It Comes at Night Sheds Light on Human Nature

Published June 11, 2017 by rmpixie

It Comes At Night (2017, 1hr 31 mins.)

 

How will the world take the dissolution of society as we know it? Will we isolate ourselves, band together or give in to our basest instincts? We’ve already taken the zombie route in the post-apocalyptic world with many films and shows including The Walking Dead, but Trey Edward Shults’ film It Comes at Night, which debuted at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, takes us to these uncomfortable places by exploring the horrors of human nature when faced with an unknown threat.

Paul (Joel Edgerton) Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenaged son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), live in a boarded up rambling house deep in the woods. Society has fallen to an unknown illness, leaving the family to fend for themselves away from cities and those who could be carrying the disease. When Travis witnesses his grandfather falling to the disease and his father’s matter-of-fact disposal of the body, the experience has left him with vivid nightmares and in a state of shock.

When the family catch an intruder in their home, they find that he is just looking for a safe haven. Will, the intruder (Christopher Abbott), has his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) hidden in an abandoned home nearby and are equally terrified of contracting the disease. After a tough interrogation from Paul, he invites Will and his family to come and live in his forest fortress since Sarah feels there is strength in numbers. With the new family comes a renewed sense of hope. This is short-lived however, as human contact pits man against man and each is tested to do the right thing to stay alive.

Shults’ film is a build-up to a big lesson in human nature. The limits of how much we trust our fellow human being is complicated with our primal fears, denial and what we believe to be true. Perceptions are key in this film, as well as perspectives. Shults and his cinematographer Drew Daniels are very skilled at showing us perspective through the camera lens. With wide forest shots, close-ups lit only by a lantern, and slow-moving stedicam shots as we glided through Travis’ nightmares, they switched the mood from dread to terror effectively. The smart use of limited spaces also created an interesting way to focus on the isolation of this new world and internal turmoil. Claustrophobic and myopic, we get a sense of what the characters are feeling in this tense story.  It was also interesting that Shults doesn’t reveal character names until well into the first act.  It’s as if names don’t matter anymore because relationships seem difficult to maintain in this harsh place.

The performances were amazing. Edgerton played Paul with a restrained melancholy, giving us a glimpse of the comfortable teacher’s life he left behind, replacing it with a steel-hearted survivalist mode. Ejogo was a contrasting softer side of his forced strength, steering him away from a total lack of compassion.  While she was a strong character, she was able to show some vulnerability instead of the stoic “stiff-upper lip” stereotype for Black female roles. They were great choices for the protective parents, and Abbott, most known for his role in Girls, impressed as a desperate man trying to survive the aftermath of this diseased environment. The standout for me however, was Harrison Jr. His portrayal of Travis was riveting, and his character served as a barometer for humanity. His sweet nature and sensitivity combined with his terrifying nightmares made him the most present even though he seemed to be in another world. It’s not explained if this was attributed to the constant traumatic events or what appeared to be a slight mental disability. Whatever the case, his was a portentous existence guiding the audience through the brutality of this new world.

Paul (Edgerton) and Travis (Harrison Jr.) search for menace in the forest.

The flaws and degradation of humanity in this film left me feeling profoundly sad, but the hype about it is true. It’s a different type of horror film and a must-see for all of us in this era of desensitization and brutality. You’ll be left thinking about survival and the tough lessons that makes us examine the basics of who we are as humans.

Book Review: Family Ties and Gothic Horror in The Only Child

Published June 19, 2017 by rmpixie

The Only Child by Andrew Pyper (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

 

Canadian horror author Andrew Pyper has his finger on the pulse of the family. His previous works cover a father looking for his child in the best-selling The Demonologist to a twin haunted by his sister in The Damned, and now, another family dynamic in The Only Child. With his dark approach to family and psychology, he brings us to world where literature, personal demons and reality collide.

Lily Dominick is a forensic psychiatrist who is brilliant at what she does because it’s all she does. Throwing herself into her work with the criminally insane, she is driven and stoic-the result of a tragic family and personal history. Her usual day at the forensic psychiatric center is changed when she is alerted to a patient who has committed a violent crime and awaits her assessment. This patient, known only as client 46874-A, reveals to her that not only did he know her dead mother, but he is also her father. This is alarming to Lily since her mother fell to a violent death, the details of which escaped her for years as well as no memory of her absent father. When this strange patient escapes and starts to pick off people in Lily’s life, she embarks on a global journey where she finds out more about this mysterious man we come to know as Michael and his outrageous claims to be the inspiration for classic horror writers and their creations. Compelled by this menace she tries to stay ahead of his terrifying abilities while seeking the truth about his connection to her, and stop his mad killing spree.

