Bite (2016)

A bachelorette undergoes some strange transformations after being bitten by an unknown insect while on vacation. As her metamorphosis progresses, her life – and her increasingly tense relationship with her fiancé – begins to unravel. It’s The Fly mixed with some weird melodrama.

This one is pretty much the definition of a mixed bag. The tone keeps fluctuating between straight drama and 80s grindhouse without finding a consistent mix, the characterization is all over the place and some of the acting hugely over the top, but the monster effects are excellent, the cinematography is on point, and the sound design does a great job. I never really clicked with any of the characters or understood the dynamics underneath the various relationships, which was a shame, since there was plenty of territory that could have been explored.

There is one element of Bite that I’m unclear about, and that’s the rape subplot that – while relevant to the characters and arguably the true horror of the film – never comes to a satisfying conclusion. It also makes me uncomfortable that Bite, a film primarily about body horror, makes uses the plot point of a monstrous pregnancy in a woman that has so recently been raped – and for a time believes that everything she has experienced is related to that. Especially since Casey, the main character, eventually becomes a monster and goes on to commit monstrous, metaphorical rapes herself. There’s a lot of metaphorical stuff in Bite that’s never unpacked, which left me with some uncomfortable questions.

So, this one’s a mix. It’s got some wonderful camera work and monster effects, and some thematically questionable storylines. Explore at your discretion.

 

Krampus (2015)

Man, this one is a mixed bag. On one hand, we have some of the best practical effects and monster design that I’ve seen all year. The creepy crawlies and monsters looking absolutely beautiful, the camera work is awesome, and the soundtrack fits much better than I expected it to. On the other, we have a script that abandons its character arcs less than halfway through and can’t decide on what kind of horror film it really wants to be. Is Krampus supposed to be for kids, a la The Goonies? Is it a grown up fairytale for adults like Pan’s Labyrinth? A straight up slasher like the Black Christmas films?

Good question. Krampus gives them all a shot, but can’t stick to a cohesive theme or even visual style. The main problem is that Krampus takes too long to embrace its own inherit weirdness. This is a film that has a family under siege by homicidal gingerbread men, but the first third treats everything like a traditional slasher. In all honesty, I wish that Krampus had filmed everything in stop motion instead of limiting it to a single flashback sequence. The stop-motion part was my favorite by far, and I feel that it encompassed all the creepy weirdness that the film was dealing with in a cohesive and understandable way.

As for the characters, there’s not much to say. Some of the dialog was funny and there were some truly epic one-liners delivered by the one character I didn’t expect, but the script just didn’t give the actors much to work with. Aside from the main character, Max, no one of cast got a chance to complete their character arcs. There was a lot of subtext introduced in the beginning, including some pretty stark class and political differences, but none of it went anywhere. It’s clear that these people have problems and the actors are skilled enough to make the audience at least somewhat invested in seeing a resolution to their varied (and sharply realistic) conflicts, even though Krampus never actually produces one.

This is director Michael Dougherty’s second film, the first one being Trick ‘r Treat (2009), a classic in its own right. And I feel that the main takeaway from that film applies here: it’s a mixed bag. Some of it misses the mark, but when it works, it really fucking works.

A small warning to those prone to seizures: there are several scenes with strobe effects towards the end that should be watched for.

All and all, I’d give this one a 6/10. It’s worth seeing for the visuals, but don’t expect a perfect film.

Wer (2013)

Wer opens to a jarring, brutal beat and continues on with the song right until the end. This is a movie that returns to the brutality of the early werewolf legends, cutting out the more recent attempts at humanizing the monster, or making the story more palatable to audiences. Make no mistake, Wer is absolutely relentless in its brutality. To my surprise, I also found it to be well plotted and extensively researched. Despite a few egregious jump-scares, Wer is one of the better werewolf films to be released in the last ten years.

The plot is deceptively simple. An American family has been attacked while on vacation in France. A local man, Talan Gwynek, has been arrested for the crime, all though the evidence is shaky at best, and the local police strangely reluctant to cooperate. The attorney hired to represent Talan is mounting a defense arguing that the family was killed in an animal attack and that Talan was a convenient (and, it turns out, extremely profitable) scapegoat. However, things are never as clear-cut as they seem.

I’d argue that Wer is one of director William Brent Bell’s more thought out projects, though it loses momentum and a lot of its coherence in the second half. For better or worse, Wer does its best work in the first half of the film. The plotting is tighter, the dialog more nuanced, and the tension develops in natural ways.

