art house horror

All posts tagged art house horror

The Nightmares of Horsehead

Published May 21, 2015 by vfdpixie


Horsehead (2014, 1 hr, 29 mins)

I’ve always been interested in dreams and their meanings.  Oftentimes I have tried to remember my nocturnal subconscious wanderings, and most of the time I can’t, but when I do, it is usually in reoccurring settings and always unsettling.  Horsehead takes you one step further as lucid dreaming becomes a doorway to night terrors and family secrets.

Jessica (Lily-Fleur Pointeaux) is a young woman who suffers from terrible nightmares.  In order to conquer them, she ends up studying the psycho-physiology of dreams.  She is summoned back home because of her grandmother Rose’s death, and is more than uncomfortable when she realizes her grandmother’s body is kept in the bedroom next to hers for the wake.  After a disturbing dream where Rose (Gala Besson) gives her a cryptic message, Jessica is prompted to use lucid dreaming techniques (where one is aware of what occurs in their dreams) to get to the bottom of what becomes a spiraling, surreal discovery of herself and her family secrets.

From the infamous Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street, to Inception and The Cell, dreams have been great fodder for horror and the fantastical, portrayed as both campy and high art, but with Horsehead, it is almost a perfect balance of the absurd and artistic.  I was first drawn in when I saw a film clip and heard the scoring by Benjamin Shielden.  Jarring dub-step/breakbeat buzzing along with the voiceover of Jessica’s professor/boyfriend as he describes detailed instructions to lucid dreaming was something I hadn’t seen before.  It was different for sure, and the skillful editing by Frédéric Pons made Jessica’s dreams all the more compelling.

Director Romain Basset did an amazing job leading the audience down the rabbit hole as Jessica’s dreams became more disturbing and revealing.  His use of symbolism resonated with psychological significance as Jungian references involving animals and religion all came into play without being too overbearing, the most obvious being the ominously creepy Horsehead creature itself-the harbinger of death or perhaps a literal representation of a nightmare.  Charles Perrault’s Red Riding Hood was also a prominent theme with Jessica, her grandmother and a wolf guide; a sinister interpretation of the popular fairy tale.

The sets were quite beautiful and simple, pulling from Henry Fuseli’s famous gothic “The Nightmare” painting.  This eerie piece of art combined with the dark red and pale blue colour palette and stylish cinematography elevated the film’s old-school giallo feel.  And speaking of giallo, Jessica’s mother Catelyn was played by Catriona MacColl, who was also in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and City of the Living Dead, while her step-father Jim was played by Murray Head, the musician behind the 80’s hit “One Night in Bangkok”.  All the performances were great, especially Pointeaux, who held her own with the veteran cast.  My only issue with the film was Jessica’s grandfather Winston (Fu’ad Aït Aattou), and his role as, from what I can gather, a cult leader of some sort.  There was a whole back story that I wanted to see more of, and perhaps the explanation of the age discrepancy between Jessica and her mother.  I wasn’t sure if all this was meant to be ambiguous because of the dream logic, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it.

Romaine Basset’s first feature-length film was an artistic triumph.  If you enjoy surreal, well-made independent horror, check out Horsehead.

Fangoria’s exclusive clip that drew me in!

And the official trailer:

Bloodlust and The Girl

Published February 9, 2015 by vfdpixie

a girl walk

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, 1 hr, 39 mins)


Imagine if John Hughes, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch passed a vampire script around in a game of Broken Telephone, put it in a blender and channelled it through writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour.  I think the outcome would be A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, her the debut feature film that premiered at Sundance last year, was an award winner at several film festivals and is currently nominated for 3 Independent Spirit Awards.

Arash (Arash Marandi) is a young man burdened with the task of caring for Hossein (Marshall Manesh), his grieving junkie father.  He makes his money by gardening for a wealthy family and tries to pay off his father’s creepy drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains) on time.  Living in the same, bleak town is a mysterious, nameless girl (Sheila Vand), a girl who you might see sitting at the back of the bus or in the last seat in class, if she showed up at all, quiet and menacing.  She is a chador-wearing vampire and silently wafts through the night, looking for her next meal, and smiting wrong-doers in the process.  Arash and The Girl meet after he leaves a costume party, high and lost in the deserted streets of Bad City.  Dressed as Dracula, he is made fearless by the drugs; oblivious to her creepy nature and predatory intimidations.  This fateful meeting starts a complicated romance that is punctuated with an incredible soundtrack, and a cat that connects these strange and melancholy characters.

Spoken entirely in Farsi, this movie is described as the first Iranian vampire western, and although this may have been Amirpour’s intention, my frame of reference made it more of a John Hughes love story because of the quirky and deliberate musical storyboarding, set in Eraserhead‘s bleak landscapes almost 40 years later.  Although all those legendary references can be seen, her film is unique and one that will have a different definition for each viewer.  It is a horror film, dark comedy and art film all in one; visually stunning with its beautifully stark black and white cinematography and equally stark, subtitled dialogue.

