Spookoween 2015: 31 Days of Horror, Part I

I am once again participating in 31 Days of Horror this year. I watch a horror movie every day and write about it. And because I’m running my own show, I define what  “horror” is and what “a day” is. Also, sometimes, I just focus on tv or a book or an old time radio show instead of a film. One of the neatest things about doing 31 Days of Horror is the way that the films start to have unintentional resonances with each other. In part one there are:  Siblings, secrets, dead birds, being buried in the earth, fairytales, MADNESS, dead mothers, bad parents, being locked away, actors directing films and Barbara Steele. I only regret that most of what I watched in the first ten days require more thought–and deserve more thought–than watching a movie every day and writing a bit about it allows. (Update: Part II is here and Part III is here).

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Oct. 1:  I kicked off 31 Days of Spookoween this year by watching two movies with Drive-In Mob, both featuring Barbara Steele– Black Sunday (1960) and Nightmare Castle (1965). Black Sunday is one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite directors, Mario Bava. The film starts with the execution of two witches, who we discover, are also kind of vampires. It’s a cruel execution involving malleting “The Mask of Satan” onto each witch’s face. Before the mask is nailed onto her face, Barbara Steele’s Asa Vadja, righteously pissed, curses all those assembled and warns them that she will return for her revenge. Several hundred years later in the early Nineteenth Century, judging from the gentlemen’s clothing, two doctors are on their way to what I assume is an alienist convention. They hassle their coachman into taking a shortcut that they’ve heard about, through the haunted and cursed woods where Asa Vadja died. The coachman tells them he’d really rather not, but they insist. When the coach breaks down in the woods, the doctors leave the coachman to repair the damage himself–because gentlemen. They discover and break into the Vadja family crypt (because 19th Century doctors) and find the body of Asa Vadja. Which they promptly bleed on. Asa Vadja comes back to life, or undeath, to take her revenge on the rapidly approaching anniversary of her execution, the titular Black Sunday. The younger doctor meets Katja Vadja who bears a remarkable resemblance to Asa Vadja before she had a mask nailed into her face and decomposed. She’s also played by Barbara Steele. The older doctor makes due with the ghastly allure of Asa Vadja, and when she uses her power to lure the older doctor into kissing her–and transforms him into a vampire, whispering about how awesome it is to be dead but not die. Because Asa and her lover are kind of both witches and vampires. Which, you know, you could do if you wanted. Vampires have a lot of time to learn new skills. Asa Vadja’s lover also rises again, but aside from his swank dragon robe, he’s less interesting and more clearly focused on just killing these people. Asa Vadja, however, has decided she wants to switch places with Katja. There are groovy ancestral portraits, an amazing fireplace, secret tunnels and excellent shadows. Mario Bava is hard to beat in either black and white or color. And by the end, torch-wielding villagers arrive to burn Asa Vadja at the stake again and perpetuate the cycle of supernatural violence.

I hadn’t seen Nightmare Castle before, but it had been recommended to me by people who I respect.  It’s another film in which one character played by Barbara Steele attempts to take over another character played by Barbara Steele. Thus, demonstrating the Transitive Property of Barbara Steele. Nightmare Castle was directed by Mario Caiano, who recently passed away. So the evening’s viewing was a tribute to Caiano as well. In Nightmare Castle, Mad Scientist Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller, but really should be Michael Gough) catches his wife Muriel (Barbara Steele) cheating on him and science tortures and murders Muriel and her lover, but not before she could tell him that her hate for him would never die and that she’d left her entire estate to her sister, Jenny (Barbara Steele). Dr. Arrowsmith uses the victims blood to de-age his assistant Solange (Helga Liné) and cremates the remains and uses them to grow a plant. Then he goes about wooing Jenny, without telling her about his creepy experiments. When Jenny moves to the castle, she begins to dream of the murder and to take on the tastes of her dead sister. Dr. Arrowsmith and Solange gaslight Jenny, who had spent time in a sanitarium, and calls for her former doctor as she seems to be breaking down. There’s a pretty good portrait of Evil Barbara Steele and a fascinating phantasmagoric dream sequence.