Though this is not spelled out in the film, the circumstances of Talan’s case mirror those of several historical “werewolf” murders. It’s established early on that Talan is disabled, suffering from undiagnosed porphyria, and has been socially isolated almost his entire life due to the physical symptoms of the disease (limited mobility, excessive hair growth, seizures, etc.). Additionally, Talan’s family is composed of immigrants from Romania, not native Frenchmen. Though Talan appears fairly intelligent and speaks near perfect English, he is not especially educated. It also becomes apparent that his family is relatively poor – with an interesting caveat. While the Gwyneks themselves don’t have a lot of money, their land is extremely valuable, and the surrounding community would benefit greatly if it were to be sold. However, the Gwyneks refuse to do so. This, added with the fact that Talan’s father died under extremely suspicious conditions, gives the surrounding community no reason to love Talan and every reason to want him gone.

In essence, what we have is a poor, socially isolated family in a country that is not especially known for its tolerance of immigrants, surrounded by a community that would benefit financially from their expulsion. The situation resembles the one faced by Giles Garnier, often called the Werewolf of Dole. Garnier was accused and eventually confessed to killing at least four children in 1572. He was found guilty and executed, along with his wife. Garnier was a poor man of limited means, socially isolated, and disliked by his community. It was also possible that he was mentally ill. It also resembles the situation faced by Peter Stumpp, the Werewolf of Bedburg, in 1589. Peter Stumpp was a German farmer, and a fairly well to do Protestant in a time and place where Protestants were not well liked. Peter Stumpp was also disabled, missing a hand from a farming accident. It is likely “Stumpp” was a nickname referring to the injury, rather than his given name. He confessed under torture to killing fourteen children and two women, and was later executed in 1598, along with his entire family.

Now, whether or not these men were serial killers is debatable. Certainly there were deaths that occurred in these time periods, but whether beasts or these specific men were involved cannot be known for certain. Too much time has passed. However, what we can know is that the circumstances involving these two historical cases mirror the fictional case in Wer quite closely. Though this is not spelled out in the film, it’s clear that a great deal of research went into the story.

Curiously, both Giles Garnier and Talan are French. It’s unclear exactly where the events of Wer are meant to have taken place, but I find it significant that they occurred in the same country. For what it’s worth, the film was shot in Romania, likely for financial reasons. Draw your own connections.

To its credit, Wer doesn’t shy away the complicating factors surrounding the case. It’s clear from the beginning that the community stands to benefit from Talan’s conviction – the payoff being in the millions if the family relinquishes the land, which they may have to do anyway in order to pay the legal bills. It’s also clear that Talan’s isolation, disability, and limited social skills leave him in a difficult position; in essence, he’s presented as a tempting target, with few means of defending himself. Additionally, there are the jurisdictional complications with accusing a French citizen (especially one with immigrant parents) of the murder of three American citizens on French soil. The characters deal with these issues as they pop up in ways that allow for natural character development and cohesive world building. In the first half of this film, we have a very clear picture of who these people are, the stakes they face, and how their world operates.

The second half of Wer challenges this a bit. While I’m the last person to be arguing against creating sympathetic villains, Talan’s shift from sympathetic plot device to violent, murderous plot device comes too quickly to be effectively processed, and not enough of the details of his story are wrapped up before the carnage starts showing up. Which is a problem here, because Wer unfortunately lets itself get distracted by the brutality of the gore, and forgets to spend time on the more delicate details of the plot. Now, this move does have its advantages; the scenes of chaos are beautifully and effectively shot and I enjoyed the experience of watching them in the moment. The audience gets pulled into the chaos right alongside the characters, something few movies manage to accomplish. However, Wer doesn’t seem to know how to pull itself back on track and return to more cohesive storytelling after the fact. Too many questions are left unanswered, and none of the character arcs are completed.

I’m also curious about the choice to make Talan guilty of the crimes, despite (or perhaps because of) the importance that Wer placed on understanding his precarious social situation. It’s clear from the beginning that Talan was targeted because he, for various reasons, made for a convenient scapegoat. It’s also left unclear whether or not Talan even understood his own actions, or had any recollection of the murders. Wer establishes that at least one trigger for the werewolf transformation is Talan’s seizures – is he in control? To what extent? The audience just doesn’t know. This complicates the story, as we have no idea if Talan (and everyone else around him) is a tragic victim of his disease, or if he finally snapped under the pressing reality of his situation. Wer made a choice to leave that ambiguous, a move I’m not fond of.

