31 Days of Hallowe’en 2018, Day 30: Ghost Stories [2017]

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Image result for ghost stories movie

I have mixed feelings about Ghost Stories. On the whole, it’s a genuine throwback to the creeptastic anthology fun of horror days of yore. But if you’re a nitpicker who just has to (accidentally) find some reason to almost dislike a film, then it’s a package of tales that wouldn’t look out of place in a 2 am TV also-ran slot.

(SEMI-SPOILERS AWAIT)

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31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 25: The Skull (1965)

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source: dvdtalk.com

I’m now wishing I’d added more classic horror to the list. Even beyond horror, that era has a style of filmmaking so far removed from the ones I grew up with and enjoyed today. Everything is so dramatic – the shuddering violins, the shrill crescendoes, the hair-raising lady screams (I swear, people screamed MUCH differently in movies back then), the slow zooms – even the way the opening credits are hurled at you can give you the old-fashioned creeps.

the skull 1965

So I knew I didn’t underestimate The Skull, a pre-Saw, pre-Sinister etc. movie that had the legendary likes of Peter Cushing AND AND AND CHRISTOPHER FUCKING LEE. The former plays Pierre, a collector of occult artefacts who happens across a skull (the very same one that caused the hair-raising scream in the prologue). But it’s not just any skull – it’s that of the Marquis de Sade, famous French writer of all things sordid. The film adds a (somewhat true) backstory in which the Marquis was heavily engaged in Satanic sadism and all things unsavoury. So naturally, Cushing’s character just has to have it. Even though it was originally stolen from Sir Matthew Philips (Lee – sadly, in a supporting role). Funny thing is, Philips doesn’t want it anymore. Yay for everyone involved! Probably.

the skull 1965

To be honest, one could just sit and listen to Cushing and Lee say things to each other and think it was impressive. They both exude creepy class. When the two gents calmly discuss the skull over a dimly-lit game of snooker, surrounded by black candlesticks and story-stuffed artefacts, there’s already a sophisticated yet ghoulishly claustrophobic atmosphere built up.

the skull 1965

And then it gets a bit weird from here. And when I mean weird, I mean surreal – no, actually, totally fucking bonkers. Crescendoes and zoomy-zooms and Dali-esque imagery start to dominate the film to the point where not much dialogue seems to be needed. It’s a little slow-paced, but it’s such a short movie that you’re not really going to notice much of a lag.

the skull 1965

This movie utterly relishes the opportunity to throw close-ups of a plethora of weird and wonderful props at every turn (after all, both main characters are collectors of all things spooky). Had it not been for the whistling wind and billowing curtains, I’d have thought it was a paranormal home shopping network telecommercial. It’s like Hoaders: Most Haunted edition. Except with a shitload of honestly-quite-frightening masks, swords, and other “nope” things that, if you were to accept from a a Mogwai store, it’d be the start of your own horror movie. (I still wanted to buy it all.) Pair this with the upper-class backgrounds of each character, and you’ve got ample chances for some suitably eerie imagery of gargoyles, taxidermied crows, imposing antler furniture, dusty mantlepieces, crackling fireplaces and ghastly wallpaper in a ghostly stately home. I mean – characters are literally walking around a lofty, cobwebbed mansion holding a skull, through which there are a number of surprisingly ominous POV shots.

the skull 1965

 

Quite fascinating are the true notes of the story – the actual skull of the Marquis de Sade was removed shortly after he died. The body had been exhumed and the skull taken for phrenological examination (a cheeky reference to this is the phrenologist thief who is the skull’s first victim in the prologue). It went through a series of owners, but was then lost. The skull was never found.