As an animal lover, I noticed she cleverly built tension with the cat, making you wonder what his role was and whether he was literally and figuratively safe.  Honorable mention goes out to Rains who played Saeed the drug dealer.  He gave the character life with his obnoxious antics.  Vand’s intense portrayal of The Girl’s conflict with her loneliness and her vampire nature contrasted with Marandi’s faux tough guy act, creating an endearing chemistry and highlighting their isolation.  Both gave subtle yet powerful performances that will stay with you well after the film’s final scene.

Amirpour’s attention to detail is meticulous, from the lighting, to the chador-clad pedestrian crossing signs which authenticated the Iranian ghost town; and underlying themes and symbolism like the feline, female identity and sexuality, and the parallel realities of Arash and The Girl will surely provide lots of film school essay fodder.

Go see this film if you want something unique and visually captivating, and especially if you are a cat lover because Masuka the Cat steals the show!

Black History Month Horror Wishlist for Hollywood

Published February 10, 2014 by vfdpixie

For Black History Month, I wanted to write something about the current state of horror films in the Black community.  I quickly found out that current meant 2007 in North America.  I am still wondering why there is not more minority representation in horror of late, and I don’t mean supporting characters or background.  I’m talking main characters and a multi-racial cast.  On T.V., thankfully, there are a lot of new shows that represent people of all backgrounds like the runaway hit Sleepy Hollow starring Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison, and the futurist vision of Almost Human starring Michael Ealy and Karl Urban, as well as the scads of teen fantasy and horror series happening now.  I’m not talking about that, because the small screen has Hollywood movie makers beat for sure.  I’m talking the big screen.  As a result of this, I am going to create a wish list for Hollywood big screen horror.

My number one issue that I would love to have addressed is casting.  First and foremost, it is the main thing that irks me every time I dig into my proverbial pockets to buy a ticket or download a film.  Why on God’s green earth are there not more people of colour in leading roles in horror and sci-fi big budget films?  With a few exceptions like the latest Star Trek installment or Pacific Rim, it is a rarity.  I’m not even talking just African-Americans/Canadians either.  Give me an Asian, or a South Asian lead, a First Nations person; a person of Latin descent…someone, please! Even the great Danny Trejo’s feature-length horrors are sent directly to DVD.

We (people of colour) buy DVDs, go to movies, and oh yeah, are an integral part of society in general.  So why are we seen as peripheral in film?  I’ve heard the blanket statement that a minority lead actor may not sell as many tickets, and the film industry is a money game, but this is 2014 for crying out loud!  Does Hollywood forget that there are some minorities that have a lot of money and may invest in a film that is diverse?  Horror is fast becoming an accepted genre and a money-maker (like The Conjuring that grossed over $137, 000,000), and there are a lot of fans that are visible minorities.  Just look at people at the various comic/horror conventions.  And I’m surprised with the indie film makers out there.  With the exception of a few, like James Cullen Bressack who cast an African-American lead in his film 13/13/13, I’m a little disappointed that minorities haven’t been cast as more than criminals or background, if at all.  I mean, if you are truly indie and cutting edge, prove it and go against the grain.  So get with the program Hollywood movers and shakers, and represent the world as it truly is.

My second wish is that if there are visible minorities finally cast, please, for the love of Pete, stop calling it an “urban” film.  The word can be used to describe anything relating to a city, but it is most used to describe anything Black oriented, and to me, takes the ownership away by generalizing.  Why not just say Black, or African-American/Canadian?  They are not bad words.  In fact ,why do we have to call it anything other than a film?  I understand the distinction for something to be owned by a certain group so that it doesn’t lose its validity, but at the same time, I would love for a film to just be a film, good or bad, with a diverse cast, good or bad.  If there is something directly related to an area, like the “‘hood”, then of course, make it known, such as the iconic 1995 film Tales from the Hood, which has more of a cult status, but otherwise, I don’t think it’s necessary, and it shouldn’t define us as a people.

And speaking of the “‘hood”, is that the only mythology we have for Black communities these days?  Yes, it is a huge part of the Black experience, as a large part of the demographic had very little choice but to live there due to historical socio-economic wrongs, but film (in general) has negatively depicted these neighbourhoods for a long, long time.  Some of them are certainly crime-filled, but people live there and make the best of it, and many communities have tried to reclaimed and better these neighbourhoods to create rich cultural signifiers.  For those of us who haven’t had that experience though, we are expected to adopt the trappings of the ‘hood or ghetto; lumped into a one-dimensional group and misrepresenting a valid existence.

J.D.’s Revenge, a 1976 horror film, gives us another reality for Blacks while staying true to the Blaxploitation tradition.  The story of a law student possessed by an angry spirit seeking revenge is filled with problems like misogyny, abuse and a questionable motivation by the female lead character Christella, but the film had great performances and showed Blacks existing beyond the ghettos.  The 1973 film Ganja and Hess also stands out because writer and director Bill Gunn wanted to do a film that challenged the Blaxploitation genre and he succeeded.  It was a trippy, art house vampire film that show Blacks in a different light:  educated, well-off and capable of complex emotions.  Another film that worked for me was the 2004 AVP:  Alien vs. Predator starring Sanaa Lathan.  She played the role of a seasoned expedition guide that could have gone to many other actresses.  Yes, lots of people thought it wasn’t the greatest film, but I loved that fact that she was cast as what may be perceived as an atypical character for a Black woman, and you know what?  I liked that movie.  So see dear Hollywood, it can be done with dimension and finesse.