For all its nuance in the beginning, Wer comes dangerously close to falling into stereotypes about disability, immigration, and poverty being directly related to violent and depraved behavior. While I don’t believe this was the intention of the director, the sloppiness of the second half gives the film an unfortunate reading of the situation. As filmmakers, we have an obligation to realize what we are saying with our art, and how it might be interpreted. Fiction has been a way for people to gage the acceptability of their beliefs and actions since the invention of storytelling; the things we say have influence on the society around us, whether we realize it or not. Our stories, even the ones about werewolves, are never without impact. Wer’s use of historical cases complicates this even further.

Was this intentional? Maybe, maybe not. I’d go out on a limb and say most filmmakers don’t create stories with the intent of causing harm to anyone. And on the whole, Wer doesn’t do anything terribly egregious – it doesn’t indicate that immigrants or poor people are inherently violent. However, Wer does fit into a pattern of stereotypes in storytelling that have a historical basis; after a while, these things add up. And they have an impact.

So, what does that mean about the movie? Honestly, that’s up to you. I’ve seen films that are intentionally and blatantly racist, or otherwise harmful to minority groups. Wer is not one of those. It’s a thoughtful, carefully plotted story, and a fun watch. However, the stereotypes it eventually falls into have a long and troubled history, which should be kept in mind. These things shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying the film, but it is important to realize that they do have an impact and can – in great enough number – cause harm to real, living people. Stereotypes influence how we view the world, which impacts how we treat people. Keep that in mind.

Technically speaking, Wer takes more than a few risks, blending first person shaky-cams and an aborted, confusing soundtrack to convey the emotional situations that the characters find themselves in. The camera works as a direct indicator of the emotional read of whatever scene it happens to be shooting, instead of an unbiased observer. The soundtrack fades in and out, though this works surprisingly well in Wer.

The musician Brian Scott O’Connor presents a subdued, careful performance of Talan, and surprising amount of nuance given that Wer is apparently his first film. It’s a rare actor that can convincingly portray a nearly silent character for the length of a feature film, but O’Conner pulls it off. Relying entirely on physicality in lieu of dialog is a difficult skill, and one that many actors – however seasoned – tend to struggle with. This role bodes well for O’Conner’s acting resume, should he choose to continue with it. I hope to see him acting again, as he had a great screen presence. That being said, the script doesn’t give him nearly enough to do in the second half, essentially abandoning his character arc in favor of chasing the gore.

In general, Wer has interesting, though flawed, things to say, and it’s a fun watch besides. I very much recommend it, though ask that you give it some critical thought afterwards.

 

Kristy (2014)

A young college student at the end of her rope finds herself alone on campus during Thanksgiving Break, and under siege by a violent cult. A dark, moody twist on the home invasion subgenre that can’t quite manage to find its footing before the end.

To be sure, Oliver Blackburn’s film is a technical achievement; the shots are beautifully composed and Haley Bennett delivers a smart, understated portrayal of the lead, Justine. The soundtrack felt a bit on the nose at times, as did some of the camera work, but I thought it made for a compelling visual image. It’s rare that I see a film that manages to convey such an eerie sense of isolation and silence in an industrial space like a college campus. Again, the camera work and some of the sound effects pushed a little too hard – the audience can make its own conclusions, people – as if the director thought that the point was too vague to catch. A scene that comes to mind is the close up on a collage of photographs with the eyes scratched out, which the camera lingers on for several seconds too long to really add any atmosphere.

Which, if we’re being honest, indicates a larger problem with the film.

See, Kristy has things to say about isolation and appearances, but doesn’t trust that the audience will understand the point. Justine is targeted because on the surface, she appears to have it all. She goes to a fancy college (she’s in horrible debt and afraid of losing her scholarship), drives an expensive car (it belongs to her roommate), and has a circle of good friends (who leave her alone on the holidays). Kristy seemed more interested in giving fragmented, confusing views of the beliefs that the cultists chasing Justine hold without really exploring any of the themes it has brought up. We have a “blessed” victim targeted by cultists who resent her apparent success – except that the victim’s life turns out to have some darker undercurrents. This should have made for some excellent tension.

Only problem? Kristy doesn’t do anything with this. The themes just sit there, leaving the film as an extended cat and mouse chase as Justine eventually outsmarts her pursuers and – as expected – triumphs over them. Yay? Justine is sympathetic enough as a protagonist and has an excellent screen presence, so the audience wants her to survive, but Kristy doesn’t really have anything to say after she does. Its interesting when compared to other home invasion films, especially with it’s themes about appearances and privilege, but doesn’t explore them enough to stand on its own. It’s worth seeing if you’re interesting in home invasion films and where the subgenre is going, but don’t expect anything mind blowing.