Oct. 2: Magic Mike (2012). I watched this with alex from the Cultural Gutter and it was very enjoyable. I felt some dread and foreboding, but it  wasn’t traditionally “scary.” But the thought of Channing Tatum’s core workout terrifies me and Matthew McConaughey was fascinating. I always forget it’s a Stephen Soderbergh movie.

Oct. 3: 31 Days of McConaugheytober continued with Frailty (2010) directed by Bill Paxton and starring Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe. It’s nice to see Matthew McConaughey getting some really interesting roles lately–Killer Joe, Mud and True Detective. In Frailty, Matthew McConaughey steals his brother’s body and an ambulance and buries it in the rose garden behind his family’s house. Then he takes the ambulance to the FBI and asks to meet with Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe). He tells Doyle that his name is Fenton Meiks and that his brother Adam Meiks was the serial killer Doyle’s been pursuing. He then begins to tell a story about their widowed father (Bill Paxton), who believed that an angel of God had commanded him to destroy demons, but these demons appeared in the form of human beings. Which causes trouble. And he wants the boys to share his mission. Which also causes trouble. Young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) thinks it’s wrong but doesn’t know how to stop his father. Younger Adam (Levi Kreis) accepts what his father is saying and claims he can see the demons and their crimes when their father lays hands on his victims. But it’s easy to see why Fenton doubts his dad. After all, dad drives around in a 1979 white murder van and has bloody handprints on his shirt while he tries to encourage his kids with things like, “Only demons fear me. You’re not a demon are you? The angel says you are.”

Fenton is punished for his refusal to submit to God’s will–and for going to the sheriff. His dad makes him dig a pit in the Mieks back yard, which Fenton knows will be used to make a dungeon for destroying demons. When he continues to refuse to kill, Fenton’s locked in the dungeon and is told he’ll stay there until he sees a sign from God. He lasts a week, drinking water his brother brings him through a knothole.  Fenton tells his father that he’s seen God and is okay with the mission, but when handed the ax and ordered to “destroy” the demon, Fenton swings the ax into his father’s chest. He says to his brother, “If you come to destroy me, promise me you’ll bury my body in the rose garden.”

It’s an interesting movie. I certainly liked looking at it. And it fits nicely not only with McConaugheytober, but with siblings à la Nightmare Castle and the next film I watched, A Tale Of Two Sisters. It reminds me a bit of the Taiwanese movie Soul (2013), where a father played by Jimmy Wang Yu keeps his son locked in a shed, though that father kills for family. It’s kind of like a real world Supernatural, where two brothers are chosen to fight and destroy evil, except they might be destroying evil or they might just be serial killers. And it has some nice American Gothic lines like, “By the sixth day that hole was as dark and deep as my hatred for dad’s God.”

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Oct. 4 So, McConaugheytober concluded two films in, but I think Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) does tie in nicely with its focus on siblings and the ambivalence of the relationship between parent and child. One of the sisters is even locked away for disobedience. A Tale of Two Sisters has such a strong Gothic fairy tale feeling, I’m wasn’t surprised to learn that it’s based on a Korean folktale. There’s the house in the woods and the cruel stepmother. There’s a mysterious death and good old fashion doubt about a woman’s sanity and perception. There are little dead birds and a girl locked in a wardrobe. And it’s one of the few movies I’ve seen with menstruation in it. Su-mi (Lim Su-jeong) comes home after being hospitalized for mental health issues after the girls’ mother commits suicide. She tries to protect her younger sister, Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) from the increasing violent punishments of their stepmother, Heo Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah) cruelty their father Bae Moo-hyoon (Kim Kap-su) seems totally oblivious to and that ultimately lead to death.

But even when everything seems to be explained, there is still a sense of unease about that very explanation. After all, more than one person sees something beneath the sink. Though it doesn’t depict lovers, but the destruction of a family,  A Tale of Two Sisters reminds me of Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987) and Ronnie Yu’s The Occupant (1984), films in which the past is re-enacted over and over in both human and supernatural ways. Horror comprises so many emotions, and while A Tale Of Two Sisters is straight up the scariest movie I watched in this bunch, it presents loss and grief so well.