Pyper has created an interesting mythology with the character of Michael. He is a combination of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula, with a demonic element that overrides the romantic aspect of these tortured monsters. It’s certainly a different approach to appreciating the classics. He reminded me of the HBO series Penny Dreadful, but with a modern twist, especially with the steam punk inspired accoutrements that Michael uses to drain his prey of blood. He’s a character you at times sympathize with as he recounts battles with his evil nature, but his ultimate arrogance becomes his worst burden. Snippets of his journals are fascinating and I had hopes that his back story would play more center stage, but that was left to our main character, Lily.

Lily’s is independent and strong which I enjoyed about her, but she was also my least favourite of Pyper’s characters. Her judgement was questionable and her sexual impulses were at times unwarranted and hollow in most situations, especially as she envisaged having sex with almost all the men she met, including Michael. This was a little surprising as Pyper’s female characters have been more well-rounded in the past. I’m not sure if it was his intention to show Michael’s supernatural power over her, or some sort of sexual dysfunction, or to show her sexual freedom as a modern woman, but I can’t imagine sexual encounters would be on the mind of a woman running for her life. He did however, succeed with her emotional turmoil, her memories of her mother’s death and her coping mechanism of being a workaholic. Between Michael and Lily, you may find yourself hoping the monster prevails instead of his prey since sadly, he is far more interesting.

While it may not find a firm footing, The Only Child is still within the literary realm that Pyper enjoys exploring. With a gothic/modern espionage feel that may not be a familiar place for his readers, it’s still worth checking out for an interesting villain brought to life from the pages of Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson. Here’s hoping there’s a compelling prequel in store.

Rising Above: The Women in Hounds of Love *Spoilers Below!*

Published May 12, 2017 by rmpixie

Hounds of Love (2016, 1 hr, 48 mins.)

In Hounds of Love, Ben Young’s first feature-length film, a murderous couple in the city of Perth, Australia, stalks teenage girls to fulfil their sexual fantasies. The acts are orchestrated by John (Stephen Curry), a sexual predator who is cold, mean and conniving. His character is riveting because Young gives you just enough to wonder about what happened to this man to make him so diabolical, but the women surrounding him are equally compelling.

The film is set in 1987, when women were still coming off the gains from first wave feminism only to be kicked back by conservatism in the Reagan era. Traditional values were revisited and shunned by women who wanted to blaze trails and be the independent people their sisters before them fought for. I’m not sure if Young took any of this into account as he wrote the film, but with this era as a backdrop, there’s an interesting theme of traditional versus the modern woman running through the story.

Keeping second-wave feminism in mind, there are two distinct representations of women in the film. We have Vicki’s mother Maggie (Susie Porter) who is gaining her independence after leaving her husband, and Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) herself, a young adult pushing the boundaries and also looking for her place in the world without any parental interference. These two characters represent the burgeoning modern woman. Evelyn (Emma Booth), John’s wife and murderous cohort, is the more traditional figure. She does the cooking, cleaning and looks after her man and his conquests, doing her wifely duties in an extreme way.

Cummings as Vicki just before she is abducted.

Maggie is spreading her wings. Newly divorced, she is starting her new life and hopes to maintain her relationship with her daughter. Divorce in the 80’s was no longer taboo, in fact, it was becoming more common at that time due to changes with laws in North America and Australia. As a child of divorce, Vicki is processing her broken family home and experiencing her rebellious teen years. She deals with it in a typical way by defying her mother, seen as the person who destroyed their family because she’s left both Vicki and her father. Vicki attempts to be her own person despite the upheaval, and even has some power over her well-meaning boyfriend as he writes her school assignments for her. Both women are making efforts to create their own identity. Evelyn, on the other hand, finds comfort in her relationship. She is John’s caretaker and literal partner in crime; the nursemaid to their victims and his dutiful wife. There is no defiance here, only the urge to serve and be wanted. The actions of all three have consequences of varying degrees, but Evelyn’s is the most extreme case by living under the façade of a traditional role while she aids and abets the criminal activities of John.