The Green Inferno (2015)

Guess who just got back from seeing Eli Roth’s latest. Yep, that’d be me. This isn’t a complete review, as I’m still processing the film, but I wanted to write down some of my initial impressions.

First off, I did some research into the film’s somewhat complicated production history to determine that yes, all of the actors were fairly compensated for their work. One of the points that have been touted around about The Green Inferno was Roth’s use of native Peruvian villagers as actors, many of who had never seen a movie before. From what I’ve been able to dig up, everyone was compensated by union standards, the whole process was democratic and entirely voluntary, and all of the actors understood what they were getting into in the first place. It also appears that some of these actors have moved on to other pictures, including Antonieta Pari, who had an incredible screen presence for a first-time actress. I’m in the process of looking up her other film, and hope to see more of her if she decides to continue in the industry.

Coming out of The Green Inferno, I can see why a lot of people disliked it. A film like this just isn’t easy to sit through. Some art is pleasant to look at, and some pieces hit you repeatedly in the face with their ideas. For better or worse, The Green Inferno fits the latter bill. Two people walked out of the screening I attended. Eli Roth’s style is a mix of in your face brutality and cutting social commentary that sometimes get lost under the weight of all the gore. A lot of audiences just don’t have the stomach to sit through one of his films. And make no mistake, The Green Inferno is one of his most brutal. There are scenes of dismemberment, torture, cannibalism, and wanton mayhem, among other things. Eli Roth said that a lot of the actors wanted to be covered in fake blood during the shooting, and it’s very clear that they went through a ton of the stuff in the process. The Green Inferno is bloody, hard to watch, and at times just flat out disgusting. Not everyone, even regular horror fans, is going to be able to sit through it. That’s just the long and short of it.

And yes, this film is art. I will fight you on this.

It also relies heavily on the assumption that the view knows enough about current events, grindhouse horror, and the controversy surrounding its clear inspiration, Cannibal Holocaust to keep up with all the ideas the story is juggling. Above all, The Green Inferno is a horror film made for horror fans. I might go even further and say that The Green Inferno was made for horror scholars, though I’ll admit that most horror experts wouldn’t consider themselves scholars in the traditional sense. The casual viewer risks missing a lot of the nuance without doing some research beforehand. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – lots of genre films tell stories specifically for their longtime fans. However, it does lead to instances where audiences critique the story as senseless and disgusting while ignoring the very real ideas the film is trying to work through. That’s a risk that Eli Roth took going in with a project like this, and the controversy surrounding the film had to be expected.

To his credit, Eli Roth has been incredibly nuanced and respectful in his responses to the arguments that have cropped up since he first announced the project. It’s worth looking at some of the interviews he’s given concerning The Green Inferno. These two are interesting.

I guess now would be the time to give my opinion. While I’m still in the process of figuring out a longer answer to that, I’ll say that I liked it from an analytical standpoint. I’ve been a fan of Roth’s for a long time, and I’d say that this is one of his most thought-out projects yet. It’s also one that poses a lot of questions and leaves them for the audience to ponder, rather than trying to force a perfect solution in at the end in the style of your usual, Hollywood blockbuster. However, I am aware of the complications of a white, American director telling a story about Peruvian villagers terrorizing (mostly white), rich American teenagers – and my own perspective on this, as a white, American, middle class audience member. We all come into films with an agenda, and we always leave with an opinion on the one portrayed on-screen. I appreciate that Roth didn’t try to squeeze in an answer for all of the questions he posed, something that I admire about his work as a whole. In his films, it’s enough just to ask and wonder. The world is too big and strange to solve with a single answer. But isn’t it cool that we get to have the discussion in the first place?

On a technical level, the film was well shot and the scenes of the jungle were absolutely beautiful. Still, I’d argue that the scenes done in the marketplace were the best of the film, with the careful color balance and juxtapositions of modern and seemingly “traditional” objects. I also liked the hand-held shots that popped up in moments of fear and confusion, which gave the film a cluttered, disjointed feeling to match what the characters were feeling. The Green Inferno is a visually complicated films, with a tendency to cram a lot of “stuff” into the frame and leaving the viewer to decide on their own what to look at. This is a stylistic choice I’m not usually fond of, especially in horror films, but it worked strangely well here.

I’m also curious about the inclusion of the two lesbian characters, who did eventually die, but seemed to have one of the only healthy relationships in the story. There was also the implication that one of the women, Amy, was mentally ill, though this wasn’t fully explored within the story. It’s something that’s popped up before in Roth’s work, both the surprisingly (given the genre’s reputation) positive treatment of queer women in his narratives, and the inclusion of a female character with mental illness. I haven’t come to any conclusions about this just yet, but the inclusion of these characters is interesting to me. I shall give this more thought.

