Monday 27 November 2023

Halloween 2023 Round Up Part 2: Reviews of Dark Harvest (USA 2023), The Bell Keeper (USA 2023), The Exorcist: Believer (USA 2023), Don't Look Away (Canada 2023), It Shall Not be Named (USA 2023), The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (USA 2023), Brooklyn 45 (USA 2023), Huesera: the Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru 2022), Night of the Bastard (USA 2022), Malum (Italy/USA 2023) and Summoning Sylvia (USA 2023)

Continuing my round up of 2023 fright flicks reviewed during the month of October 2023. Part 1 is here:

Dark Harvest (USA 2023: Dir David Slade)
 Back in 2021 when I first heard that Norman Partridge’s rather slim 2006 Halloween themed novel ‘Dark Harvest’ was being adapted for the screen, I didn’t have high hopes. The book is fast paced but rather sketchy about a lot of details, and too short to really build any momentum. Surprise surprise then that David Slade’s movie adaptation, shelved for two years before finding its home on a streaming channel, is a bit of a stinker.

At the beginning of the 1960s in a small US town – Bastion, Illinois - there’s an annual contest every 31st October; the boys of Bastion have to prevent ‘Sawtooth Jack’, a violent, pumpkin headed creature, in its journey from the fields into town. And the boy who successfully brings the creature down gets a prize; a car and a one-way ticket out of nowheresville to the bright lights; the winner’s parents are also set up for life. Oh, and if they fail the town is blighted.

A year after Jim Shepard (Britain Dalton), the brother of Richie (Casey Likes), wins the prize and drives off in his new Corvette – never to be seen again – Richie decides that he’s going to compete and keep success in the family. Unlike uber confident Jim, Richie is non sporty and his chances of achieving the Herculean feat of slaughtering the vicious monster seem slim; he gets no support from parents or classmates, with the exception of his girlfriend Kelly (Emyri Crutchfield). And being a black girl in rural 1960s US that’s not helping either.

Dark Harvest filches from lots of different sources for its themes and look: the mass bands of marauding, looting boys feel like something from ‘The Purge’ or ‘The Hunger Games’ movies; ‘Sawtooth Jack’ looks like a slightly more supple version of the beast from 1988’s Pumpkinhead, and the whole thing takes its visual cues from Children of the Corn. The biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t take any time in communicating what’s going on, so viewers who haven’t read the book will be scratching their heads. I suspect that this one had lots of trips to the postproduction suite. There are precious few Halloween themed movies out there, so it’s really disappointing when one of them gets it so wrong.

The Bell Keeper (USA 2023: Dir Colton Tran) 
The superbly named Tran has burst onto the scene this year with his first three features; now I haven’t seen the other two – Snow Falls and Hello, Charlie – but based on The Bell Keeper, consider me interested.

TBK can best be described as a PG-ish horror comedy in thrall to The Evil Dead. And if there’s only room for one ED homage picture this year I’d probably choose Tran’s flick over…you know, that other one (I think he's referring to Evil Dead Rise. Ed).

Five young kids are off on an adventure in their Winnebago; they’re headed into the mountains of California to make a reality documentary about urban legends and hauntings. Their driver is nervous, virginal (this will be come important later) pothead Liam (Reid Miller). Also in the van are Liam’s brother, photographer Matthew (Mike Manning), Matthew’s ‘independent’ girlfriend Holly (Cathy Marks), the show’s presenter, vacuous Megan (Alexis B. Santiago) and Megan’s boyfriend Gabriel (Capri-Antoine Vaillancourt). Stopping at a local gas station, complete with ‘don’t-go-in-those-woods’ local and a cameo from Bonnie Aarons (the Nun from ‘The Conjuring’ universe movies) the group learn about and decide to visit Bell Lake, known for a bell which was associated with sacrifices and demonic possession in the mid 19th century.

Separately maudlin so and so Brittany (Kathleen Kenny) is out searching for her missing brother; clues have also led her to Bell Lake, and it’s not long before she and the others meet up, find the bell and, contrary to all reasonable cautionary advice, ring it at midnight.

The ensuing chaos, with various cast members becoming ‘Deadite’ lites, also brings forward cauliflower eared Hank (ex wrestler Randy Couture, another fabulous name), an immortal guardian of the bell and slaughterer of demons. The only way to break the 150 year old curse is a) never to bring the bell again (which clearly is not going to happen) or b) destroy the thing, which Hank is unable to do, what with having his hands full killing demons.

If this all sounds daft as a box of kittens playing with balls of wool, you’d be right, but it has a certain exuberance which I really liked. Couture has a kind of Dwayne Johnson thing going on, and Miller’s geeky Liam has great comic timing. TBK is just a little too long and strips its cast down to the survivors a bit too quickly, but this is silly fun and I liked it way more than I should have.