It doesn’t get any deliciously creepier than that.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 21: The Double (2013)

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source: dvdsreleasedates.com

Yay! Richard Ayoade directed a thing! And it’s as brilliantly bonkers as he is! Based on the novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double is a charmingly unsettling descent into probably madness, sort of like if somebody took you on a really surreal date to a desolate restaurant but held your hands as you both marvelled at how pretty the half-smashed-in neon lights were.

the double 2013

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a self-proclaimed “wooden boy”. Pathetically doormattish, he’s ignored at work, glossed over by his aging mother, and barely acknowledged by Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the girl he has a crush on. He seems to have all but fully accepted his lot in life (or lack thereof). “Meek” is a gross understatement. He is passive to the nth degree. Of course I can identify with Simon, because I, too, feel invisible and unimportant at times; people frequently don’t realise I’m there in a queue (even if I’m standing in front of them), and others behind me get served first. At a train station in a crowd, I’m the person that people brush by and run into, as if I’m not even there, or that I just don’t matter. So I’ve felt to be of very little value and function to the world. But maybe not to the extent that people have stopped recognising me at work after 7 years of working there…

the double 2013 the double 2013

Which is where it starts to go so terribly wrong for Simon. The day after witnessing a suicide/jumper in his Soviet-esque housing estate, a new employee named James Simon (er, also by Eisenberg) starts work in Simon’s division, but nobody – except Simon (and James) can see that they look exactly alike. But that’s where it ends. Simon is more confident, more successful with women, better-respected at work, and even admired by Hannah. In a sense, James is just more “visible”, and it’s from this point that Simon’s place in his own world seems to be disintegrating.

the double 2013

Much of the direction and humour bear Ayoade’s trademark awkward restraint, and played to the same pitch-perfect comic effect as with his on-screen appearances. Eisenberg’s acting comfort zone is the ideal springboard for this, and uses it elicit some massive, pitiful laughs, such as a scene in which Simon tries to overhear a conversation in a loud diner, but a nearby radio is blasting a vintage Chinese pop song. He tries to turn the volume down, but the dial breaks off in his hand. Unsure of what to do, he just keeps the dial in his hand and just timidly folds his hand back against his chest.

the double 2013

Almost all of the film is in Eisenberg’s hands, and he effortlessly spins both characters’ journeys into two quite brilliant performances. Also no stranger to muted roles in an wildly offbeat film is Wasikowska, who imbues Hannah with just enough melancholic charm to make the audience sympathise with her. And what’s also great about this movie is that, while there is a love story, this isn’t the central part of the film, so there’s no fallback on cliche-ing Hannah’s character with some manic pixie dream girl trope to drive the story along. It’s more about the character’s journey of self-discovery….on his own.

the double 2013

Arguably, the most striking thing about this film is the imagery. The film is beautifully and meticulously shot, with every frame carefully arranged like a bloody work of art. It’s sort of like if Wes Anderson and David Lynch adopted a baby and raised it in a film school. And occasionally Terry Gilliam came to visit. The sets, colour palette, lighting and deliberate geographical ambiguity all evoke a 1980s Soviet/police state, and gradually transform the haunting, bleak tone from curious to quirky to shudderingly menacing. Like Diary of a Madman, but cinematically. Though the plot is linear and quite straightforward, it’s a film that politely requests repeat viewings for some of its elements that are more open to interpretation. It’s such a compelling, bizarre little film that it’s made me wish I’d bothered to have done a ratings system. Maybe something like 11 pumpkins? Out of 10.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 9: Truth or Dare (2012)

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source: horrornews.net

source: horrornews.net

Ooh, this was a little surpriser. Stupidly named Truth or Die apparently everywhere else, this modest British horror film ended up being more than the crappy little low-budget throwaway movie I thought it was going to be. More thriller than horror, the plot revolves around a group of posh twat uni kids who look and sound like everything I’ve ever grown up with (except that mine were nice), and who are invited to a party at a massive country estate. The bash is intended as a birthday surprise for shy awkward geek Felix (Tom Kane), organised by his army man brother Justin (a suitably chilling performance by English Jensen Ackles David Oakes).

