W: Willow Creek (2013)

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So the question is, how in the hell did I manage to find myself watching two found footage Bigfoot movies in one year? Well, Hubrisween, that’s how.

We’ve got Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) on a road trip. Bryce has got a nice new video camera and a serious wireless microphone, aiming to make a movie documenting his trip to the town of Willow Creek, California, then down to Bluff Creek, which is where Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin shot their famous Bigfoot footage back in 1967. This is Jim’s obsession, and his birthday is coming up, so Kelly is humoring him by coming along.

The first half of the movie is getting there, which is going to be a problem for some people. Jim is not a good filmmaker, but we do see him improve somewhat with practice. He interviews some real people, Like Steven Streufort, who runs Bigfoot Books in Willow Creek. Tom Yamarone, “the Bob Dylan of Bigfoots”. Shawn L. White Guy Sr., who saw a Bigfoot when she was a child. And Nita Rowley, who runs the Visitor’s Center, and gives the best, most frustrating (to Jim) interview, because she doesn’t believe in Bigfoot, but keeps warning the two about bears and mountain lions. Character actor Peter Jason plays a former Ranger whose dog got torn apart by something in the woods, just in case you were forgetting this was an actual movie (to Gilmore and Johnson’s credit, that actually is possible).

They also meet up with a couple of vaguely threatening guys who warn them away from the forest. Not that this will do any good, mind. Does it ever?

The Bigfoot Burger – why wouldn’t you want one?

Once they actually hit the Bluff Creek area and start hiking into the wilderness (at almost exactly the movie’s halfway mark), you’re going to start to get what most people came here for, and also cement the fact that Jim is an idiot. They brought camping gear, and Kelly claims to have spent some time in the woods, but neither of them brought, say, a compass? After some trekking, Jim wants to push on to the Patterson site, but Kelly demands they set up camp, as light is fading. And so begins what you really came here for.

There are sounds in the night. Jim turns on the camera, apparently the only light they have (idiots). What follows is an 18 minute long single take, as the noises get closer and something starts shuffling around the tent. There is also what sounds like a woman crying, which doesn’t help matters. This scene goes from skepticism to curiosity to fear to absolute terror; it actually gets pretty intense, and what’s remarkable is that it is all conveyed by acting and sound. I generally watch movies with headphones on, which aided the effect immeasurably.

With the morning light, Jim and Kelly make the sensible decision to get the hell out of Dodge, but that lack of a compass I was yelling at them about ensures that they immediately get lost (as if they weren’t already), and there’s not even a Blair Witch screwing with them. For a few moments I thought they were actually going to show some brains and follow the creek to civilization, but something in the bushes scares them back into the woods, night falls again, and, just like the afore-referenced Blair Witch Project, a number of plot threads come together at the end with tragic results. I’m going to give Willow Creek the clear edge on escalating, frightening endings, though.

Willow Creek is not going to be for all markets (as a glance at user reviews at the IMDb will tell you); I’m not even sure fans of slow-burn horror will take to it. I was pretty iffy on it myself until that 18 minute single take, which, among other things, had me wondering what Tarkovsky would have done with modern equipment, unburdened by limitations like the size of a film magazine. If you want more excitement sprinkled through your found footage Bigfoot experience, then Exists is definitely the way to go. But Willow Creek, while lo-fi in concept and execution, does have a couple of scenes that pack a memorable wallop.

 

V: Vanishing on 7th St. (2010)

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Here’s a story that may seem familiar to you: see a title that looks interesting, tag it on Netflix… and then proceed to ignore it for a few years.

Until you need a movie that starts with a “V”, anyway. (I may have lost some of you there)

We’re first going to meet Paul (John Leguizamo)a projectionist at an AMC theater in Detroit, puttering around his domain, headlight ablaze, making sure the latest Adam Sandler movie runs smoothly (all we hear is some really improbable music and the audience’s laughter). There is a sudden blackout, and when the lights come back on, everybody is gone. Literally. All that remains in the theater and lobby is spilled popcorn and empty clothing, still in shapes that suggest the people once wearing them. There are screams in the distance.

Then the lights go back off again.

We are introduced to Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a physical therapist at a hospital, and Luke (Hayden Christensen), a TV reporter who managed to sleep through the whole thing. Like Paul and his headlight, Rosemary was holding a lit match, and Luke’s girlfriend had some candles burning on a bedside table. In the 72 hours that follow, they wander around Detroit, scavenging flashlight batteries and glowsticks, finally winding up at a bar on 7th Street that has a backup generator, its lights keeping the hungry darkness at bay. There they meet a fourth survivor: James (Jacob Latimore), the 12 year-old son of the bartender. They will try to figure out what happened, and how they can get out of Detroit – or if they should even try.