Each woman will affect one another’s lives in the most unsettling of ways. When Vicky rebels against her mother and sneaks out to go to a party, she is lured into captivity by Evelyn and John. She is tough, however, and thinks on her feet, not succumbing completely to the fear of her abduction. As Evelyn cares for her captive, she forces information out of Vicki, and becomes jealous of her when she realized John’s interest in their captive. Evelyn wants to be as defiant and desirable as the teen, and when she fails to stand up to John, wants to break Vicki’s spirit to prove John loves her more.

We find out that Evelyn comes from a history of abuse that John rescued her from, and it’s the only thing she knows. She is angry, isolated and desperate, and needs something to care about since her children from a previous relationship were taken from her, so John gives her a dog. Her dog is a replacement for the lost children and her only tie to maternal feelings. Director Young said he used the dog to create sympathy for Evelyn, and it does indeed do that as it finds a violent end. But what we must remember is that she is part and parcel with John’s evil machinations. Even though she fears him and fears losing him, she knows right from wrong and still decides to participate. It’s this sobering fact that she played a part in the deaths of their victims, and that her washing the bloodied sheets and cleaning up the crime scene is just as heinous as the act itself. She is the woman that will do anything for love.

John (Curry) and Evelyn (Booth) have a moment together before the brutality.

Evelyn and Maggie are complete opposites. Evelyn represents the perversion of domestic subservience. She does as John wants, takes care of the home, and yearns to be a mother where Maggie refuses this role. Maggie moves into her own house and wants to start fresh, but the resentment felt by her husband when their daughter goes missing is a fresh wound that he picks at, blaming her for their child’s disappearance and shaming her for her independence. Maggie shows inner strength in this situation as she refuses his patronizing help, determined to find her daughter; in fact, Maggie ignores the patronizing police officers as well and carries on with the search led by her instincts.

Where Maggie stands up to her husband, John taunts Evelyn about losing her children and she takes it. Her traditional mindset in this setting is a distortion of the abuses women fight against. Top it off with John’s monstrous and manipulative patriarchal power, and you have an extreme microcosm of what traditional norms do to women who reject them. Maggie’s punishment for leaving the nuclear home is her daughter’s rape and torture.  At one point Evelyn tells Vicki she should have listened to her mother and stayed home after Vicki tells her the truth about her dog’s role and that John is just using her. Evelyn also judges Maggie even though she doesn’t know her, sneering at the broken marriage; mocking Maggie’s independence perhaps because Evelyn too has tried to leave but failed on her own. She doesn’t want to focus on the wrongs she has done to the young women they have captured, instead emboldened by falling back into John’s favour, she taunts and blames Vicki for the crimes committed against her.  It’s as if Evelyn and John feel justified in their actions because these independent women didn’t toe the line and stick with traditional roles.

Evelyn and John lord over the girls like a twisted traditional family. They punish those coming up in the new world, dominating girls and putting them in their place. They don’t put them in a shed or a dark, dank basement, instead their victims are placed in a very regular bedroom, held down with chains. It shows their arrogance and how close evil lies in seemingly safe environments. We never get to know John’s backstory or internal process, but it seems that from the relationship he has with other men, namely his drug dealer, he is the low man on the totem pole and his displeasure manifests in obsessive behaviour and manipulating, dominating, or killing women.

*************************Spoiler Alert*******************************************************

There is only so much unrealistic traditional values can affect its environment and only so far it can go with the fantasy that everyone will accept their roles. The same goes for John and Evelyn. The murderous couple’s vision of marital bliss and conservative appearance is skewed by their fervour for sex, blood and torture and they aren’t as perfect as they see themselves. Even though John calls Evelyn his “queen” and he seems to love her in a way, neighbours complaining about their toxic relationship reveals that imperfection. Eventually there has to be a breaking point and Evelyn will reach it because of her insecurities surrounding her desirability. With this crack in the façade, it’s only a matter of time before things start to crumble.