Things start to get a bit suspect when, after a couple of bottles of bubbly, Justin reveals that Felix had recently hanged himself. Because the group had humiliated Felix during a game of “Truth or Dare” right before his death, Justin takes it upon himself to use the same game to determine who sent Felix the mocking postcard that drove him to his suicide.

truth or dare

source: ehparadox.com

While we do see the interior and part exterior of an enormous mansion that would make Downton Abbey look like an outhouse, the majority of the film takes place in one tiny cabin (presumably to avoid blood and battery acid splatter all over several generations of oil painting portraits?), so the tension is quite easily kettled. Given that our heroes are a group of boozed-up sheltered brats and our killer is an thrice-Afghan-toured army hero who is quick on the draw, it’s not looking good for anybody. Especially when Justin mentions that his dad is so rich and powerful that anything that occurred there could easily be covered up. He’s also impossibly creative in his sadism – by arranging the “Dare” to be a scenario in which one member of the group has down their throat a feeding tube connected to a tank of water and a tank of battery acid, and the other member has to choose which is sent down. It’s gruesome stuff, and the uncertainty of many of the choices put to the group (at gunpoint, of course), heightens the tension.

And with a tightly-contained set such as this, the acting’s got to do all the talking/screaming. All the victims are capable and believable; on the surface, their characters all appear to be horror tropes, which is both a blessing and a curse as the film goes on. Casting relative unknowns helps distort any predictability you thought you might be getting on survival odds, and the movie’s overbearing mystery (who sent the postcard) and the precise, exacting actions of the antagonist help keep the story structured and the pace focused.

truth or dare

source: fanpop.com

The only problem I had was a (slight spoiler?) post-game-changer scene in which a character gets the upper hand and delivers a smug (and slightly cornily-acted) speech, complete with audio-visual elements, to our killer. This would have been awfully satisfying had a different character not been pleading to go to the hospital (“I’m dying…There’s a hole in my leg and I’m losing blood”), just moments before. Maybe it would have been better to write a fucking postcard instead of leaving a fellow survivor to bleed to death.

At just over 90 minutes, it never feels overlong for an almost one-set film. I caught it on cable TV (thanks, VirginMedia, for the typical glitchy recording). Worth a watch.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 29: A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012)

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source: dionwynhughes.wordpress.com

The horror-a-thon is almost over. Whenever there’s a long list of things I have to do, I usually tire of it by around halfway through, after which a bizarre second wind careens me through the rest of the list and I’m finished wishing there had been more of it. I get attached. To lists.

Tonight’s movie, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, feels like a film that’s made up of a list of other films – really good films, adding up to a sort of quite very good full film. It’s listed in most places as a horror comedy, and, despite Simon Pegg’s painful expression of terror on the poster, I’d expected it to have dark humour more in line with Pegg’s other acting roles (I’m aware he didn’t write or direct this). I’d also assumed that Pegg would be spending the entirety of the film in his flat, looking terrified at things, and, judging from a review mentioning the word “psychedelic”, that he would be tripping balls or wildly hallucinating at some point. Well, none of that (or not much of it) actually happens.

We open with some animated credits, some Hammer Horror-style font, and some Evil Dead-style super-dramatic, unsettling, horn-heavy music. Pegg’s character Jack awakens to tell us that because a waiter looked at him in a funny, murder-y way, he’s convinced that someone’s trying to kill him, and so he keeps a knife on him at all times. The first few scenes of him alone, in his dingy, shadowy, health-and-safety-nightmare of a flat, build up such a sheer amount of relatable terror that I completely accidentally forgot to turn the light and/or TV off. It may feel like a cheap tension trick, but musing about possible killers in the hallway (hiding in the shadows), or lurking behind a shower curtain (where you’re at your most Janet Leigh-ish vulnerable) are easily spookable triggers, especially for paranoid British writers who have morbid creative curiosities. Ahem.

source: bloody-disgusting.com

Not that Jack was always this way – he’s famous for being a children’s book writer, but after a failed marriage and some money troubles, he’s moved on to crime writing, and clearly it’s taking its toll. His laid-back agent tells him to get ready for an interview with a Hollywood mogul who’s interested in his crime script, but after a series of mishaps, he realizes he must trek (sorry) (that actually wasn’t intentional) to the local laundrette, of which he has a crippling, lifelong fear.

