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Tag: horror

Under The Sun (2015)

The Father Of Invention

No stranger to hot topics, Vitaliy Manskiy, Under The Sun‘s director, has previously released, among others, Virginity (2008), about three young women using the titular asset to make their way in 21st century Ukrainia, and Pipeline (2013), casting an uflinching look at what the construction of the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline meant to local populations. He found himself in 2015 at the helm of a documentary officialy sanctioned by North Korean authorities, devoted to the one and only possible subject: how and why the last remaining Stalinian State is Paradise on Earth. He therefore dutifully followed the official instructions, only with one caveat: he kept the camera rolling during rehearsals of Pyong Yang’s version of cinéma vérité, most of the times to hilarious effect, but sometimes to a terrifying one.

There is, you see, always someone forgetting lines, or lurking in the corner of the screen, or looking straight in the camera at the wrong time, ruining the painstakingly recreated illusion of happiness and prosperity commissioned by the authorities. By virtue of these minor interferences, the omnipresent propaganda machine modeling the public consciousness in any possible way is proven unable to sustain a exterior gaze, despite, or maybe because, the constant Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il imagery and the delirious architecture crushing people under the weight of a dystopian, Orwellian quotidian.

Some of the scenes elicit giggles that turn to a laughter of delight. North Korea has obviously invented flash-mobs, with crowds of costumed people congregating in empty spaces to sing and dance. Kimchi can cure cancer and restore youth. In a stupendous scene of suspense lasting several minutes, a young girl might or might not fall asleep during the speech of an elderly general sporting more than fourty medals, her fight against boredom and tiredness being filmed in merciless close-up. “What do I say know?” asks the general after an endless tirade about the superiority of the North Korean army over American forces. Oblivious of the answer, he starts all over again.

Some others are painful to watch, like the final training of a very young girl dancing on marching drums. She is first ecstatic, giving the best she has, then as the teaching goes on and on she just looks exhausted and in pain. She breaks into tears. Asked to think of something good to stop crying, she first says “I don’t know what”, then recites the pledge to the Children Union like the good little citizen she is. It’s awful. Another little girl, or is it the same, chosen to embody any child of the Great Socialist Republic, appears in front of a gigantic red curtain to deliver a welcome address to some pageant at the glory of the Great Leader, and she has such a case of stagefright than it plays like the Radiator Lady scene in Eraserhead.

People take turns to have their picture taken in front of the two Great Leaders giant golden statues, looking dead inside. You look at them terrified, then you muse about the parallel architecture of the gigantic square, converging towards the current Great Leader’s grandfather and father, and you wonder: what place is left for him? He’s not on the many frescoes depicting the exploits of his elders, there’s no room left for another bronze colossus. This, maybe better than anything else, expresses the tragic alieness and alienation of a country without a future.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

 

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From Hell

We reviewed Oz Perkins’ second opus, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, earlier this month, and its was so good it made one eager to see his first, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (also for some reason titled February in some markets), a little bit concerned, too, that it wouldn’t be that good. Well, if it weren’t for a more liberal use of gore, this movie is a perfect companion piece for its predecessor. Perkins has a unique eye, a Lynchean ear for soundscape and a voice of his own. From his debut as a director (he was a screenwriter and yes, an actor to begin with), his peculiar brand of malaise and dread conquers the screen. From his first scene and his first dialogue, really, all diffuse awkwardness and suffocating framing. An author is born and so far his œuvre is impeccable.

The plot oscillates between three college girls during a bitterly cold winter break. All students are gone to their family but Kate and Rose, whose parents have been delayed or worse. Completing the triangle is Joan (Emma Roberts, brooding and fast becoming a regular in this blog), hitchicking her way from the hospital she woke up in to the city near the school, relying on the kindness of stranger to horrific consequences. Being her senior, Rose is tasked to keep an eye on Kate, as only a skeleton crew of two nuns remains on the premises.