My next wish is for the Black production companies to take a risk and back horror films.  There are plenty of stories, folklore legends and modern-day occurrences pertaining to the Black experience that can be creatively represented on film without diminishing the story to mockery, or what the general public would perceive as the Black experience.  Take for example, Storage 24, a 2012 British horror film written and produced by Noel Clarke, most known for his Dr. Who role as Mickey Smith.  Clarke played Charlie, a regular guy who deals with heartache and an alien in a storage facility.  While it was widely panned, Clarke created a film that stepped out of the stereotype of what a Black man should be, not the typical hard-core tough guy that can be found in the heavily stereotyped but well received Attack the Block, another British alien invasion film that cast Black main characters. I applaud Clarke for taking a risk and going beyond stereotype.

Things need to be updated because the old version is no longer valid.  I’m not sure if the religious, old school values or the preconceived notion that Black people don’t like horror motivates production companies away from the genre, but things need to change.  Why?  Because change is good.  It might be an uphill battle as some communities may not relate immediately, but I think it’s worth a try to eliminate some stereotypes of what a Black person wants.  And if it comes from a Black run production company, it just may help eradicate some of these roadblocks.

I could just be dreaming my pixie Utopian dream, but I think this wish list has legs.  I love horror.  I would love it even more if there was proper representation of all people on this planet.  We need to  see ourselves up on the big screen so there is more fodder for dreams and aspirations; so that kids can see that there is more out there for them because they are validated in a way that will glean respect just like their White counterparts.  And if Hollywood won’t do it, well, at least for now we have the small screen which is putting Tinsel Town to shame.

Kiss of the Damned Kicks It Art House Old School

Published September 2, 2013 by vfdpixie

kiss of the damned

Kiss of the Damned (2012, 1 hr 37 mins.)

What a trip!  Just watched Kiss of the Damned, and I couldn’t help feeling this film was a nod to vampire art films of the ’70’s and 80’s.  Part Ganja and Hess and part The Hunger, it’s weird, Giallo and Hammer-esque feel kept me watching, first out of curiosity and then with admiration.

Djuna, a beautiful French translator, meets Paolo, a screenwriter who has moved to the countryside to finish a screenplay.  Things move quickly, as Paolo becomes obsessed with Djuna, and their passion becomes consuming.  Consuming due to the fact that Djuna is actually a vampire that lives a secluded yet civilized life, feigning a skin condition that keeps her out of the sun, and feeding solely on animals.  She has not had a lover for decades, and  is wary to start anything fresh, but when Paolo insists on seeing her she succumbs and reveals her secret.  Seeing no other way to be together, Paolo offers himself to her and she turns him.  Their vampiric romantic paradise is interrupted when Mimi, Djuna’s sister, arrives to stay for a week.  Mimi, a vampire herself, proves to be all kinds of trouble from eating her dates, steamy scandals, and luring tasty virgins.  She is also a threat to the posh, civilized community of vamps led by vampire actress Xenia who are philosophical by nature, and want to change they way they feed, and for their rights to be acknowledged.

I must say, the first half of the film was a mix of weird, choppy shots, moody lighting, dream-like sequences and eerie atmospheric music.  I didn’t want to judge it right off the bat, and I’m glad I didn’t.  The second half redeemed itself as it became a film noir, with gorgeous sets and wardrobe, giving the film a beautiful stylized look.  The moody lighting paid off, as it set the tone for all the trouble Djuna and Paolo encounter, and the deadly misadventures of Mimi.

Directed and written by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of revered actor/director John Cassavetes (Rosemary’s Baby, The Fury), did a decent job creating mood with this film.  It was erotic without being gratuitous, and had a European feel with the mostly French cast.  Roxane Mesquida was amazing as the out of control Mimi; her eyes smouldered with contempt in every scene.  The chemistry between her and Josephine de La Baume as Djuna was great too, like two cats who just couldn’t get along.  I like Milo Ventimiglia as he is easy on the eyes, but his portrayal of Paolo was a tad boring (you must check him out in the 2011 film The Divide.  Insane performance!).  My favourite character was Xenia, the queen bee vamp.  Anna Mouglalis played her with finesse and grace, and showed the conflict Xenia had with what she was and what she wanted to be.

I recommend giving this film a chance.  Puzzling, dark and beautiful, The Kiss of the Damned is for those of you who dig homages to European styled art house horror from the ’70’s and ’80’s.

Favourite Scene and Line:  The vampire cocktail party.  Beautiful apartment and wardrobe with ultra posh guests.  It looked like a launch party at a fashion editor’s Manhattan digs.  My favourite line comes from this scene as well.  After Paolo inquires what a glass of blood-like liquid is, a guest replies, “Whatever it is, it’s the Beluga of politically correct plasma.” Yum, yum, more please!

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