psychological horrors

All posts tagged psychological horrors

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.

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.

Psychics, Sadness and Mystery in Assayas’ Personal Shopper

Published April 6, 2017 by rmpixie

Personal Shopper (2016, 1 hr, 45 mins.)

 

It’s no surprise that death is devastating for those in mourning. Missing loved ones who have passed on comes in many forms but most of us would confidently say that faith (or lack thereof) aside, we don’t really know what happens to our soul after the physical body ends. In Personal Shopper, we see one woman’s struggle with the death of her twin brother and her belief in the afterlife. It brings to light deeper questions about life and death staged before the backdrop of Paris, the fashion world, and its trappings.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works for a self-centered celebrity and socialite Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) as a personal shopper. Her job is to find the latest and greatest in high fashion and bring it back to her famous employer since her high profile makes it impossible to shop anonymously. Maureen has also recently lost her twin brother Lewis to a heart defect she also suffers from. His surviving partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) wants to sell their house, but Maureen who is a medium, insists that Lewis will send her a sign from beyond, so she spends a few nights in his crumbling house waiting for him to appear. He was a medium like her, so her determination is fueled by his once stronger psychic abilities and their vow to make contact from the other side. When she does contact the spirit world, she also receives mysterious text messages topped off with an unexpected murder that stops her in her tracks. Maureen’s quest for answers becomes more confusing, leaving her in a state of shock and floundering for answers.

Kristin Stewart as Maureen waiting for a sign.

Personal Shopper is a horror, a film noir, a psychological thriller, and a ghost story. It is all of the above and none of the above at the same time, embracing and defying genre. Director Olivier Assayas created a film that’s in a class of its own using art, history and old school paranormal beliefs with 21st century technology and lifestyles to illustrate Maureen’s search for her brother’s spirit. It’s this artistic take that kept me riveted despite the slow burn pace.

Assayas captures Maureen’s loss well, and he also conveys the loneliness of this technological age we live in with Skype and smartphones being key methods with which she communicates. Even when she is with someone physically or electronically, she is separate, guarded, or unsure; from her shopping excursions to her Skype dates with her boyfriend. The smart phone as a thing of necessity in this day and age to stay tethered to this world also becomes an agent of isolation and intense paranoia when Maureen pleads with a nameless messenger behind the texts to reveal themselves.  Assayas takes a now commonplace device and gives it a more otherworldly, sinister presence.

Personal Shopper is also a lesson in how Maureen grieves. She throws herself into her work even though she flat out hates her fashionable job, but Paris is her main connection to her dead brother so she stays there as she waits for a ghostly sign, not ready to let go.  The world of fashion is a fleeting one; rarely delving deeply into the reality around it. Her psychic abilities seem to be stunted as she moves between posh shops in London and Paris to serve Kyra in this superficial arena. It shows how she herself seems like a spirit as she is lost between real life, the supernatural, the fashion world, and her uncertainty with what she believes and how she is perceived. Her only moment of self-awareness comes when the mysterious messenger asks her to do something forbidden, and she taps all too briefly into her desires in her confused and somewhat desperate state. It’s a strange moment in the film, but it makes sense as her character searches for a right fit, so to speak, in environments that while not hostile, aren’t hospitable to her either.

The look of the film is really beautiful. Yorick Le Saux, the cinematographer for Only Lovers Left Alive, does a wonderful job capturing the contrast of the dingy streets and stark sophistication of Paris. He is skilled at making the most of each setting, representing streetscapes and boutiques in their truest and most tangible forms. For anyone that has visited the City of Lights, you’ll feel nostalgic for its frenzied energy.

My only issue lies with the text messages and some of the ensuing actions asked of Maureen. While I really enjoyed these suspenseful interludes and there is definitely a point to them, they were problematic with some details that still remain unclear when the storyline makes a sharp turn. Stewart’s stellar performance as a tortured, uncertain and lost character written for her by Assayas, evokes a surprising amount of emotion that overshadows any inconsistencies in the narrative however, as you watch this poor soul wait for her brother to tell her something, anything as proof of an afterlife.

Personal Shopper is an artistic take on a ghost story and focuses on one woman’s uncertainty when mortality comes into question. See this film for it’s beautiful photography, a haunting performance from Stewart and an interesting albeit imperfect story about grief and the afterlife.