Rose (Lucy Boynton, playing the ghost in Pretty Thing, here with dark hair and a meatier role) is pregnant but don’t want her boyfriend to have anything to do with terminating the pregnancy. She considers Kate’s minding a chore so she enjoy scaring her with stories of the nuns being bald and worshipping Satan in the basement. The idea is ill-advised, as Kate (Kiernan Shipka, Don Draper’s daughter in Mad Men, impressive playing the part of a black hole) is seriously unhinged and spooky to a rare degree: “They’re not coming, they’re dead.”, she flatly says out of the blue. Is she asserting herself the mean way teenagers do, did she have a vision of sorts? Why is she suddenly obsessed by the school principal, to the point of wanting nothing more than living with him at the school?

After a meticulous build-up of dense atmosphere, something happens to Kate when she’s alone in her room. That thing is utterly shocking and defies the laws of Nature: we have entered the realm of possession. Kate receives a phone call from the unknown and she starts seing a dark silhouette lurking in corners. “You smell pretty”, she says Rose, conveying a sense of menace close to inspire panic in the viewer.

Meanwhile, Joan has accepted food and shelter from a good Samaritan (James Remar, making very uneasy to believe in goodwill). She reminds him of his lost daughter. The guy’s wife (Lauren Holly, making the best of two scenes inside a car) has another, much scarier version of the story. “It’s strange, I can’t see you at all.” she tells Joan, in one of those terrifying moments Perkins seems to be able to summon out of thin air. The weather takes a turn for the worse, forecasting the merciless way plot is about to unfold, or rather to fold upon itself, not leaving any hope for anyone involved.

Two of the girls will die, one in a remarkably effective way, reminding both Psycho and some of the cruellest of Argento’s murder pieces. After the police’s intervention, the third will remain in the school, her bloody offerings displayed in the basement’s boiler room. You know as well as one does that going down to the basement is never a good idea. This movie will make you wish you never have to get into any boiler room. One mentioned gore, rest assured it is kept at a low level. The gore is never what makes a movie frightening. But that car scene and that boiler room, they are straight from hell. Viewing a must.

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Friend Request (2016)

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Through A Screen Darkly

Starting as a cautionary tale about cyber-bullying, Friend Request morphs into quite something else along the way to a rather predictable ending but is a pretty enjoyable ride. The prologue, in which a lonely student commits a decidedly foolproof form of suicide, is a mistake, as it makes one suspects too early that more than the power of Facebook friendship is at work in the ordeal faced by Laura, a nice girl whose online popularity takes a sudden nosedive when she decides, half from pity and half from an ill-advised taste for gothic graphics, to befriend otaku in residence Marina, the one ugly goth chick with zero friends and stickers on her laptop.

What the movie does best is visualising the dark cormers of Marina’s loneliness, switching to animation scenes which make complete sense considering her personnality. She’s very tortured, Marina, and she doesn’t take rebutal in a graceful way. After she pushes too hard to be invited to Laura’s birthday party and discovers, as the diligent little stalker she is, that the alleged romantic diner with the boyfriend includes in fact everyone but her, she has one of her mood swings, involving tearing off her own hair and hacking into Laura’s profile to send the suicide video to all her contacts. Most of them moderately enjoy the view and her popularity starts decreasing, wittily measured by an onscreen counter. But that’s only the beginning of her troubles as her friends start dropping like flies or, more exactly, wasps.

Marina is a social ghost, with no real name or social security number. Should the movie have sticked to that it could have been better, the conflict between virtual popularity and social inexistence a nifty idea, actualising the Single White Female formula for the Facebook generation. Granted, it would have required a major suspension of disbelief, but that’s the paradox of our day and age: it’s easier to write Marina as an actual witch than a tech wizard, because it allows all sorts of (sometimes successful) visuals, like in a scene where a computer room becomes a spooky art installation.

