Halloween Streaming Season (Pt 2)

As promised, I’m going to offer my recommendations for horror movies that I think you should watch this Halloween season. Last week, I focused on Shudder. This week, I’m offering my Netflix recommendations. Once again, I’m going to stick to films that I think are deserving of more attention. After all, most of you have seen Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre dozens of times.

Apostle: This feature, directed by Gareth Evans, is not for the squeamish. Set in 1905, the story follows Thomas Richardson’s (Dan Stevens) journey to a remote island to save his sister from a religious cult. There is gore galore and serious folk-horror vibes in this, a-la the original Wicker Man.

 

Cam: This was one of Netflix’s best horror additions last year. In short, it follows a cam girl (Madeline Brewer) who suddenly realizes that she has a doppelganger willing to be as extreme as necessary to generate more viewers. From there, things get weird…. and weirder.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe: Before he directed Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, André Øvredal directed this feature, a 2016 flick about a corpse who may or may not have been a witch and is left in the hands of father and son Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch). This film is heavy on atmosphere, and the scares build and build the more that the duo learn about the young woman and her history. Watch this now if you haven’t yet.

 

Gerald’s Game: Mike Flanagan is one of the best American horror directors working in the business, and Gerald’s Game is a solid adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a wife, Jessie (Carla Cugino), who is left handcuffed to a bed after her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) has a heart attack. Left for days, Jessie starts to have bizarre and creepy hallucinations

The Blackcoat’s Daughter: Oz Perkins is another director to keep an eye on. This movie is a lot of things- part haunted house story, part possession story. In short, it’s about two girls, Joan (Emma Roberts) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka), who are left alone at their boarding school over winter break and have to battle an evil force. It’s a slow burn, one heavy on mood and bleak tones.

 

TV worth binging: Everyone knows about Mike Flanagan’s “The Haunting of Hill House” from last year, but I can’t recommend enough the 8-part French series “Marianne.” It deals far more with abject horror and it has some scenes just as horrifying as the bent-neck lady in episode 5 of “Hill House.” “Marianne” is one of the most underrated series released on Netflix this year.

Apostle, Folk Horror, and Masculinity

Netflix’s continues adding to its ever-growing horror collection. One of its latest entries is Apostle, directed by Gareth Evans.  Several reviews have already compared the film to 1973’s The Wicker Man, since  both films are rooted in the folk horror subgenre, deal with religious fanaticism, and essentially build their own unsettling worlds, in each case a small, remote island. Yet, where Apostle breaks from some other films in the subgenre is in its critique of masculinity.

Apostle is set in 1905, and generally, little backstory is given to the island where the protagonist, Thomas (Dan Stevens), winds up in a quest to rescue his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys). In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, we come to realize why Thomas has abandoned religion. He was tortured when he tried to introduce Christianity to Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. As Thomas is tormented before a burning cross, no God comes to his rescue. This is just one of the many scenes in which poor Thomas is put through the meat grinder.

The other men in the film, namely Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and later Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), use religion to keep the island’s inhabitants in line and to subjugate women. At one point, when Malcolm claims that Jennifer is a traitor, he parades her through the village in shackles and leaves her outside where children poke her with sticks and yank at her hair. The violence she suffers at the hands of men is only exacerbated as the film progresses.

These men also exercise strict and harsh control over women’s bodies. For example, Quinn cuts a baby out of his daughter’s womb and then uses a medieval torture device on her lover because he didn’t want them to be together and he certainly didn’t want his daughter to have the baby. Quinn is the film’s most pronounced example of ruthless, unchecked patriarchy, and his violence exceeds that of Malcolm’s.

The island, meanwhile, is inhabited by a goddess, and Malcolm claims to speak for her. He also feeds her animal and human blood, and yet, he can’t fathom why crops keep failing. The goddess, who seems to be nature personified, suffers because of the men who rule the island. They try to claim her for their own and tame her, but under their firm hand, any plant that starts to green soon withers and browns.