It’s here where the movie starts to shift gears, and not for the last time. It’s a bit trite to blame the director for the slightly unfocused storytelling styles (is it because he’s a musician who’s a first-time director?), as it’s actually based on a story written by Withnail & I scribe Bruce Robinson (which fucking explains a lot). I do think this works to the film’s credit, because it makes everything unpredictable – no situation is off-limits for this pathetic, harried, mess of a collection of skin and other molecules. And because most of the film is so uncomfortable and awkward and second-hand-stressful to watch, one particular funny mini-gag involving a police van had me in absolute stitches for a good ten minutes (I’m still laughing about it now).

source: bloody-disgusting.com

The film’s increasingly bizarre plot leaps aren’t all that out of place, thanks to its already surreal (and yes, a wee bit psychedelic) tone. And while it’s Pegg’s show of his own on-screen brilliance, most of the supporting characters are also played to perfection, especially Jack’s agent Clair (Clare Higgins). With each leap, though, it does shift tone a fair bit, and that kind of lessens any horror-based tension that a more coherent film would have had. I do wish it had stuck a bit more to its underlying theme of “everyone’s trying to kill me; everyone’s watching me” fear, or even its title, which suggests multiple neuroses that the script didn’t really deliver. While it has been described as a “low-budget semicomedy”, it seems like if the budget had been bigger, it might have sold out to some pointlessly over-trippy hallucinations. But maybe the sound would have been better (dialogue was ridiculously quiet; effects and musical cues – the latter of which provided the majority of jump scares). I’d watch it again, probably while folding my laundry.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 23: Harold’s Going Stiff (2011)

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source: best-horror-movies.com

It’s only after watching this that I’d realized that Day 23 of my horror-a-thon had included an indie movie so indie that it didn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It also had practically first-time actors – the lead, Stan Rowe (Harold) had only a bit part in Casualty to his name, and Sarah Spencer (Penny) has no other credits (and a Facebook page result lists some recent theatre and small TV stuff, but implies that this was her first major role).

Far more bittersweet than I’d expected (from reading the paragraph of plot on IMDb), this is a sweet little flick. The plot revolves around the eponymous Harold, who, along with a few other residents of his North Yorkshire village, have been suffering from a muscle-stiffening disease (“Onset Rigour Disease” or “ORD”). Presented in a mock-u-mentary-style format, the invisible filmmakers present clips of interviews in which well-meaning but emotionally-stiff doctors conduct medical research to try to beat this thing. We’re told that it was spread through an addictive, Pepperami-style snack, and that it very slowly turns people stiff (arthritis-style), and then eventually they become violent, inarticulate zombies. And, unlike similar films, the characters actually know that the word “zombie exists”.

source: drafthouse.com

Harold’s case is unique in that he was the first to contract ORD, but his incubation period has been excruciatingly slow. Encouraged by the research implications of this, a local doctor enlists Harold to be his guinea pig for several trial drugs (of the dubious doctor’s own making). Bubbly young nurse Penny is dispatched as a home health care professional to provide stiffness-easing physio, but it soon transpires that the treatments are becoming less effective. As Penny and Harold’s strong friendship develops, so too does a group of yobbish, almost EDL-like vigilantes who are “helping” rid the world of these zombies.

More of a sweet character study than the black comedy I was expecting, the film admittedly moves at a relatively slow pace, and, much like other character-driven films I’ve been seeing this month, it’s vital that the central characters are played to near-perfection. Rowe is believable as what could easily be an allegory for real-life societal views on elderly healthcare, but Spencer is more than convincing as a kind, caring, unlucky, adorably-flawed nurse who grows to genuinely care for Harold across cross-generational and professional boundaries, and her charming presence illuminates the screen. I’m utterly flummoxed to find that she’s not acted before, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she had actually done a real-life stint in the NHS.

sources: mansplat.wordpress.com/hairballmedia.com

Because the film focuses mostly on Harold and Penny’s bond, we don’t see much of the other characters, and usually-major plot developments (such as the vigilantes’ character arcs or the aforementioned cause of ORD) are sidelined as bits of humour to supplement the mockumentary style. But even that is nearly shelved in the film’s second half, though it’s not too much of a loss, as it didn’t fully commit to it to begin with – title cards are sometimes missing, and it’s odd that the interviewers themselves are never seen or heard, so we’re just getting a shaky docu-style camera and character confessionals strategically-placed as transition devices.