Maggie finds the neighbourhood where Vicki is being held and frantically shouts her name in the street. In this moment, Evelyn relates to Maggie’s loss as a mother and must make a decision. Egged on by Vicki’s goading, she chooses to kill John because he has denied her of her children as well. In this moment, she finally stands up to him, and becomes independent like Maggie and Vicki. Her fate is sealed but she is now free of a domineering male figure; freeing herself, and the other women around her from the torture. She is by no means a heroine, but at the same time becomes a liberator of sorts for Vicki and herself.   Her last act is cold comfort for redemption, but at least closes the circle of evil she has perpetuated.

There is so much to say about male and female relationships, women’s power and accountability in such a brutal way in this film. I have only scratched the surface, but in a nutshell, Hounds of Love is not only a terrifying psychological thriller, but an in depth look at how women who step out of prescribed roles overcome criticism, sexism and brutality with inner strength.

*Read my review of the film on Cinema Axis here.

See Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl Exclusively on Shudder

Published May 4, 2017 by rmpixie

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016, 1 hr, 16 mins)

With all the generic horrors out there, I’m always thrilled to see what terrors Shudder Canada has to offer. This time, they’ve brought us director and writer A.D. Calvo who takes us back in time to combine a lonely teenage girl, unrequited love, creepy gothic horror and a retro vibe for his latest film Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl.

Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is sent by her unfeeling mother to look after her agoraphobic aunt Dora (Susan Kellerman) in the hopes that they will inherit her fortune. In a large, rambling house, Adele must follow neatly written instructions left by her aunt who never emerges from her bedroom. Her duties include:  preparing very specific meals of sardines, crackers and tea, keeping quiet in the house, and she is banned from having any visitors to the house whatsoever. A tall order for a young woman almost out of her teenage years, but Adele seems to be a bit of a misfit and introvert with no friends. When she meets the beautiful and mysterious Beth (Quinn Shephard) in town, they strike up a friendship and become very close. As Adele loses herself in the glow of Beth’s friendship, her attention shifts from her aunt’s well-being to romantic feelings towards her newfound friend and she makes choices that will lead her down a dangerous path.

Not being familiar with the several horror/fantasy movies Calvo has under his belt, I was pleasantly surprised with Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl as my introduction to his work. This Sitges and Fantastic Fest 2016 selection brings a gothic, romantic feel that made me think of classic horror writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. I enjoyed the quiet suspense of this film and felt for Adele and her predicament, but also raised an eyebrow at her childish self-centeredness. Her adoration of Beth and attempts to mimic her cool sophistication and careless attitude shows her desperation to find a connection since she’s mistreated by her aunt and mother. It’s a gothic horror romance and coming of age story all in one.

He also throws in some good old-fashioned morals that no gothic horror would be complete without.  We see this when Adele finds an underlined passage in Aunt Dora’s bible, namely Matthew 6:19-20:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”

I’m no biblical expert, but it’s clear that greed and what motivates us to be self-serving is central and justifies Aunt Dora’s paranoia. In Adele’s case, it’s not only her poor upbringing, neglect and the prospect of having some money and nice things, but also falling in love and wanting to impress Beth. Both blind her from the realities of her surroundings.  It’s a nice touch without having to spell out the storyline.

I thought the same-sex love story was refreshing and even though it came from a male director, it didn’t feel exploitative and the young but seasoned actors made the most of the tentative affair.  Shephard certainly smouldered like a teenage beauty queen as Beth and Wilhelmi played Adele with an awkward, wide-eyed innocence that drew a certain amount of sympathy. Even when Adele’s actions become morally questionable, there is a sense that she isn’t really bad, just inexperienced.

The set design and wardrobe captured the early 80’s vibe for a believable period horror, and I really enjoyed the old school hits Adele listens to, the eerie scoring, and sound design. And if you’re looking for a weird retro horror finale, you’ll definitely find it here, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable. This climax stayed true to old school horrors and had a myriad of influences from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Black Sabbath (The Drop of Water segment) that Calvo has mentioned, to the more modern I Am the Pretty Thing in the House and House of the Devil. None of these films are perfect, but like Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, they tell a compelling and interesting story.

I recommend checking out Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, but you’ll need to stick with this slow burn story. It has a lot of meat on its bones for a low budget, and there is plenty to speculate well after the film is over. Watch this bit of nostalgic horror fun with a really creepy ending on Shudder now!

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