Art reflects the period in which it is created, and maybe that’s why the awards race is full of extremely dark comedies. From Get Out to The Square, angry, amusing and bleak visions are coming to claim their Oscars. In spite of its A-list cast and crew, one film feels a bit too strange to join the awards conversation, yet it manages to be one of the year’s most uniquely devastating works. Part body horror, part social satire, all spine-chilling dread, singular auteur Yorgos Lanthimos brings his vision to America for The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Hollywood is in a state of semi-suspended upheaval at the moment. The patriarchal cycle of aggression, shame, and silence has been exposed, at least on the surface. The process has thrown crucial light onto depictions of brutality against women in film, which often seem exploitational or punishing for no reason simply due to the characters’ gender. Stories involving these elements are now being told through the lens of female filmmakers, however, and this year has seen a number of powerful trope inversions. Mouly Surya brings us what might be the most singular example of this from Indonesia, in the form of Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts.
Before it's time for us to serve up some turkey Stateside, here are my thoughts on two recent indie genre films I’ve had the pleasure of checking out: Megan Freels Johnston’s horror comedy The Ice Cream Truck and Jamie Dagg’s crime thriller Sweet Virginia, featuring Jon Bernthal.
Oh, ’80s slashers. You come in so many shapes and varieties that I never get tired of you. Take Slaughter High, for example, a slasher movie that was released in 1986 but looks like it was made in 1981. It has three directors. It was shot in the UK by English filmmakers, but passes itself off as an American film taking place in an American high school. The high schoolers all appear to be in their early 30s. It’s entirely placed on April Fool’s Day but couldn’t be called April Fool’s Day (its original title) because there was already a movie coming out called April Fool’s Day. Nothing about Slaughter High makes complete sense, but it’s in this way that the movie distinguishes itself.
Homage has dominated (some may argue, plagued) the horror market in recent years, from the retro ’80s to the luxurious ’60s, we’ve seen several eras recreated on screen to varying degrees of success. Rather than simply imitate, some filmmakers have inverted, distorted, and modernized these beloved styles into something entirely new. Giallo masters Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani provide the perfect example. This year, the duo returns for their third full-length feature, this time focusing their talents on a sun-baked heist thriller. While its story is rather incomprehensible (even for admirers of their previous work), the force of their filmmaking remains astoundingly immersive.
Sometimes, charm is enough to get a movie across the finish line. It may not all work, the whole may be less than the sum of the parts, but if there’s enough charm to it all, we audiences will tend to overlook some of the more obvious issues and give ourselves over to a film. We like to be charmed.
Ambition should never be a dirty word, especially when it comes to micro-budget movies. Especially micro-budget movies shot on a camcorder starring a Yugoslavian actor who goes by the amazing moniker "Lazar Rockwood." Which brings us to the kind of amazing Canadian-made Cube/Saw prototype Beyond the Seventh Door (1987), lovingly presented on DVD by Intervision, who never fail to cover all of your shot-on-video needs.
As feature debuts go, director Ted Geoghegan’s 2015 ghost story We Are Still Here was a real kick in the ass: a slow-burn throwback to the work of Lucio Fulci that spent most of its running time building dread and atmosphere before exploding into outrageous gore in its go-for-broke climax. Beyond being an extremely effective haunted house movie (my favorite horror movie of that year), it was also a sad and atmospheric meditation on grief and loss—there was a genuine emotional backbone to the story, making it just as involving as it was scary.
For Mohawk, his 2017 follow-up that recently screened at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse film festival, Geoghegan has done it again, sneaking a real human story into thrilling genre fare.
If you have been paying any attention to the independent horror scene over the last five years, you are undoubtedly familiar with the work of actor Graham Skipper. From his star-making turn as Dr. Herbert West in the stage version of the Re-Animator musical to his leading man turns in the films of director Joe Begos (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) to his role in Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates to seemingly countless supporting roles in everything from Tales of Halloween to Carnage Park to The Devil’s Dolls, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to watch a modern independent horror movie and not have Graham Skipper show up. While I’m always delighted to see him pop up in something I’m watching—I know that for however long he’s on screen, I am in good hands—that kind of ubiquity doesn’t automatically lend itself to talent behind the camera. So when I learned that Skipper had written and directed a feature, Sequence Break, I was excited, intrigued, and cautiously optimistic.
Horror isn’t always machete-wielding maniacs or monsters or houses haunted by demons and ghosts. Sometimes it’s just two people in a room, one determined to hurt and humiliate the other. That’s the horror of Poor Agnes, director Navin Ramaswaran’s Canadian indie about the relationship that develops between a serial killer and her potential next victim.
At the age of just 26 or 27, writer/director Mickey Keating already has five feature films under his belt. These aren’t just homemade backyard projects shot with his buddies for $200, either; these are movies with major stars of the indie horror scene (Graham Skipper, Lauren Ashley Carter, Pat Healy, Larry Fu**ing Fessenden) and getting actual distribution through companies like Glass Eye Pix and IFC Midnight. While his previous films have shown major chops behind the camera, they’ve also all had an air of familiarity about them; Keating is a director who wears his influences proudly, and some of his past work has played more like him riffing on an existing piece than like something borne of his own interests and obsessions.
With his fifth feature, Psychopaths, Keating has really come into his own as a director.
I liked enough of 2014’s Let Us Prey, the debut feature from Irish filmmaker Bryan O’Malley, to want to see whatever he would do next. In addition to conjuring up some truly nightmarish imagery, O’Malley displayed an incredible talent for stylized visuals and slow-burn pacing. His follow-up film, this year’s The Lodgers, is a totally different kind of horror movie, but one which again showcases many of O’Malley’s same gifts as a visual storyteller.
As I’m writing this review, news has just broken of another mass shooting, this time in Texas. It’s another in what has become a regular occurrence in America: random shootings, casualties, the nation mourns, then we move on until the next incident, which, tragically, is never far off. These frequent acts of terrorism have us all on edge, all living in fear, never sure where random violence will break out or where we can be safe.
This can make it difficult to watch and talk about Downrange, the latest thriller from director Ryûhei Kitamura (Versus, The Midnight Meat Train), because it deals directly with acts of random violence like those we hear about every other week. But just as it can be designed as fun, escapist entertainment, the function of horror is also to touch a nerve, to speak to our fears, to reflect that which we dread back to us in the hopes that we might work our way through the nightmares. Downrange manages to do both; it presents a scenario that has become all too real, all too common, but stylizes it all as an exercise in sustained tension—Hitchcock by way of Takashi Miike.
As a lifelong Monster Kid, the only thing better than a good horror movie is a good horror movie that’s set on Halloween. Despite the fact that the entire month of October is devoted to horror, there are surprisingly few movies actually set on our favorite holiday—and even fewer when talking about the really good ones.
Get My Gun, the first narrative feature from documentary filmmaker Brian Darwas, begins as one kind of film and ends as something different. Along the way, it introduces at least one great character played by star Kate Hoffman giving one of my favorite performances of the year. What seems on paper to be a standard rape-revenge film is much more of a character drama—albeit one with plenty of blood and brutality before all is said and done.