There’s still a lot to say about The Green Inferno. I hope to continue on with the discussion. It’s not a film for everyone, but if you can sit through it, then come talk about it with me.

Whitechapel (2009—2013)

whitechapel

So, let’s talk about Whitechapel. I discovered it, as I tend to discover a lot of things, by picking up the first season randomly at the library. It concerns a group of detectives working in Whitechapel, London, and the various crimes they encounter. The first season is focused on a Jack the Ripper copycat, and the other three divide their time between various other cases – some with historical basis, and some that are just plain weird. The show goes a whole lot darker than what you’d expect from a police procedural, and earns its place in the horror genre. Sure, Whitechapel has its fair share of errors in addition to its great strengths, but I’m not giving a review today.

Well, not exactly. I want to talk about a single aspect of the show, one that I found interesting.

See, the first three seasons of Whitechapel are pretty much what you’d expect from a cop show, even one dipping its toes into the horror side of things. Horrible things are done, and horrible people are – eventually – brought to justice for them. Par for the course. But the fourth season jumps in with a completely different question. As the various crimes and misdeeds keep piling up, each of them somehow worse than the last, the characters start to ask themselves why all these things are happening in Whitechapel. Why do they have so many violent crimes and serial killers? And who is this woman who seems to be showing up in the periphery of every crime they’re investigating?

Pretty standard stuff for a crime show, right?

Now look at the trailer for the fourth season.

Folks, what we have here is a TV show trying a genre shift from your standard serial killer horror to supernatural horror. Even stranger, we have a TV show that actually pulls off a genre shift mid-story, without violating any of the history, rules, or logic it had previously established.

Now, TV shows have been playing around with genre for years. Remember the musical episode of Buffy? But there’s a small difference here. In the case of Buffy, the musical only lasted for a single episode and was explicitly caused by things already existing in the diagetic universe. Thus, it didn’t really change the nature of the show. It was played as a weird event in-universe, and – more importantly – not a recurring theme that would actually rearrange all of the rules and established history of the show that the audience had already accepted. The equivalent of the Buffy musical episode in a feature film might be a strange event that took about ten minutes of screen time and was eventually explained as being caused by drugs or something similar.

This is not what Whitechapel is doing with its fourth season. No, Whitechapel is threading in the possibility that supernatural forces and events are at work within the already dark world that the characters inhabit. Whitechapel goes a step further than that and also implies that the supernatural elements were present the entire time – the characters just didn’t know what clues to pick up on.

Strangely enough, this actually works. The fear and paranoia that the characters experience is matched by some strange camera effects that have always been at play in Whitechapel – but in the fourth season, suddenly seem very appropriate. Without spoiling anything, the supernatural elements are weaved into the storyline so expertly that the audience got to experience the same thing the characters did: struggling to understand a world where the rules suddenly and inexplicably change. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show do something like this, adding in – or just revealing – elements of a completely different genre than the one presented in the initial storyline.

Even more interesting, in my opinion, is that Whitechapel didn’t change genres, per say: it switched subgenres of horror. Just think about that for a moment. This is a TV show that understood its own tropes so well that it could shift between to seemingly incompatible worlds of fiction (fantasy vs. realistic) in a way that didn’t throw the audience off.

That being said, there were fans of the show that didn’t like the direction that the fourth season took. The term jumping the shark was used. It’s also worth saying that Whitechapel was not renewed for a fifth season.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what the series attempted and – in my opinion – expertly pulled off. There is no exact equivalent to this sort of shift in film, for the simple reason that TV and movies just don’t work in quite the same way. I don’t think a film could pull off a shift like this so late in the story, so to speak. TV shows work on their own timeline, with each season working as an overarching story with individual chapters within it. Thus, there are chances for different seasons to go in radically different directions than the ones that came before or after. Another example of this would be Helix, though that show worked on a slightly different scale, timeline-wise, and I’d argue it wasn’t nearly as well executed.

This isn’t a review of Whitechapel as a whole, and I’m not going into the details of the storyline beyond this one feature. I enjoyed the show, thought it was well shot, and had some of the most sympathetic and interesting portrayals of a character with significant OCD in recent memory. It also took three seasons to add a woman to the main cast and never got around to casting any people of color in reoccurring roles. Whitechapel had its issues, sure. It also had some great cinematic and storytelling moments.

It also had this shift in tone and (sub)genre at the very end that I thought should be highlighted. I thought people should know about it.