The first 15-20 minutes of Vanishing are absolutely perfect and nightmarish, leaving me wondering why this movie wasn’t better known. Then we settle down in the bar and it becomes a different movie; a kind of a spam-in-a-cabin flick with all the bickering and psychological drama you’ve come to expect. That was a bit disappointing, but it has to be admitted that director Brad Anderson and a quartet of talented actors sell it and keep it moving, breaking up the submarine movie with flashbacks from Rosemary and Luke  – Luke in particular receiving a satellite broadcast, during a momentary resumption of power in his TV station, from Chicago – implying that whatever it is, it’s worldwide, and laying out the rules: Stay in the light, don’t listen to the voices, and only trust the light that is in your hands.

I may have checked the time remaining, but I never once was tempted to press the fast-forward button.

There are going to be those among who will look askance at my describing Hayden Christensen as a “talented actor”, but really, separated from George Lucas’ ham-fisted direction (the man is a brilliant technician but considers actors mere props – and let’s not talk about his dialogue) Christensen is fine. We already knew about Newton and Leguizamo’s talent, and Jacob Latimore has had a good career since. Honestly, the fact that there are two kids giving great performances in this movie is amazing (the other is Taylor Groothuis).

You may have noticed that a couple of paragraphs above, I dropped the name of the director, Brad Anderson; you should recognize that name, as he is the director of, among others, Session 9 and The Machinist, both off-kilter, unusual horror movies. Vanishing on 7th Street was his first, and as far as I know, only apocalypse film, and I’d love to see what he could do with a larger budget on the same subject. He seems to be concentrating on TV more in the last eight or so years, with only the occasional movie, seemingly leaving overt horror behind. Let’s hope not, though.

T: Tears of Kali (2004)

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Oh, hello again, Germany.

I stumbled across this movie while searching off the beaten path for Hubrisween. I fancy myself fairly well-read in the realm of horror, and searching somewhere other than the US and the UK offer strange delights. For me, there is nothing quite like coming across a movie I’ve never heard of. Even better is finding out it doesn’t suck.

We begin in a compound in what we are told is Poona, India in 1983. People on mats, all appearing to be in various stages of suffering as an older man (Pietro Martellanza) walks among them, comforting them. One in particular is Kim (Anja Gebel), quite striking because she is naked. The man asks her where she’s looking. “Inside.” “What do you see?” “Darkness.”

He walks her to a window and asks her to open her eyes. She does, only for a second. He asks her to look outside, “For there is everything. Life. Do it for me.” And he leaves her.

And she walks slowly out of the room, returns to the window, and cuts off her eyelids with a pair of scissors.

From this we go to our first story (yes, this is an anthology) “Shakti”. A writer (Celik Nuran) visits a mental hospital to interview a patient, Elizabeth (Irena-Heliana Jandis), due to be discharged in a week. Years before, Elizabeth had belonged to a cult headed by Samarfan (Joey Bazatt), where she was known as “Shakti”. Samarfan, we will find, belonged to the infamous and experimental Taylor-Eriksson Group, who we saw in that opening. What Samarfan brought from his stay in Poona was a system of meditation and primal scream therapy, first contacting what Jung called “the shadow” in each person and casting it out with the scream. One night, Samarfan was torn messily to pieces, and Shakti confessed to the crime – even though witnesses claimed she was with them all night.

It turns out that the cast-out shadows didn’t simply go away, in Elizabeth’s case becoming a tulpa composed entirely of her rage. The writer has her own agenda, and wants Elizabeth to once more summon her tulpa so a hidden video camera in her purse can capture the proof.

This is a bad idea.

The second story, “Devi”, concerns young skinhead thug Robin (Marcel Trunsch) who has been convicted of beating a Polish tourist nearly to death while hopped up on speed. To avoid jail, he must get 15 hours of therapy, and is referred to the office of Dr. Steiner (Michael Balaun). Robin puts on what he thinks is a good contrite act, only to be countered by Steiner at every turn, until the doctor puts a Vulcan nerve pinch on him. When Robin awakes, everything in the office has been covered in plastic sheets. Dr. Steiner, you see, was in the Taylor-Eriksson Group, where he learned some interesting things about therapy. Here’s a hint: Watch out what you say in your first sentence to your therapist.

As you might guess from that plastic sheeting, this story has the goriest ending of the three.

Speaking of third stories, “Kali” introduces us to Edgar (Mathieu Carrière) a faith healer who is losing his faith. Though not spelled out, the story skillfully implies that his gift left him when he was unable to save his daughter from some disease. He’s drinking a lot more these days.