Apostle trailer:

 

Initially, Thomas is afraid of the goddess, and his first encounter with her is one of the most chilling images in the film. She is as decayed and creepy as the woman who inhabits room 237 in The Shining.  However, near the end of the film, he kneels to her and better understands her story, specifically that she isn’t so monstrous as he once assumed. Of all of the men in the film, Thomas has the most connection to the women. He comes to island because of  Jennifer, he forms a semi-romantic relationship with one of the islanders, Andrea (Lucy Boynton), and he eventually understands and sympathizes with the goddess. It should be noted, too, that both Jennifer and Andrea have their own agency, especially near the conclusion.

In the final shot, as Jennifer and Andrea escape the island via boat, Thomas and Malcolm, who evolves after witnessing Quinn’s brutality, sit together on a cliff as the women leave. New life finally grows, after Thomas and Malcolm’s blood has been spilled. There are a few ways to interpret this last scene. Maybe nothing grew on the island when the goddess was fed human blood because the island and its people were so tainted under Malcolm and then Quinn’s rule. Maybe new life grows because Thomas and eventually Malcolm transcend the negative aspects of masculinity with the help of women. Because of that, new life could flourish on the island, or maybe the cycle of life and death simply returns because the goddess is free, so to speak.

Apostle is a solid entry to the folk horror subgenre, especially for some of its critiques of masculinity. In that regard, it has some commonality to Dave Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch, which also has a menacing patriarchal figure, the father of a Puritan family who is so rooted in religious dogma and superstition that he suspects his eldest daughter is a witch as she comes of age sexually. Both films are awash in cool tones that establish the bleak atmosphere, especially as the crops fail and the violence heightens. The gore in Apostle is excessive at times, especially torture to animals, and the film could have been cut and edited slightly more, but overall, it is another noteworthy addition to this year’s already strong horror list.

Recommended: Check out this article over at Horror Homeroom about some other films that will help you better understand Apostle.

 

William Friedkin’s Second Dance with the Devil

Decades after The Exorcist’s release in 1973, its Oscar-winning director William Friedkin returned to the subject matter for a documentary entitled The Devil and Father Amorth, now streaming on Netflix. Set in Georgetown, where The Exorcist was filmed, and Italy, the documentary features a real-life exorcism performed by Vatican-sanctioned Father Amorth.

Raised Roman Catholic, I was generally unnerved after first watching The Exorcist. I was less terrified by Regan’s (Linda Blair) head-spinning and vomiting scenes and more spooked by the idea that some demonic presence would chose to possess an innocent 13-year-old girl for no apparent reason other than it wanted a showdown with a priest, a battle of good versus evil. The film was an adaptation of the novel by William Peter Blatty, who based the novel and screenplay on accounts of a Georgetown boy who was allegedly possessed in 1949. Blatty believed that something supernatural was at work, and Friedkin’s new documentary contains two old interviews with Blatty that restate his belief in the story.

While Friedkin never comes out in the documentary and fully says that he believes in the possibility of demonic possession, he does acknowledge that it’s possible there is another dimension to this world that we can’t comprehend. Yet, Friedkin never fully analyzes or acknowledges the cultural impact of his 1973 film. There are featurette-like scenes where he returns to the location of filming, including the famous staircase that’s such an important part of the film’s iconic ending, but he doesn’t acknowledge that maybe the belief in demonic possession exists because of films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which were released at the height of the “God Is Dead” moment and got people back to church.

Fredkin1

(William Friedkin and Father Amorth)

Early in the documentary, Friedkin says that there are over 60 million citizens in Italy and about 500,000 have seen an exorcist. Let that statistic sink in for a moment. Roughly half a million Italians have seen an exorcist.

The exorcism that Friedkin films, his first time ever doing so, was performed on 40-something Cristina. It was her ninth exorcism. As Father Amorth tries to banish the demons, Cristina writhes in her seat, held down by family members and friends. She speaks in a gravelly voice not that much different from Regan’s. When I watched this scene, I had two questions: did Friedkin do something with the audio and was Cristina acting like she thinks a possessed person should behave?

In an interview with NPR, Friedkin said of Cristina:

She was an architect, and a very attractive, intelligent, soft-spoken, wonderful woman. And when she came into the room, I wondered: What is she doing here? What’s this woman doing here? She seems to me to be totally together. And then during the exorcism, she completely unraveled. She spoke in a voice that was completely different from her own. She had what I would say was an unnatural amount of strength for a woman of her size and age. And her entire personality had altered.