The Exorcist: Believer (USA 2023: Dir David Gordon Green)
 OK everyone else has had a pop at this one, so now it’s my turn.

Rather like my opinion of Evil Dead Rises, I think this would have fared better as a stand alone film, as it’s at its weakest when it either shoehorns in references to The Exorcist or, worse still, utilises cast members from that film.

I liked the first hour which, as those interested probably know by now, involves the intriguing disappearance and re-appearance of two schoolgirl friends; the first, Angela (Lidya Jewett) lives with her single, liberal (and non religious) dad, who had to make a choice between saving his wife or his then unborn daughter after they were involved in an earthquake in Haiti. The other girl, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) has parents both evangelist and (probably) Republican.

After both girls steal into the woods after school, ostensibly to hold some kind of séance so that Angela can make contact with her late mother, they are found three days later and thirty miles away, cowering in a barn, with no knowledge of what happened or how they go there.

Both girls quickly demonstrate behaviours which suggest something has get into them while they were absent; assault has been ruled out, and Katherine’s mother concludes that their mysteriously burned feet means that they must have been briefly taken to hell.

But whatever atmosphere is built up by this point is rapidly dissipated when it becomes clear that director David Gordon Green just doesn’t know how to develop this, beyond the need to cast the demons out at an appropriate point. The casting of Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, is a cynical misstep, as is the explanation for her ability to be the first of the cast to mount a (failed) DIY exorcism. Later this ‘have a go’ approach to a deeply religious act will be extended to pretty much anyone in the room who can read from the Bible.

So yes TE:B is a mess as many have previously described. It replaces genuine scares with loud/quiet edits and people surprising other people; I tried to view it without thinking of the film/s that inspired it, but Gordon Green kept chucking in little bits of references, mostly pretty unsubtly. I was amused that the other returning cast member from the original movie only had one line and got higher billing than Ms Burstyn, who had whole passages of bilge to recite.

Don’t Look Away (Canada 2023: Dir Micheal Bafaro) 
The director has dedicated this movie to the combined cinematic talents of Sergio Martino, John Carpenter and Larry Cohen, which is a fair summation of what to expect in this movie. Although I’d also add in the high concept offerings of Quentin Dupieux and the laid back, slightly woozy feel of David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 movie It Follows as potential influences too.

Frankie (Kelly Bastard, yes I know) is in the wrong place at the wrong time. As she drives home, a guy runs out in front of her car and is instantly killed. But that’s the least of her problems. The dead guy was the driver of a truck transporting a killer mannequin, and in his attempts to escape the thing he ended up under Frankie’s wheels. The dummy was being transported to the home of a blind guy, Viktor (the director, Bafaro) who was hoping to put an end to its reign of terror.

A rather shocked Frankie (she doesn’t speak for the first ten or so minutes of the movie) tries to pull herself together but becomes increasingly spooked by a figure glimpsed at the periphery of her vision. Attempts to unwind at the local club leave most of the clubbers dead – the killer mannequin has followed her, and now wants Frankie and her circle of friends dead.

The title of Bafaro’s film is a direct clue to how to stay safe when in the mannequin’s ‘vision’, so to speak. Make eye contact at all times; failure to do so results in mannequin murder. The precise details of how the killings are achieved are, like a lot of this film, kept deliberately murky. The mannequin is never shown moving, and so your ability to find the movie creepy is in direct proportion to how scary you find shop window dummies without clothes on. Don't Look Away feels like a short stretched to feature length; as well as the influences above it borrows from lots of other movies (including The Shining, complete with typewriter discovery sequence) which turns the whole thing into a sort of patchwork of influences. Ultimately the concept doesn’t really work, but for a while it sustains a broadly disturbing mood; the sound design is pretty effective too.

It Shall Not be Named (USA 2023: Dir Cankat Vatanandiran)
 This micro budget LA based feature harks back to the heyday of 1970s suburban witchcraft movies. With a cast of three and a single apartment set, Writer and director Vatanandiran’s movie concentrates on unlucky in work (ie unemployed) Kat (former Miss Wisconsin Skylar Witte) who takes in a lodger to make ends meet.

Kat’s asshole boyfriend Chris (Luke Meissner) dangles his employment status in front of broke Kat and says that he’ll support her, but she wants to make her own way in the world, hence renting a room to mysterious Jessie (Audrey Lilyquist) without taking up references. Uh oh!

Initially keen to reach out in friendship as well as being landlady, Kat quickly realises that Jessie is something of an enigma – she talks of devils, and even has a different first name on her driver’s license. But then the dreams begin, with Kat glimpsing demonic shapes, and she starts to feel unsafe in her own home. Chris becomes more distant, and Kat starts to feel that Jessie and Chris might be consorting behind her back.