One of the people who come to him is Mira (Cora Chilcott), who is bent over with the burden of something from her past. Edgar can sense whatever it is, and it is powerful; after a tense bout of thrashing and screaming, it leaves her, and we see a shadowy form slither into the old church building Edgar has rented. Mira was in, you guessed it, the Taylor-Eriksson Group in its final days, when they were experimenting with “the Kali Process”, venturing inward, into “the cellars of the soul, where there is no separation between the living and the dead.” There are things down there that should stay there, but Mira brought one back. And now, free of her, it’s in the dark building. And it’s hungry.

Tears of Kali was originally three short films (each story starts with its own credits) and, indeed, writer-director Andreas Marschall has made quite a few short films, and I’m trying to figure out how to find more of them to watch. You can usually trust that in any given anthology film, you’ll find one great story, one lousy story, and the rest various shades of mediocre; Tears of Kali puts the lie to that by presenting three very good stories – though I will admit “Devi” is my particular favorite. All that work he did on shorts shows in a good, solid movie obviously done with not that much money but a whole lot of skill, commitment and artistry.

It’s probably not a big surprise that Marschall is also known as an artist for heavy metal album covers.

Q: The Quatermass Conclusion (1979)

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I said I was going to ride this Quatermass train as long as I could, and seeing as how this one is called The Quatermass Conclusion, it’s looks like I may have to actually put some effort into finding an entry for Q next year.

In the intervening years since Quatermass and the Pit, the British Rocket Program has shut down, and Bernard Quatermass (John Mills, this time) has retired. He journeys from his home in Scotland to London on a twofold mission: to appear as a guest on a talk show, and to look for his granddaughter, who ran away from Scotland in a fit of rebellious boredom. London, Quatermass finds, has gone right downhill; street gangs have turned the city into a combination of Mad Max and Clockwork Orange. He’s only saved from a savage beating by the arrival of radio astronomer Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale) in his armored vehicle, complete with guard dog.

The TV show is celebrating the linking of American and Soviet spacecraft in a precursor to the International Space Station. Quatermass’ bitter dismissal of it is rather undercut by the station’s sudden destruction, though. Quatermass accompanies Kapp to his home/radio telescope base to find some answers, only to discover another bit of weirdness in play: lines of young people trooping across the countryside, following leaders with plumb bobs and apparently walking along Ley Lines to rings of standing stones. These are “the Planet People”, claiming they are going to be taken to another world. One such gathering is obliterated by a colossal beam of energy from the sky. Quatermass and Kapp find a girl that was on the very edge of the blast area, burned and delirious. They carry her away to treat her wounds, much over the violent protestations of the Planet People who didn’t get reduced to ash (or “transported”, as they insist).

A visit from the local commissioner (Margaret Tyzack) causes Kapp to use his radio telescopes to bounce off some satellites to receive a video call from America, because there have been more energy beams, killing thousands, and they need to get Quatermass’ opinion (I do love the fact that, no matter how much crap Quatermass has been through, if something weird comes from space, he’s the go-to guy). Quatermass and the Commissioner manage to get the girl (who looks eerily like Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord) to a hospital; her burned tissues are turning into crystal. Well, they are until she levitates and explodes, anyway.

Quatermass theorizes that something ahead of the energy beams – some advance waves, or similar – has been feeding into the youthful members of society, causing the upset of gang warfare, and the mass migrations to the ancient sites, standing stones erected by bygone societies as a warning. As the beams continue to rain down, he recruits a group of literally senior scientists, immune from the alien influence, to attempt to forge a solution before mankind is virtually exterminated.

Writer Nigel Kneale was approaching 60 at this time, and I’m amused that his cause for youthful sullenness and rebellion is alien intervention. It is no coincidence that Kneale fan John Carpenter took a similar tack in They Live: the only possible explanation for the callousness and cruelty of the Reagan Revolution was an alien invasion, right? People wouldn’t do that normally, right? Right?

The budget on Conclusion is quite low, and the story somewhat drawn out at times – as traditional, this was a TV series first. Kneale wrote a separate script for the feature film version, but the seams are still somewhat apparent. Director Piers Haggard moves it all along quite amiably and well. The Quatermass Conclusion – simply Quatermass in its native land – is the most lo-fi of the Quatermass stories. There’s no giant monster shambling around, no conspiracies; the enemy and its motive is, as Quatermass concludes, ultimately unknowable, and the best humanity can manage is to bite them so hard they don’t come back – but at a terrible price. There’s a quite good BBC series called Invasion: Earth that owes a lot to Quatermass. That’s worth seeking out, too, if you haven’t had enough bleak science fiction pitting man against unimaginable forces.