I was scared, seriously scared. I was two feet away from them … And it was terrifying. Gradually my fear turned into empathy for her. She was in seemingly unnatural and total pain.

The exorcism runs for about 15 minutes, and at times, it is quite dull. For most of it, Cristina squirms in the chair and growls in a trance-like state, while friends and family around her pray. It would have been more interesting if we actually knew more about Cristina and cared about her fate. Yet, the documentary never dives into her story.

Fried2.jpg

(Cristina and Father Amorth)

The director then shows the footage to neurologists at UCLA and Columbia. They admit that they can’t pinpoint what’s causing her behavior and they don’t debunk the footage. However, one of the specialists at Columbia says that if Cristina and her loved ones generally believe in the supernatural and the possibility of demonic possession, and if that is part of their reality, then an exorcism may be the best medicine for her behavior. I wish that Friedkin asked Cristina if she ever watched The Exorcist because I kept wondering how much popular culture has impacted her belief in the supernatural.

Sadly, Father Amorth, who was in his 90s, passed away not long after Friedkin finished the documentary. He was one of the warmest and funniest aspects of the film. He even had a ritual of literally thumbing his nose at the devil before performing an exorcism. Friedkin tried to reach out to Cristina again but had no luck. Her symptoms, however, did not end after the exorcism. Could there have been other reasons for her distress, financial or personal even? We’ll never know.

Even though The Devil and Father Amorth features footage of a real exorcism, it feels rather hollow. Friedkin is an accomplished filmmaker, and yet his characters in the documentary feel flat. Why didn’t he explore Father Amorth’s theories about evil and exorcisms, for instance? Why no serious interviews with Cristina? The film does raise some thought-provoking questions about belief in the supernatural, but The Exoricist makes a better case for real, raw evil because it contains characters that are fleshed out and well-developed. When a single mother watches her child succumb to the demon, we care what happens to them because we’ve gotten to know them. I can’t stay I know anything about Cristina after watching Friedkin’s documentary. Fans of The Exorcist should still check out the film because it may be the last time that Friedkin returns to the subject matter.

A Little Netflix Horror

As Netflix moves closer and closer to essentially becoming a streaming service that offers its own content, it can be hard to find good films that don’t hold the Netflix title, and films that are not Netflix content sometimes don’t stay on there for very long.

That said, there are two films recently added to Netflix that are worth any horror movie fan’s time. The first is a Korean movie entitled The Wailing. Directed by Hong-jin Na, this 2016 film clocks in at nearly three hours, but very few scenes feel like they drag. The film follows a police officer who investigates bizarre murders caused by a mysterious disease. People start to wonder if a Japanese stranger is the source of the village’s ills. Eventually, the officer’s daughter succumbs to the disease, and well, I don’t want to give away much more of the plot or spoil anything. The film is atmospheric, heavy on Biblical imagery, and generally unnerving. In fact, it’s the first horror film in quite a while that got under my skin and stayed with me for days after my initial viewing. The film’s use of A-horror tropes, especially the idea of ghosts and the past manifest in the present, is well done. It also has one of the best exorcism scenes I’ve ever seen on film, if you can even call it an exorcism scene.

My second recommendation  is the 2017 French-Canadian film Ravenous. Directed by Paco Plaza, this film generally plays with the zombie genre. At this point, I can understand why people would be tired of the endless barrage of zombie flicks, but this one works. Like 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead (2004), these zombies are more threatening. They run. They charge. They seem to be everywhere. The film follows a group of survivors in a remote, wooded town. The use of sound is the film’s most effective technique. This is a low-budget film, but one that employs sound in such a way that it makes it stand apart and above a lot of other recent zombie flicks. You can hear people crying off-screen, either survivors devoured by zombies or people turning into zombies. You can hear the thump, thump of an axe or a pipe wielded by a survivor as they kill one of their best friends who just turned. Unlike other zombie flicks, the movie isn’t as heavy on guts and gore and instead uses sound to establish it scares. When it does use gore, it feels breathtakingly real and gritty, streaked on the face of the survivor’s after they kill one of their friends, for instance. Furthermore, the shots of zombies standing on their porch stoops or standing in fields are just as unsettling. The film is well-worth the time.