Machines do not connect well with witchcraft. One of the first movies to attempt this unholy union was Evil Speak, a 80s turkey in which the kind of guy we now call a nerd used a computer to evoke a demon from some ancient evil book, allowing revenge on his jock bullies. The same kind of naive technological possession is at work here, including printers with endless toner cartridges and undecipherable source codes. Some better ideas appear to counterbalance this weakness though, like the analogy made between the computer screen and the dark mirror used by witches, or the Facebook unwanted friend request as an occult spell, potentialy harbouring death and destruction.

The death scenes are quite interesting for an amateur of the genre. the first one relies too heavily on witchcraft, another writing mistake further screenplay polishing could have avoided, but they get better. A Linda Blair moment at the hospital elicits giggles; there is nevertheless something truly spooky about someone so intent on dying that she tries again, differently, as soon as she wakes up.

In the end, evil wins because there is no end to it. Friend Request, in spite of its imperfections or limits, is a legitimate way to spend some time wondering what our lives would be like if Mark Zuckerberg was a wizard in more than the technological sense.

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Busanhaeng (Train to Busan – 2016)

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Working Class Zombi

The best zombi flick since Dawn of the Dead, Train to Busan reignites the proletarian potential of the walking dead by parachuting them without warning in a deliberately symbolic environment: a high speed train from Seoul to Busan, where the challenge is not to arrive in time, but alive. From the fifth minute on, it’s a 150′ very bleak joyride with no relief or plot gaps, full of of jaw-dropping scenes and images. It’s director Sang-ho Yeon’s first live action feature after five animes, it has broken all box office records in Korea and was screened, off the official selection, at the last Cannes Festival.

Korean movies have a history of violence, but it’s usually tempered by not-so-subtle humour or downright auteurism; what you feel watching this one is being hit at full speed by the flaming locomotive which makes a surprise appearance at some point: this is gut cinema, no pun intended.

So, zombis. We had more than enough of them in their myriad varieties, slow, fast, nazi, in love, alien or animal. All those predictable munchers gloomily forgot that zombi are by nature politic. George A. Romero set the template with Dawn of the Dead and its shopping mall besieged by herds of unwashed, greedy consumers – of manufactured goods or human flesh. Cinema owes to him to have elevated an otherwise empty voodoo doll into a powerful metaphor for the 99%. Romero, however, is far from having visual flair, he relies almost entirely on the strength of his concept. When vampires are sexual, decadent aristocrats and ghosts strictly personal affairs between who haunts and who’s haunted, zombi come with a specific meaning: they embody class struggle, and they manifest themselves “when there is no more place in hell”. They are the repressed sins of a crashing system, a parable of dog-eat-dog, greed gone mad.

The movie central character and one of its heroes is Seok Woo, an investment banker who, in the first five minutes, acts like a jerk with a subordinate, his estranged wife and his daughter, to whom he bought a third Wii station to buy her patience facing his emotional absence. He’s the product of predatory finance and that’s makes him a survivor. His painful, bloody awakening to empathy is at the movie core. Actor Yoo Gong is tall, slender and handsome. He starts as a robot and comes to deliver a richly nuanced range of emotions, some of them rather cruel, like the repressed satisfaction smile he has when everyone dies in the next car. That’s one problem solved, see.

But one, for quick, strong and smart he or she is, can’t hope to remain aloof in viscerally cannibalistic environment, when third class goons not only hate the gut of the first class passengers, but literally jump at their jugular. Sacrifices have to be made, and sacrifice is the underlying theme of the movie. Almost no one will survive, after some heroic gestures and some repulsive behaviours. There is one tense scene, in which the small group of “heroes” is blocked between two cars, one full of zombis and the other of “uncontaminated” humans. Both camps act the same, with gregarious rage fueled, in the “human” case, by the villain of the piece, who’s the CEO of a transport company. He’s the cunning predator, manipulating public opinion like the government is seen to do in a short, revelatory TV insert. Who cares who has to die, if he can makes it to Busan.