N: Night Watch (2004)

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Well, it’s been a while since we’ve had a Russian representative on Hubrisween…

First of all, we are informed that there are people who not quite human, called “others” for their various talents, and they are basically arrayed into Light and Darkness factions. In olden times there was a tremendous battle between the two, but the armies were too evenly matched, and a truce was called. Each faction watches the other, Nightwatch is the light side watching the dark side, and Daywatch is the vice versa.

Twelve years ago, our protagonist Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy) consults a matronly woman to get his estranged wife back from her new beau; the woman is a witch who claims a baby his wife is carrying must be aborted before she will come back to him. She can do this, but Anton must take the sin of the child’s death upon himself. That’s a violation of the truce, and she is busted by a Nightwatch team. The fact that Anton can see the team proves that he is an Other.

Twelve years later, Anton is working for Nightwatch, and it’s a job that really sucks. The mission that opens the story major requires him to get in sync with a young boy who is experiencing “The Call” – the spell of a vampire summoning him to a remote location to be exsanguinated. To do this, Anton must exploit his friendship with the vampire next door to get some pig blood to drink. This leads him to a vampire and his new bride, who is the one performing The Call – the boy is to be her first victim. Anton’s backup is late in arriving (mainly because Anton is a crap operative) and he winds up killing the male vampire in self-defense. This is going complicate his life exponentially for the rest of the movie, as the new female vampire escapes and still has a bead on the boy.

Further, while he was on the hunt, Anton saw a woman in the subway who his vision reveals was under a curse, and in his debriefing finds out it is THE curse – one that will cause a vortex of suffering and evil that will bring on, at last, the final battle between Nightwatch and Daywatch, and the end of the world.

There’s quite a bit of mythology thrown at you in Night Watch, some of it pretty standard fantasy boilerplate, some not. The not part seems pretty elastic, for instance the concept of “The Gloom”, a sort of twilight dimension only accessible by Others. First we’re told this is the safest way for Nightwatch operatives to interact with rogue Dark members, then we are told it has a time limit and requires blood sacrifice.

Night Watch is based on a novel by Sergey Lukyanenko, which itself is composed of three interlocking stories, of which the movie is only one. The sequel, Day Watch, is another, and the supposed third movie in the trilogy, Twilight Watch was the last of these. Director Timur Bekmambetov, however, split to make the 2008 Wanted, and never looked back. If, like me, you saw Wanted before Night Watch, the dazzling, rushing camerawork in many of the sequences are going to be very familiar. It’s stuff like that which made Night Watch the highest-grossing Russian movie of that year, and an international success (and made certain Russian film types grumble that it was “too American”).

The nature of the segmented source novel, though, carries with it an ironic violation of Chekov’s gun; you’re given a lot of characters with very cool potential that is never exploited. That was left, I assume, for the sequels, one of which we are never going to get.

Night Watch has a ton of interesting visuals that are worth checking out, but if you’ve never interacted with Russian cinema, be aware of some standards: a love for doomed characters, a large dose of fatalism, and a disregard for short running times. I found it interesting but not terribly engaging. As always, your mileage may vary.

M: Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975)

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Hey, you remember what I keep saying about my unconscious tendency to access director’s careers in reverse? Starting at a recent point or movie and working my way in reverse like a dunderhead? Well, I sort of foiled my own motif, this time around. Sure, I reviewed Juan López Moctezuma’s third flick, Alucarda a couple of years ago, but I also did his first movie, Mansion of Madness (better known as Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon to us gringos), back in the halcyon days of the first Mondo Macabro releases. So it was high time to watch senor Moctezuma’s sophomore effort, especially since I had been low-key obsessed with its ad art since its first-run drive-in days. I mean, just look at it. Best woman-being-turned-into-a-skeleton-making-a-horror-geek-really-want-to-see-what’s-going-on since Scream and Scream Again.

I am pleased to report I was nowhere near as disappointed in Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary as I was in Scream and Scream Again.

We first meet Mary (Christina Ferrare) while she’s having engine trouble with her van outside a creepy abandoned mansion in Mexico. As rain begins to pour down, she finds an open door and tries to find a phone, only to find herself stalked by a shadowy figure. After the standard running and screaming, we find out the figure is Ben (David Young) a drifter who is also seeking shelter from the rain. He promises to sleep upstairs while Mary stays downstairs and has a flashback.

