very beautifully made and smart romance, lightly tinted with supernatural elements. Don’t go in expecting a “horror movie” but do go in expecting a “very good movie”.
Sunshine Superman – Great doc about the adorable nerd who invented base jumping. First time I’ve ever seen a visually impressive documentary about an inspiring subject that did not make me want to participate in the thing that it was about. There isn’t enough money in the world to convince me to jump off a cliff, ever.
Tokyo Tribe – Japanese hip hop musical about warring gangs battling for control of Tokyo. The rapping isn’t mindblowing, but y’know what? That’s kind of not the point. I saw someone on Twitter complain that the film was about rape gangs, and I feel like I saw an entirely different film, which isn’t about that, at all.
Two Days, One Night – Marion Cotillard, the undisputed queen of looking ugly-beautiful in films that are uplifting downers, is really good in this at-times-hard-to-watch drama about a woman who spends an arduous weekend fighting to get her job back after being laid off. Watching this film made me realize that I’ve hardly seen any of the Dardenne brothers’ films. I will rectify this post-TIFF, when I make my ambitious list of “films and filmmakers to catch up on this fall”.
What We Do in the Shadows – Funniest movie of TIFF or funniest movie of the year? Probably both. This unexpectedly touching and totally hilarious Christopher-Guest-style mock doc about a group of vampire roommates in New Zealand hit pretty much all the right notes.
Wet Bum – A solid story about a gawky teenage girl who has few friends, works part time at a retirement home (where her mom works), and maybe has a crush on her swimming instructor. Although I was a little disappointed with the familiar track the relationship with the swimming instructor took, it was great to see a film about a teenage girl that wasn’t rife with clichés.
X + Y – I liked this movie about an awkward, mildly Autistic math-whiz who finds himself in an unusual situation when he finally gets to compete in the international math olympiad. Suddenly, he’s no longer the only weird one, or (perhaps more disturbingly, to him) the only smart one. Very touching hi jinx ensue.
I’m sorry to have missed many people’s faves, films like Force Majeure, Wild Tales, Phoenix and The Tribe, as well as a few of my own hotly anticipated titles, like Danis “Oscar for No Man’s Land” Tanovic’s latest, Tigers. Hopefully they’ll all be back in theatres soon. Or maybe I’ll have to bring some of them back myself, at The Royal.
I’ve finally gotten around to reflecting on what films I really enjoyed at Cannes. These are in alphabetical order because I hate choosing favourites among my favourites.
Alleluia (dir. Fabrice Du Welz)
I loved this beautiful, disturbing, strange take on the Honeymoon Killers story, though it strays pretty far from the original. When Michel (Laurent Lucas, who also starred in the director’s debut feature, Calvaire) and single mom Gloria (Lola Dueñas) go out on a date, the last thing she expects to find out is that he’s a scam artist who seduces women and steals from them. And yet, the connection Gloria feels is too strong to ignore, and soon the couple are scheming to rob unsuspecting women together – that is, if they can before Gloria’s jealousy gets the better of her. The two leads are terrific, and the other women that surround them are wonderfully real (older, vibrantly sexual, full of a genuine yearning for love). Du Welz has a masterful eye for visual composition and for creating female characters whose emotional needs are cranked to 11 (or eleventy thousand).
Cold in July (dir. Jim Mickle)
Based on the book by Joe R. Lansdale, this tight little movie is hands down one of the best suspense thrillers of the year. Michael C. Hall (Dexter!) is Richard Dane, a small town Texas picture framer who shoots an intruder in his living room one night. When the intruder’s father – a dangerous ex con played by a perfectly ruthless Sam Shepard – arrives at the Dane’s doorstep looking for vengeance, the two men end up on the dark path together, because of course, nothing is ever as it seems in a good Texas noir. Don Johnson stands out as Jim Bob, the flashy pig-farmer-cum-private-eye who helps the two men get to the bottom of an ugly mystery. Good lord, has Don Johnson still got it! I mean, schwing!