 

Black Mountain Side DVD Release and Interview with Michael Dickson

Published January 25, 2016 by rmpixie

BMSnew

Black Mountain Side (2014)

One of my favourite film events in Toronto is the Blood in the Snow Film Festival, where you’ll get to see some of the most unique, intriguing and exclusively Canadian horror films around.  One such film, Black Mountain Side, has resonated with me since I first laid eyes on it at the 2014 BITS Fest.  The tale centers around a team of field researchers who find a mysterious artifact on a remote mountain.  They are soon affected by an unknown force and slowly succumb to an insidious madness.  Directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj, this psychological horror is an homage to The Thing and The Shining.  Although it definitely conjures up memories of the horror classics, the film approaches mistrust and madness as an unexpected creature feature with fantastic production value and camera work.

I’ve been wanting to add this film to my collection as soon as I saw it, and my horror prayers have been answered.  This festival favourite is coming out on DVD January 26, a most fitting release date for a horror shot in the dead of winter amidst all this snowbound craziness, don’t you think?  I got the happy news from my Twitter friend, Michael Dickson, who played Piers Olsen, the professor sent to verify the artifact and ends up in a snowy Hell on Earth in the film.

Originally from Manitoba and now based in Vancouver, Michael has been going strong on the Canadian acting scene from a young age with a long list of theatre, TV and films on his resume, like TV series Northwood and Neon Rider.  Along with acting, he is a singer/songwriter with 2 albums under his belt, and has also begun producing for both film and music.  I got a chance to ask the busy actor a few questions about his experience on the set of this Canadian indie gem.

MichaelDickson

Michael Dickson

I’m excited that more people will experience this film now that it’s available on DVD.  Despite the obvious influences, what do you think makes the story unique?

When people see the film there are always, understandably, comparisons made to the original The Thing and The Shining but I think that there are plenty of differences that set the film apart and make it more of an homage than anything.

I think the introduction of “the creature” combined with the archaeological and mythological aspects, make it quite unique. A lot of work went into keeping the story fact based and I know they were consulting with an archaeologist on a regular basis through the writing process for just that reason.

Another thing that I think sets it apart is the style. There is no soundtrack, the takes are all quite long and the cinematography is widely framed and beautiful-shout out to Cameron Tremblay, the D.O.P. [director of photography] on that one. Nick [Szostakiwskyj] and Cameron had a very specific vision for how they wanted the film to look and feel, and I think they pulled it off wonderfully.

I also like that the special effects are all practical, not CGI. When I first read the script I assumed that there would be a lot of CGI involved [because] it has just become so common these days. When I learned that there would be none I was nervous initially, but dealing with the practical effects added certain challenges that I quite enjoyed.

 

I felt your character, Professor Piers Olsen, was the sole anchor as everyone around him descended into madness.  How did you prepare for the role?

Initially, it was some research into archaeology and Mesoamerican history and mythology. Before we began filming, I met with Nick a couple of times to discuss the character and kind of, flesh him out.

Except for 5 days of filming in studio. the entire film was shot on location and everyone lived and worked on site. That allowed ample opportunity to prepare for scenes and rehearse them with the other actors. Before shooting certain scenes Nick would often pull the actor aside, talk through the scene with them and help them get in the right head-space. As an actor, it’s great having that opportunity and a director who spends that kind of time with you. I’m still amazed when I think that Nick was only 21 when he directed Black Mountain Side.

Dickson as Olsen in Black Mountain Side

Dickson as Olsen in Black Mountain Side

We learned at the BITS fest that this film came from a nightmare director Nick Szostakiwskyj had.  How was it for the cast to bring this to life for him?  Were there any scary moments that were too close to home for him, or yourself?

I got the feeling that by the time it went to film, Nick had spent so much time with the writing, rewriting and pre-production that he had a good perspective on it all so I’m not sure he had any of those moments.

The actors put a lot of faith in Nick and his vision for the film and he, in turn, put a lot of trust in the actors. Bringing the story to life was really rewarding and A LOT of fun.