Mary, we find out, is a successful artist who just sold one of her paintings to a guy from the American Embassy in Mexico City. This guy is also quite set on seducing Mary, with some success – at least until she pulls out a dagger disguised as an ornate hairpin and cuts his throat so she can drink his blood.

“What a waste of a perfectly good morgue attendant.”

This isn’t your typical low-budget vampire movie. Mary doesn’t do the traditional movie vampire stuff; she walks around in daylight, sleeps in a bed – at night – and has no fangs. But every so often she has to drink blood, and at those times she uses knockout drops in her necklace’s pendant to render her victim unconscious, so obviously she’s been doing this for some time. Mary is attracted to Ben, and the feeling is mutual, which is going to complicate her predatory lifestyle. There’s also the fact that the Mexican police are starting to notice the number of exsanguinated bodies, and the death of the Embassy guy has brought in the FBI. And, oh yes, there’s another vampire out there trying to track down Mary, and it’s her father… John Carradine!

If you like your vampire movies offbeat, Mary, Mary Bloody Mary is worth checking out. Some folks point to it as an inspiration for George Romero’s Martin, but I think that’s stretching a point. Mary isn’t deluded, but she has a very definite pathology, what her father refers to as “a disease”. There is one heartbreaking point where Mary’s need for a blood fix coincides with gallery owner Greta’s (Helena Rojo) pushy lesbian seduction. It’s the one time her careful searches for someone “I didn’t know or care about” has fallen through, and the first time she tearfully apologizes to one of her victims.

Yeah, yeah, it’s 1975 so there’s plenty of nudity and blood. I can see that after the surreal, Jodorowsky-influenced excesses of Mansion of Madness, it was brought to Moctezuma as a case of “Okay, can you make a normal movie?” which he does – though his penchant for creative editing and visuals is still evident. The seduction and eventual murder of Greta is shot in a lush bathroom with mirrored walls and is quite stunning. But it’s also 1975 and this is a very low budget movie, so be prepared for some slow spots, though Moctezuma tries to minimize those, and to reward you with things like unexpected car chases when you make it through them.

And now, here’s the trailer for the Code Red blu-ray, featuring a couple of my favorite bits: a newspaper with the headline NIXON CHEERED and, apropos of nothing, some dudes stabbing a dead shark to further death in shallow waters.

 

J: Jug Face (2013)

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After the last two less-than-satisfying (to me, anyway) horror movies, it was nice to find one that hit a number of sweet spots for me: well-made, novel, compelling, and unnerving.

Jug Face starts with the neat trick of giving us the backstory during the opening credits (in my experience, only used heretofore in The Boogens, Screams of a Winter Night, and The Incredible Hulk). Presented in Grandma Moses-style rustic art, we’re given a backwoods community being ravaged by some sort of pox. One fellow makes an urn out of clay from a nearby pit; the urn bears the face of the local clergyman, who is sacrificed bloodily to a nearby pit, and everyone is cured.

Which brings us to the present day, in that same backwoods community. Teenager Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) has sex with similarly teenage Jessaby (Daniel Manche), and not for the first time. This is going to cause problems for her later because by the cult rules of the community, she has to be a virgin when “joined” with another local youth, the doughy Bodey (Mathieu Whitman). And only Ada knows she is pregnant – she keeps stealing paint from her friend Dawai to make it look like she is till having her period.

The rather simple Dawai (Sean Bridger) is the village’s potter. Every now and then The Pit demands a sacrifice by possessing him, and while in a trance he makes the jug which bears the face of the chosen sacrifice. So Ada’s other problems recede to the background when she looks in Dawai’s simple kiln and finds out the next jug face is hers. Panicking, she steals the jug and hides it, but The Pit is not to be denied, and starts killing people randomly, while Ada, in a trance similar to Dawai’s, sees the bloody murders. She uses Dawai’s longtime love for her to cause him to make another jug face, this time with Bodey’s face – which only makes things worse for everybody.

There’s a certain understated, otherworldly realism to Jug Face‘s portrait of a community controlled, somewhat willingly, by a malign entity. Before you ask, no, we never see exactly what it is that lives in The Pit, and we don’t need to. The conviction of the cast that says things like “The Pit wants what It wants,” is often horrific enough. Ada’s parents are played by Sean Young and horror legend Larry Fessenden, and their experience and professionalism prove to be the mortar that glues the movie together.

Jug Face can be read as a more demonic, southern variation on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with a feature-length signaling to the ending, now not so much shocking as inevitable and tragic. Even at a trim 81 minutes, though, it feels a bit stretched at times, but not unworkably so. As a portrait of fear-based religion and as a horror movie, it is fairly unique and well worth checking out.