Oct. 5 In Jonas Alexander Arnby’s When Animals Dream (2015) teenage Marie (Sonia Suhl) lives by the sea and helps her father Thor (Lars Mikkelsen) take care of her chronically ill mother Mor (Sonja Richter). It isn’t clear what Mor is suffering from. She uses a wheel chair and her family feeds her, washes her and dresses her. Mor doesn’t speak, but she can move at least a little–grasping the hand of a boy who likes Marie, and who Marie likes back. Marie might not know exactly what’s wrong with her mother, but she’s started to fear that she has it, too. She visits the doctor (Stig Hoffmayer) and he checks her nails, teeth and coccyx. She’s found a dark bruise-like spot on her breast that’s growing hair. She sees her father washing and shaving her mother’s back. Marie discovers her father and Dr. Larsen in the middle of discussing her, but then pretending they were talking her mother’s injections. Meanwhile, Marie has taking a job at a fishery, processing fish for shipment. Most of her co-workers are aloof. One is kind to her. Another likes her, but is a bully, and when she ignores his overtures, he begins to harass her pretending it’s “hazing.”  Ultimately, he and a friend assault her in the locker room. And it becomes clear that her whole family is the source of both disdain and fear. A friend tells Marie: “Your mother was beautiful but people were afraid of her, like they’re afraid of you.”

Marie’s father and Dr. Larsen tell Marie that if she doesn’t start the same treatment as her mother, she will become vicious and eventually hurt someone. Marie refuses, but wakes up that night to find her father holding her down while Dr. Larsen tries to inject her. Mor makes it pretty clear that she doesn’t want her life for her daughter by killing Dr. Larsen. People come looking for Dr. Larsen and demand that Marie’s mother be stripped so they can check her for signs that she’s a werewolf. They remind Marie’s father that they had a deal and leave after discovering nothing. Marie finds her mother drowned in the bathtub soon after. Her fingernails begin to bleed at her mother’s funeral and by the end, she doesn’t care anymore, dripping blood as she carries the casket. She flaunts her ragged, bloody nails while serving coffee. And everything escalates from there.

I like that When Animals Dream focuses almost exclusively on Marie’s experience, even when we see the pain her father feels when she leaves after her mother’s death, even when we meet the boy who sorta likes her, and might or might not betray her. The film’s been compared to Let The Right One In (2008), and I can sorta see it. But I think that comparison ends up putting too much focus on Marie’s boy. I like that the underlying terror here is not the transformation of puberty, as in so many werewolf movies, but in the possible future Marie and her mother see for Marie now that she’s becoming a woman. A future of passivity and medication that evoke a whole history of gaslighting and pathologizing women and their pain, fear and anger. Honestly, it reminds me a little more of Thale (2012), in the attempt to force Marie to be something or someone she’s not, and in the fear that she will be out of control. It also reminded me a little of Ginger Snaps (2000) not just because lady werewolf, but in the whole conception of the freedom that being a werewolf offers ladies. Not so much unleashing the inner beast, as the freedom from being prey. Ginger gets there much faster than Marie, but we see Marie’s struggle to get there, too.

I also liked the subtlety of the werewolf transformation and design. No recurved dog legs. No wrinkly nose.

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Oct. 6 I took a break from movies and watched Sleepy Hollow season 4 premiere and Boris Karloff’s Thriller, “Knock Three-One-Two” (season 1 episode 13) featuring Beverly Garland “and Mr. Warren Oates.”

Oct. 7: I had avoided seeing Lost River (2014) because I’ve been ambivalent about it. I feel protective of Detroit and there’s a difficult line to walk between feeling protective about Detroit and feeling sad about it, while also representing that the city and its history is long and complicated. Then I heard good things about it and I sorta avoided it because I thought I’d feel a little more sad than I’d like right now. But when Keith Allison from the Gutter and Teleport City recommended I see it, I decided I’d make it one of my 31 Days of Horror films and director Ryan Gosling did a pretty good job. The city of Lost River isn’t exactly Detroit, but it’s pretty much Detroit. Or allegorical Detroit–one of the many allegorical Detroits. It has the same problems with too much space and not enough people.