For me, the scary moments were in the actual filming of some of the scenes. As I mentioned, the special effects were not CGI and there was not much room for error in some areas [like] the ARM [sic] scene in the doctor’s office, for example. In these situations it was more just being afraid you would screw up. In the end it just added to the adventure. [The arm scene in question involved only one shot for the use of a prosthetic arm and an axe.  Luckily, they got it!]

 

Since you were so isolated, and things get really intense in the film, I imagine you formed a brotherhood with your co-stars.  How did that affect your performances and were there any cabin fever hi-jinks that occurred?

There are some very intense scenes and there were times when the actors had to go to a rather “dark” place. For those scenes we would prepare and then just… give each other space. Afterward, yeah, we would definitely need to decompress. We spent many hours in the evenings drinking beer, playing cards and having a lot of laughs.

It was nice that everyone got along really well; cast and crew both. Many of us still keep in touch now. That whole atmosphere sort of carried over onto the festival circuit.

Of course, two weeks in a cabin with the same people, there was a certain amount of cabin fever but we just…channeled that into our scenes ;).

The cast one snowflake away from a real bad scene.

The cast, one snowflake away from a real bad scene.

Were the conditions as bad as they looked?

Well…truth be known, it was not as cold as we made it out to be. The temperatures were actually unseasonably warm. We were fortunate that the temperature would drop at night and we would usually have a fresh snowfall by morning.

Of course, dealing with the snow and being in such a remote location did have some challenges. The location was near a town called Lumby [in British Columbia, Canada]. It was up a very remote valley and you would have to drive half an hour out just to get cell reception. Navigating the terrain was an ongoing challenge for everyone but definitely made more work for the crew. They would have to get the equipment up and down the hills through some pretty deep snow. Everyone pitched in where they could but the crew were great.

 

What struck me the most about the film was the quiet of the landscape and lack of a soundtrack.  It made things so much more frightening because it felt like you were there in the action instead of an observer.  What was your first impression when you watched the film?

Well, I know when I heard that there was not going to be any music my reaction was…”Huh?” I know how much the soundtrack can set the mood of a scene and work to build tension, so I thought the choice to not have ANY was…well…bold, to say the least.

Having now seen the film, I can say that it works really, really well.  Adam Pisani, who did sound, managed to capture the sounds of the elements [like] the wind in the trees, footsteps through the snow etc. really well and I think that does engage the viewer more. That, combined with the beautiful, wide framed shots and the long takes, works to draw the viewer in and hold them within the scene.

 

What have you been up to since Black Mountain Side?

This summer I worked on a film called “The Surveyor” directed by Kristian Messere. It’s a gritty film about a guy trying to do the right thing and seeing it all go wrong. I play Walter, a bar owner who becomes something of a mentor on the main character’s path to revenge. That film is just going into post production and I will let you know more when I have more info.

Another film I am involved with is called Surftopia (working title). It might be more in line with your readers’ tastes. It is the story of an isolated surfing commune and has elements of immortality, cannibalism and psychological horror. A cool concept and should be a lot of fun to shoot. It’s currently in pre-production and I expect it will start filming early spring.

 

Do you have a favourite horror movie?

In recent years I’d kind of gotten away from horror movies. Truth be known I’m just kind of a pussy and the really spooky ones keep me up at night and the slasher ones make me queasy. That being said, the whole experience with Black Mountain Side has really brought me around. Doing the film festival circuit and meeting both the film makers and the fans has given me a whole new appreciation for the genre. I actually want to do more horrors/thrillers because of it. I’ve started watching them more, too…averting me eyes as necessary.

As for a favourite, I’d probably go back to the classics like Psycho or the Godzillas [sic films]. I know The Omen scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. Oh and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark [the original 1973 made for TV movie].  My sister and I watched it as kids and we talk about it now and it still gives us the creeps.

 

A big thank you to Michael for taking the time to answer some questions.  I’m looking forward to checking out his upcoming projects, and you can find Black Mountain Side on Amazon here, or buy the movie on ITunes here!

You can follow Michael on twitter @1MichaelDickson and check out his IMDb page.

Follow Black Mountain Side on Twitter @BMSFilm ;

and on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/BlackMountainSideTheMovie

Black Mountain Side on IMDb

 

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