Driven by a crazy captain of industry, the ghost train rushes towards a dead end, an apt translation to the screen of our current state of affairs. The heroes all have a moment of dignity, even the evil boss. What Train to Busan achieves is much more than grim social commentary intersected by short, sudden bouts of gory massacre. Its characters are all but dumb, resourceful to the point of ingeniousness. Tchekhov would have gloated with mirth: everything which is introduced in the first act is used, one way or another, be it a cellphone, a luggage rack or the corporate drones’ ties. The way the epidemic propagates is treated with respect for logic, sight and sound being essential factors to live or die. And there is this short, terrific cut on zero gravity zombis floating like carnivorous fish in their derailing tank, maybe the strongest image of the way one feels in 2016, when dealing with an utterly inscrutable economic and political situation.

The last scene is Korean to the extreme with its evocation of the demilitarised zone between North and the South. “It’s so dark on the other side”, a sniper says, while aiming his rifle to the survivors. You bet it is.

It seems American and French studios are trying to outbid each other for the rights to a remake. Korea uses Alstom trains so we might be screened “Train to Perpignan” at some point in the future. This is nonsense. This movie is perfect as it is, let it be seen as such. Viewing essential.

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Sinister 2 (2015)

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The Right Snuff

A “What’s down there?” format with blatant but still mainstream paedophilia, Sinister 2 follows two conflictual twin brothers, one being a pussy and the other an alpha male, so any educated viewer won’t have any major problem discerning which one is the ghost and which one is not.

As a way to put things in motion, some Children of Super 8 Corn Film Club cult has established base camp in the twins’ basement and its members each in turn shows snuff movies of their family demise. We are shown a fishing trip and a Christmas morning, by which we are led to understand that “the murder are captured through Art”. Art doesn’t in any way improves the twins relationship, their mild humiliation turning to domination/submission; “Fuck you, cunt!”, says one 10 year old to the other. This is as close as bromance as we will get.

But ah, the Art. Who the hell is editing the home movies, by now showing an elaborate brasero involving rats and entrails? How the hell can we think that Dad is not abusing his son(s), creating the Bogey Man who says “Boys have to eat”? And, ahem, eat what exactly, Dad? I mean, if I may ask?

As for a finale, New Kid on the Snuff painstakingly recreates the pre-title sequence as if no one told him that it has been done again, not better but the same, nevertheless proving that a 10 year old boy is able to crucify his family, setting them on fire, then attempt to finish them off with a scythe while filming/editing. Up yours, Orson Welles.

Some telekinetic and nonsensical jumpscare end ensue. Apparently Evil comes from Norway. Well, rutabaga.

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Spring (2014)

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We Will Always Have Bari

Spring is an exquisite tale. A story of the innocent abroad meeting the wrong the only woman in true Henry James fashion, it uncoils along the Puglian coast in long, broad, carnal lapses that are as much satisfaction than longing for that unaccessible moment, the surrendering of self, the end of the world.

Yes it has flaws, mostly uselss CGI, but one guesses it is a 21st century thing, a bit like too much gilding in rococo or too many conversations sacrées during the Renaissance. Spring is as much about growing pains that it is about blossoming. But the acting is right and the camera work is fluid. What the story owes to Lovecraft is more than mitigated by things as simple as a bottle of wine, an olive tree, love lost and found.

The best movie monsters are those one could actually love. Spring has such one, but holds much more. It has a prey that is human, full bodied and sweet as a Negroamaro. One can not foretell that at the beginning, when the film seems aiming at an Italian rendition of Hostel, but this rare feast is accomplished with near nothing, a bit of alien dialogue, a tree dying to allow the growth of a new one, and the moon over the ocean. It has, of course, the unspeakable, almost unfilmable splendor of Italy.

A volcanoo is erupting at the end, but this is not what is really happening. A couple of sound effects does the trick.This is where the Rite of Spring has led us, gaping, the ocean rolling its indifferent waves, and we feel happy, and amazed, and wiped out. This is a lovely movie.

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