Much of It Shall Not be Named’s watchability is down to Witte’s performance; Kat isn’t particularly clever, and she’s certainly not intuitive, which means that watching her put the pieces together takes most of the movie (even when allowing for its bizarre descent into singer/songwriter video territory about two thirds through). I’m actually not really sure why I quite liked this; perhaps its simplicity and, well, naivety won the day for me.

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (USA 2023: Dir Bomani J. Story)
 Young Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes in a performance that clearly destines her for great things) is a science wiz, smarter than her teachers and not afraid to show it. She lives on a tough estate where drugs and gun violence are part of existence, and which have already claimed the lives of her mother and brother. Vicaria, much as ‘The Modern Prometheus’ did in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel ‘Frankenstein’ (which provides the inspiration here), rages against death being the end and resolves, scientifically, to do something about it. Her resultant creation, formed in the main from her dead brother Chris (whose body she has 'stolen' and hidden in a lock up), with parts of the other fallen black people from her neighbourhood, is given life; Vicaria just wants her brother back, but ‘Chris’ has payback on his mind.

Another extraordinary debut, the first feature by young director Story may be advertised as another take on Shelley’s creation, but it’s actually so much more. Ostensibly a film about loss, TABGaHM asks, if you can’t stop a cycle of untimely deaths within a community, is it too much to ask that the fallen be returned rather than simply holding on to their memory?

In less subtle hands Vicaria’s community, a small knit one where the problems are writ large and out in the open, could feel slightly stereotypical, but Story’s family members are real, as are their concerns about their community. ‘Chris’ could have been a vigilante but that would have been too tidy; here he’s just one more problem, a ‘Monkey’s Paw’ wish from his sister which goes horribly wrong. This is a great film, full of tiny details but not afraid to let rip with the gore when required. Excellent.

Brooklyn 45 (USA 2023: Dir Ted Geoghegan)
 Geoghegan’s thoughtful ghost story (of sorts) is set immediately after the end of the second world war. Hitler is dead, and the investigations have begun into alleged war crimes perpetrated during the fighting.

A group of people have congregated together on one of the last days of 1945, at the invitation of Lt. Col. Clive Hockstatter (Larry Fessenden), who has recently lost his wife. The party includes Marla (Anne Ramsay), an interrogator of some renown, her pen pushing husband Bob (Ron E. Rains), former soldier Archie (Jeremy Holm) and uptight Major Paul DiFranco (Ezra Buzzington) who still wears full military dress.

All are known to each other and are adjusting to post war life, although Archie is currently under investigation for a potential war crime. But Hockstatter confesses that he’s brought the group together for a reason; following his wife’s death he’s been inconsolable and hopes that they might help him make contact with her spirit via a séance. As a consequence there’s an unexpected death and the disclosure of another party in attendance, who will cause the group to examine their own motives and culpability.

As many have commented the setup of Brooklyn 45 feels more like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone or maybe Night Gallery. It’s shamelessly old fashioned, talky and the ‘action’ is confined to one room. There are elements of the fantastic here but it’s hard to know whether they are supernatural or the externalisation of the guilt and fear of the assembled characters. This won’t be for everyone, but I found it both gripping and moving, and it confirms that Geoghegan is a very talented and interesting filmmaker.

Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru 2022: Dir Michelle Garza Cervera) 
Another directorial debut feature, this time from Mexico. H:TBW uses body horror and mythology in a perplexing and uncomfortable way to depict the struggles and anguish of a pregnant woman.

Valeria (Natalia Solián) is a carpenter by trade, seemingly perfectly happy with her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), and more so once she learns that she is pregnant. But this idyllic setup doesn’t last long; in her early stages Valeria starts to have doubts about wanting a child – her family are not convinced she’ll make a suitable mother and it’s clear that to facilitate the birth she’ll have to make compromises in life, not least a rejection of her previous queer existence with partner Octavia (Mayra Batalla).

But Valeria’s anxieties begin to take physical form. Her own habit of cracking her finger joints under stress extends quickly to an external focus for her concerns – the ghostly ‘bone woman’ of the title, who lays siege to Valeria’s apartment and whose presence becomes more violent as her pregnancy develops. Valeria must resort to magic to avert the supernatural threat, while her previous life becomes the only thing that provides comfort.

At its heart H:TBW is about the roles expected of women in contemporary Mexico – mothers, perfect wives - and the impact on those who don’t fit the accepted template. Cervera filters this through the very personal experience of pregnancy and the wider history of myth and magic in the country. It’s a very disturbing piece that makes no effort to harmonise its elements, and as such can feel frustrating. But H:TBW is nevertheless powerful, with an incredibly strong central performance from Solián.