It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
Maika Monroe (who also stars in Adam Wingard’s The Guest this year) is great in It Follows, as Jay, a teenage girl who gets more than she bargained for while on a date with a seemingly normal, mild-mannered dude. Seems he’s the carrier of an unusual sexually transmitted phantom that stalks and kills it prey. Now Jay’s got to enlist the help of her cadre of teenage pals to help her outrun the danger – or figure out a way to beat it, without getting killed in the process. It Follows delivers a driving synthy soundtrack and a very tense atmosphere throughout. I especially loved Mitchell’s portrayal of realistic teenagers and realistic teenage sexuality that never veers into exploitative territory in spite of the subject matter.
Lost River (dir. Ryan Gosling)
Gosling got a lot of bad reviews for Lost River, but I think that’s mainly because people had their knives out for him. The film takes place in the ruined outskirts of Detroit, where single mom Billy (Christina Hendricks) struggles to keep her dilapidated home and raise two boys. Her teenage son, Bones, (Iain De Caestecker), has problems of his own, mostly dealing with local thug Bully (Matt Smith, whose transformation from the endearingly tweedy Doctor Who to total monster is impressive). The film wears its influences on its sleeve (Refn, Wenders, Lynch, and others) but is a strong debut feature that looks absolutely gorgeous, mostly thanks to Benoît Debie, the DoP behind films like Vinyan, Enter the Void and Spring Breakers. I’ll say this much: it’s better than anything James Franco has ever directed, and Gosling is at least trying to do something artful and different, which we should be encouraging in any emerging filmmaker, instead of snarkily mocking him for it.
When Animals Dream (dir. Jonas Alexander Arnby)
This film was totally mis-marketed as a horror film. It’s not one. It’s a completely stunning and deeply moving drama about how the difficulties of being a young woman and growing up in a repressive small community. When strange things begin to happen to 16 year old Marie’s body, she starts to learn that her family has bigger secrets than she ever realized, and that perhaps her heavily sedated mother is not a helpless invalid but something else entirely – something that she too is now becoming. A great metaphor for how women’s power is often suppressed for “their own good” because men don’t know how to cope with it. A very different transformation / coming of age story than Ginger Snaps, but dealing with some similar issues.
White God (dir. Kornél Mundruczó)
A very, very odd film about a girl and her dog. The first half plays out like an urban Hungarian Incredible Journey. Precocious 12-year old Lili is separated from her beloved dog, Hagen, a lively mutt who goes on a wild adventure trying to find his way back to her. After Hagen falls into the hands of some bad guys, the film takes an unexpected turn. The final act is straight out of the grimmest revenge film, as Hagen goes on a bloody rampage (flanked by about 200 other dogs from the city pound) to punish everyone who’s ever wronged him. I couldn’t tell: was this an art house film with magic realism elements, or was it a genre film that leaves an insane number of loose ends and open questions? Either way, it has to be seen to be believed.
I almost forgot it was October and that I should have been watching scary movies for 14 days already.
So, to get myself in the mood, I made this list of films that I find actually scary. And then I will make a list of films to watch during the second half of October. Call it the “Lazy Gal’s 31 Days of Horror”. Because it’s only 15 days.
And btw, when I say “actually scary”, I don’t mean “I am so tough, and nothing really scares me”. I am actually pretty easily scared, and very wimpy when it comes to horror films. But there’s a difference between the anxiety I feel in the moment while watching any old scary movie, vs. the deep terror that gnaws at me for months or sometimes years after I see a film. These films populate my personal nightmare chamber forever. In alphabetical order, as always.
Audition (1999, dir. Takashi Miike) – When the tonal shift happened in this film, I felt a knot develop in my stomach that maybe still hasn’t gone away. The last 10 minutes made me dry heave on my couch. Nuff said.
The Descent (2005, dir. Neil Marshall) – It’s not a spoiler to say that this is a film about a group of women who go cave exploring and get trapped in the caves. The moment they entered the first tight passage and experienced the first tiny cave-in, I started to hyperventilate. I was watching it with a group of friends in my living room, and I had to excuse myself and sit in the other room for most of the film while they continued to watch it. I came back in for the last 15 minutes, and haven’t stopped shivering since. Basically, I haven’t seen 85% of this movie, and it STILL gives me panic attacks to think about.