But yes, this movie is so small it doesn’t have much in the way of an online footprint, and it didn’t seem as though there was any money in the kitty for a proper budget – every time the vigilantes kill a zombie, it involves carefully-edited shots back-and-forth of baseball bats stopping very short of the actors’ actual heads, and increased splodges of very cheap-looking fake blood (but no physical evidence of trauma – though far be it from me to suggest Hollywood-ing up a movie with money and gory SFX). I felt that if the editing had been tightened up a bit, some scenes could have done with being left on the cutting-room floor to make room for the rest of the vigilantes’ story, instead of having their scenes feel like half-hearted soujourns from the main plot. Still, I’m glad I saw this one – when was the last time you saw a bittersweet black comedy about a middle-aged zombie forging a friendship with his lonely young nurse? I expect a Hollywood remake shortly.

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 16: Black Death (2010)

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I’m going to do that annoyingly pretentious thing that food bloggers do and intersperse a bunch of awesome-looking images of the topic of this post with fluffy, waffling stories about some inane aspect of my life, so here goes. I just got my flu shot yesterday, so  I feel like I have some sense about how the protagonists of Black Death, who are in the midst of the massively famous Bubonic Plague epidemic, felt when they were discovering lymph node boils and coughing up blood. One time, my cough was so bad that I think it might have disturbed the yoga class that was taking place in the office adjacent to my desk.

On to the movie, which was much better than I thought it was going to be (even though I knew it was going to take itself seriously). Judging on write-ups around its release date a couple of years back, I’d assumed it to be some semi-poxy little medieval zombie movie set during the Black Death. Nope! What this actually is is a well-acted, grim, grisly, unforgiving depiction of life during the Plague blackout in Middle England, The characters’ approach to seeing how the Plague manifests is in the same vein of how characters acknowledge a bitten comrade in a zombie movie, only here, it’s owing to the steadfast, god-fearing nature of Sean Bean and co. (even more god-fearing than Eddie Redmayne’s monk). The premise is that said monk Osmond volunteers to accompany a group of pretty tough knights to seek out a man who claims to be a necromancer.

source: bloodsprayer.com

What I’d hoped would be a bit more of a character study turns out to be a pretty sturdy, well-paced medieval road movie, which, even on its limited budget, makes Game of Thrones look like fucking My Little Pony. While the men have honour, there’s very little civility in the way in which they conduct themselves – everything is grimly violent, everything is lawless, and it’s every sorry bastard out for himself. This is why we’re compelled to give so much of our sympathy over to the innocent, waifish, doe-eyed Osmond, particularly as his motives are also fuelled by pure love (in and of itself a sin because he had given himself to God). Seeing the barbarism through his eyes helps drive home the point that, back then, blades weren’t razor-sharp, so if you were going to slit someone’s throat or stab them in the heart, it was going to take a few stiff, blunt, squidgy, squelchy grunts of elbow grease before you were even halfway there. Especially with a mace!

I’d grown up with Sean Bean being one of those relatively young actors who already had the presence of one twice his age, so it felt like he didn’t even try to act. Fans of Boromir or Ned Stark will love him in this. Redmayne makes us forget how utterly pretty he can be IRL by giving himself over to his own role (those expressive eyes are kind of a goldmine), although most of the film requires him to look utterly terrified at his surroundings and be on the verge of pissing himself at any given moment. The rest of the cast don’t have more than a handful of moments (or even shots in which they’re in focus), but John Lynch was a standout for me. Even when he’s in the background of a shot or has some borderline cliche/dull lines to say, he excels without putting on any bit of a show.

source: blackdeathfilm.com

Technically, it’s a well-made piece of cinema. The score is decent without being too overbearing; the cinematography is so dreamy it made me miss my homeland, even though I’m from England and this was filmed entirely in Germany. There are some odd moments of staggered slow-mo camerawork (the stuff of ’80s horror or sensationalist documentaries about imaginary diseases), that rob some key scenes of their emotional impact. The pacing loses a bit of ground during the final act (perhaps owing to a complete overhaul of the ending), but the film’s utterly cruel final scenes leave you with some lingering questions about what it is to have faith, to subvert another’s faith, or just not to have any faith at all.