There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned ghost story. In cinema, however, their traditional format has become familiar to the point of boredom. When a fresh take on supernatural, atmospheric horror comes around, it’s a rare gift, usually coming to us from the festival circuit. A gem crafted in this spirit recently premiered at TIFF and screened at the Sitges Film Festival. While its recourses are slim, the Halifax-based production The Crescent uses them to create one of the most chilling films I’ve seen this year.
Within a spate of gritty and retro horror films, it’s thrilling to see cinema return to the weird lushness of Gothic traditions. Oozing atmosphere, phantasmal storylines, and grotesque characters populate our screens again, though sometimes the melodrama of this category gets in the way of its art. A fascinating example has begun its creep through the festival circuit, however, as production designer Elizabeth Schuch makes her feature-length cinematic directorial debut with The Book of Birdie, a contained psychological fantasy that uses the confines of genre to spin a genuine character study.
“’Tis the night, the night of the grave’s delight.” So begins Nicholas Verso’s latest feature film, a phantasmal, surreal poem set during one youth’s Halloween night. Viewers who recall his remarkable short film The Last Time I Saw Richard will anticipate the dreamlike atmosphere and dark fantasy at play here, but this story goes beyond fable. Verso evokes an immersive spirit realm through which emerges a tale of lost youth, lost hope, and a boy seeking to reclaim his soul.
One of the decade’s most surprising, uncomfortable genre films is Creep, in which Mark Duplass proves that his mumblecore charm has a very, very dark side. Helmed by and co-starring Patrick Brice, the no-budget film created dread and unease through simple character development—what easily could have been a melancholic comedy becomes a horror film in just the last few moments. It’s easy to understand why Blumhouse wanted to capitalize on that magic through a few more installments; but how do you follow up a film that is entirely based on the element of uncertainty? Brice and Duplass have answered that question, delivering a hilarious, disturbing sequel which improves on everything that made the first film fascinating.
The possibilities for experimentation within the bounds of horror cinema are endless. For every commercially accessible masterpiece, there’s also a bizarre, unorthodox experience waiting to confound viewers. At a festival where there are dozens of films that fall into both categories, this writer has found one of the most unusual offerings to be Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, a slow-paced, profoundly atmospheric plunge into the nightmare of seclusion.
Fans of horror literature have likely encountered Adam Nevill’s work. His novel The Ritual, a combination of occult fantasy and survival horror, has been ripe for adaptation since its release the better part of a decade ago. Few modern directors are better suited for the job than David Bruckner, the man behind the infamous surgery segment in Southbound. When it premiered in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section, early reactions gave no indication that Bruckner had returned to the feature scene with a debut of mythical power, but his faithful adaptation of Nevill’s novel revives the folk horror sub-genre to give us one of the year’s most terrifying films.
Recent years have seen a return to giallo, mainly in independent and foreign horror cinema. The genre doesn’t always hold up because it is inherently weird and often nonsensical. For diehard admirers of Fulci and Bava, however, Turkish director Can Evrenol has become an excitingly bizarre voice in cinema. His feature debut, Baskin, blew many a mind two years ago with its hedonistic madness. Evernol returns this year with Housewife, and while it may not reach the levels of incoherent thrills that his first feature achieved, it’s an involving vision of sensory insanity.