The Eye (2002, dirs. Oxide + Danny Pang) – I saw this one at a Rue Morgue screening way back in the day with my friend Eddy. It was one of the first Asian horror films I’d ever seen. I know, The Ring preceded it, and Ju-on was around the same time, but honestly I wasn’t that into horror films in the early ’00s, so this was all new to me. I don’t have a big eye-trauma phobia or anything, but I spent every second of the screening in a terrified cringe.
À L’Intérieur / Inside (2007, dirs. Alexandre Bustillo + Julien Maury) – Some jerks (my dear friends) convinced me to go with them to see this one at TIFF. This was before I started dating Colin so (secret’s out!) I never really went to the Midnight Madness screenings. It’s probably difficult for any human – let alone a female human – to spend 90 minutes watching a nine-months-pregnant lady be terrorized by a psycho killer in her own home. But for a scaredycat like me who was only used to watching horror films in my living room? Gah. I spent the entire screening scrunched up in the fetal position wincing. The worst (best?) part is that the sound design on that movie is so intense that closing your eyes does not help alleviate the roiling sense of dread AT ALL.
The Neverending Story (1984, dir. Wolfgang Petersen) – I know, but hear me out. I’m pretty sure this is the first film that ever made me feel frightened right down to my bone marrow. I saw it when I was eight years old or so, and the idea of an all consuming nothingness that could swallow up the whole world is a pretty freaky concept for a kid to wrestle with. Plus, there’s Gmork, the snarling wolf that’s constantly stalking our hero Atreyu. And there’s the swamps of sadness, which swallow up his horse (*SOB*), Artax. And let’s not forget the assortment of weird and scary creatures besides all that. I’m pretty sure this film was responsible for my aversion to scary movies for the next 15 years or so. And yet, it’s one of my favourite films of all time. Humans are complicated.
The People Under the Stairs (1991, dir. Wes Craven) – This classic about an insane couple who keep their mutant brood locked up under the stairs where they can terrorize unsuspecting visitors is actually pretty fun – and funny. But the first time I saw it was on TV in a motel room during a family trip somewhere when I was a teenager, way back before I actually started enjoying scary movies. I don’t know why I started watching it, but once it was on, I felt paralyzed with fear, couldn’t change the channel, but couldn’t stop feeling panicky. Although I have to say that when I saw the insane couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) as Ed and Nadine Hurley in Twin Peaks like a year later, I was pretty delighted.
Prince of Darkness (1987, dir. John Carpenter) – The first time I saw this gem about a research team investigating a swirling cylinder of pure evil (maybe?) in the basement of a church, it was at 2pm on a sunny Sunday afternoon. In spite of the cheery atmosphere and timing, I was freaked out for days. It remains my favourite Carpenter, and in fact my favourite horror film overall (if we haaaaave to pick favourites). The score is impeccable.
[REC] (2007, dirs. Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza) – I jumped in my seat A LOT during the screening of [REC] that I attended. It freaked me out (as a mild hypochondriac, anything to do with contagion tends to) and it’s one of those rare films that I actually found both scary and fun while I was watching. It remains perhaps the only film that uses the POV / mock doc conceit without being endlessly infuriating to me.
The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick) – Somehow, I managed to not watch The Shining until I was over 30 years old AND not have it spoiled for me by anyone. Almost a miracle, I know! A few years back, my friend Sean (who had also not seen it, and is not wild about the super scary movies) and I sat down in his living room and watched it together. Even though I was, by this point in time, a fan of horror, it still made me feel really, really, really uneasy. Spooky, kinda-supernatural stuff has a much longer lasting effect on me than slasher-type gore.
Now, you might be sitting there wondering why this or that very scary film is not on my list. Let me assure you it’s not because I am too tough to be scared by it. It’s almost certainly because I haven’t seen it yet. I only started loving horror films when I was in my late 20s and I have a lot of catching up to do. I might publish a “horror list of shame” later in the month but I don’t want everyone being like “WHAT, YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EVIL DEAD?” all the time.