Billy (Christina Hendricks) is trying to save her home from demolition and goes to mortgage officer Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) to see what she can do about getting more time to make payments. Dave skeevily suggests Billy could get a job and sends her to an underground Grand Guignol burlesque nightclub run by Cat (Eva Mendes). The club has a hellmouth for an entrance and an unsettling side business where women lock themselves in cases while their paying clients can do whatever they want in front of the women. Meanwhile, her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) takes care of her much younger son Franky (Landyn Stewart) and makes money by stripping copper from abandoned buildings and houses. He pisses off local bully, Bully (Matt Smith), by taking copper out of Bully’s territory and Bully and Matt Smith’s interesting accent comes looking for him in his Cadillac-mounted recliner. Bones has a crush on the girl not exactly next door but in the next still standing house way down the street, Rat (Saoirse Ronan). Rat makes music and takes care of her unspeaking grandmother (Barbara Steele) and her rat, Nick. Rat has the only explanation that makes sense of Lost River, that this is a fairytale and that the drowning, both figuratively and literally, town is under a curse. She tells Bones that the only way to lift the curse is if an object from the drowned portion of the city to the surface. After following Billy in to her work, Bones decides to lift the curse on the city.

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I’m honestly surprised by the really harsh poor reviews Lost River received. Maybe I’m just so close to the material that it seems less bizarre and very clearly allegorical to me. If I have a problem with the film, it would be that the main characters who stand in for the people who fight to stay in disappearing neighborhoods and their childhood homes are all white. But it’s an interesting film and a nice first one from Ryan Gosling. He’s learned a lot from Mario Bava, David Lynch and Nicholas Winding Refn–and even has Denoit Debie shooting for him, the cinematographer from Refn’s gorgeous Only God Forgives. But Gosling has much more interest in and compassion for people than Refn’s films do, and it shows in his film. And while he didn’t show everything about Detroit, he did all right by me.

Oct. 8  I watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon / The Creature Walks Among Us with the Drive-In Mob. We watched it last year, too. I’ll link to my stills and thoughts from last year. And Just add here that I think I hate The Creature Walks Among Us and don’t need to see it again for at least 5 years.

Instead, I’ll pretend the lost river detoured completely through the Amazon and Florida and empties into The Midnight Swim‘s Spirit Lake.

Oct. 9. Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim (2014) is a film that feels like a short story. Three sisters, June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) and Isa (Aleksa Palladino) converge on their mother’s house after her death. They’re deciding what to do with her house and trying to decide if they want to talk about what she meant to them and whether she killed herself. Their mom (Beth Grant) was a scientist researching strange aspects of the seemingly bottomless Spirit Lake, the lake she and her daughters lived beside. Annie and Isa grew up beside. I don’t want to say it’s a found footage film, but the conceit is that June is filming the trip, in part because the camera is what allows her to interact with others. And it works for me. It has nice cinematography and it’s an interesting choice for another film that uses fairy tale elements. June’s teen crush, Josh (Ross Partridge) still lives by the lake. It’s hard to say how June feels about him, but she watches Isa and Josh become close. Josh tells them the story of the seven sisters who followed each other one after another in to the lake. That night, they attempt to summon the sisters. After that, things don’t go really awry, but they get a little strange. Every day, a bird flies into a window pane and dies. The Isa dreams of a song and find a shawl in the lake. June finds footage she didn’t shoot on her laptop. And, as in A Tale of Two Sisters, the family’s story becomes clearer. While Isa seems, on the surface, to be the wild sister. Annie was estranged from their at the very least difficult mother. And June has been struggling with mental health issues that make Isa and Annie wonder if she’s been killing the birds. (The wallpaper in June’s bedroom kept making me think of the “rest cure” and Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper”).

I’m still thinking about this film, and, like most of the others I watched this week, I almost regret choosing it for this. Not because I regret watching it, but because it requires more time and space for thinking. The chemistry between the actresses playing the sisters if fantastic, but what I think what I find most interesting about this film is the complicated portrait of the the sister’s mother presented. Mothers in film are often one-dimensional, whether good or bad.

Read Part II–featuring Purani Haveli (1989), A Bucket of Blood (1959) and God knows what else!

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