Night of the Bastard (USA 2022: Dir Erik Boccio) 
 Grindhouse is dead! Long live grindhouse! Boccio’s debut feature takes us right back to the golden age of trailer park witchcraft, grizzled characters and rough and ready gore.

After a 1978 prologue, in which a group of Satanists headed by a weird eyed priestess, Maxine (Talia Martin), trap and butcher an innocent man and woman in the middle of nowhere – including removing the pregnant woman’s soon to be born child and treating it as their own – we’re thrown into the present day. Three campers choose the wrong place to set up tent – the same location as the events 40 years previously – and are unceremoniously moved on by a ranting guy, Reed (London May), who claims to own all the land.

Pretty soon the campers run into a next generation bunch of the same family of Satanists, now run by the commanding priestess Claire (Hannah Pierce) and including Maxine, now an old woman, among their number. Despatching two of the campers, a third, Kiera (Mya Hudson), although injured, manages to escape and make it to Reed’s shack. From here on in Kiera and Reed hole up and battle the Satanists – but Claire has a special focus on Reed.

NotB is as rough and ready as they come and, beyond the exposition above, is pretty much an homage to The Hills Have Eyes, the siege mentality of Assault on Precinct13 (or more recently VFW) or a bloodier Race with the Devil. It’s only towards the end of the movie that we realise that the 'Bastard' in  the title refers to the state of illegitimacy rather than an insult, and by that time things have already taken a rather bizarre turn. Don’t come to this film looking for complexity, subtlety or depth – the closest we come to this is the fumbling attempts of Kiera and Reed to get to know each other before the next onslaught begins. If I had a hard time believing the threat setup that’s only because the Satanists outnumber two people trapped in a flimsy shack. But that’s being picky – this was FUN!

Malum (Italy/USA 2023: Dir Anthony DiBlasi) 
DiBlasi’s brilliant haunted police precinct movie is a kind of remake of his 2014 flick Last Shift, in which a rookie cop takes the final stint at a soon to be closed police precinct full of evil goings on. There’s a similar setup but the whole back story is way more sinister.

One year after experienced policeman Will Loren (Eric Olsen) – recently the hero of the precinct for his part in busting open a cult and rescuing three of its members – goes crazy and takes out two of his colleagues with a shotgun before turning the weapon on himself, his daughter Jessica (Jessica Sula), also in the force, signs up for an overnight shift in the same precinct. On her own.

Jessica isn’t really taken seriously; as a rookie cop she’s subject to the usual sexism, compounded by her status as the daughter of a formerly respected policeman who went seriously off the rails. But she’s determined to stick out the shift in dad’s memory, although it’s not long before her goodwill is seriously tested; it seems that echoes of the cult leader still persist in the station, and Jessica is soon drawn into a state between reality, illusion and immediate danger.

I’ve deliberately kept the plot explanation slim on this one, as it’s a movie you really need to experience for yourself with as little preparation as possible; it's a masterclass in editing, cinematographic sleight of hand and with a fabulously disconcerting electronic score. If you can accept the basic premise of a rookie cop being allowed to staff a building without supervision, then you’re in for a wild ride.

Summoning Sylvia (USA 2023: Dir Wesley Taylor, Alex Wyse) The last movie of the Spooktober marathon isn’t really a fright flick at all; it’s a gay comedy, but it does have enough haunted house trappings to drag itself (pun intended) into the round up. And it’s funny as hell.

A group of queens have decided to hold a bachelorette party in an unusual location; a creepy old house upstate. They are the hilarious Nico (Frankie Grande), party organiser Reggie (Troy Iwata) and recently dumped Kevin (Noah J. Ricketts). Larry (Travis Coles) the bride to be is blindfolded and whisked away out of the city, unbeknownst to his intended Jamie (Michael Urie) who had other plans for the weekend, involving his visiting army brother Harrison (Nicholas Logan), just back from Kuwait.

The main attraction of the house is its reputation for being haunted by the ghost of a woman, Sylvia (Veanne Cox) who 100 years previously chopped up her teenage son Philip (Camden Garcia) – the guys are hoping for an appearance of both via a seance.

Once at the house, Larry feels guilty and ends up agreeing that straight, monosyllabic but hunky Harrison should join the party. According to those present, the subsequent séance brings forth the spirits, but in an increasingly ridiculous series of mistaken identities the whole household fears for their safety. And then the pizza delivery boy arrives.

Once you adjust to the fact that most of the cast, particularly Nico, is a lot, this is a very funny romp, well scripted and with some great characters. One liners whizz by, and while everything ends up being a little crazy, there’s enough room for an overall plea for tolerance and, finally, a ghost. SS is well worth seeking out.

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