Holidays (2016)

 

I’ll start this off by saying that there’s been a trend recently of making short horror films with a similar theme and then sticking them together into a single anthology, The ABCs of Death and V/H/S being the most prominent examples – and both with multiple, full-length films in each series. And while I’m hugely in favor of this trend, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s brought forth a mixed bag. It’s hard to call any of the anthologies good in their own right when the shorts are so radically different from each other. Each story has its own director and production team and despite sharing a general theme, rarely mesh well when shoved into a completed product. Some of the stories are brilliant, a few downright genius, most are decent, and a few are awful. It’s great that filmmakers have the opportunity to explore genre ideas like this – and, for those new to the business, a notch on their belt that doesn’t necessarily carry the financial burden of a feature length project – but again, just because two short films might be brilliant on their own merits doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily mesh when paired in an anthology. For better or worse, anthology films are a difficult beast to conquer and – regardless of the merits of the individual shorts – rarely come together in a cohesive way. It’s an endeavor that’s often undertaken and rarely successful.

 

Holidays is probably the first one that actually succeeds. Not only are each of its shorts well-made, strongly acted, and shot with a keen eye, as well as an appreciation for the horror genre, they actually fit together – visually, thematically, and tonally – as a cohesive whole. Despite not knowing the process behind its creation, it’s clear to me, as an observer, that the directors of the various shorts were in conversation with each other so that their projects wouldn’t look jarring when put together in the final product. To be sure, each story is self-contained and has its very own visual style – some weird, others conventional, and more than a few recovering a fairytale aesthetic rarely seen these days – the themes in each story complimented each other without creating continuity errors or WTF moments for the audience.

 

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite out of all the shorts here. Quite honestly, I liked all of them. St. Patrick’s Day blended balls to the wall weirdness with a genuine sense of uncertainty and empathy for its protagonist, Father’s Day ran miles with an incredibly sparse set and lone character, Easter managed to combine some graphic weirdness and seeming contradictions into a surprisingly heartfelt meditation on what it means to interrogate the beliefs and traditions of your culture, and Halloween – one of the more subdued entries – pulled absolutely no punches in getting its story across, accessing age-old tropes and unveiling them in unexpected ways. Even the shorts that stumbled in places – Christmas and Mother’s Day – still had interesting things to say, and fascinating ways of going there.

Holidays is one of those rare anthology films that is a genuinely good movie across the board – each of the shorts stands on its own merit, while still working together as a cohesive whole, and it takes the holiday theme in places that even I, a seasoned horror fan, didn’t expect.

Don’t miss this one. It’s great.

Still, I feel I would be reminisce without giving a shout out to the films that inspired Holidays. I stand by my assertion that on a whole, The ABCS of Death and V/H/S were a mixed bag, but there were a few gems that ought to get their minute in the spotlight. Here are two of my favorites. And though I could go on extensively about them, I will let the films speak for themselves.

First up is the entry for A in The ABC’s of Death. Thankfully, youtube has been kind enough to upload Apocalypse in its entirety.

Next up is a clip from V/H/S. Unfortunately, the entire short is still too long to be uploaded, but you can get an idea of what the story is working with.

 

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Set two years after Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year concerns a world very similar to ours. There is, however, one very big difference. On one night a year, all crimes – including murder – are legal for twelve hours. By the time Election Year rolls around, the Purge has been a staple of American culture for going on twenty years. This entry in the series concerns Senator Charlie Roan, the first person to seriously threaten the existence of the Purge, and the people who get sucked into her orbit on the titular night. It’s a wild, nasty ride all the way, and entirely unafraid to target American politics – and politicians – with its story.

I’ll be honest up front: the Purge series is one of my all time favorites and I think Election Year is the best horror movie I’ve seen this year. Whether it holds up past July is another thing all together.

Election Year is an ambitious feature, tackling on more world-building , characters, and carnage than ever before. Previous entries in the series had focused on the experiences of individual characters versus society as a whole, an ambitious jump for any film – let alone horror – to make. Election Year switched mostly to hand-held cameras and an abundance of close-up shots, keeping the viewer focused tight on the characters even as the story stretched out further with its implications. For the first time in the series, the characters have a chance to do more than survive the night: they have an opportunity to strike back. The means in which they chose to do so create the central conflict of the story. Do the people, largely poor and non-white, wait for politics to eventually turn? It’s already been twenty years. Or do they resort to the same violence that has been used against them? Can peaceful resistance ever work against a foe that is gleefully unafraid to murder their opponents, and any attempt at resistance is labeled as an attack on both national sovereignty and individual freedoms?

As I said, the allegory in this film is about as subtle as a hammer. And you know what? That’s good. Election Day has something to say and doesn’t beat around the bush.

This is a film about a female presidential candidate fighting against the systematic oppression – and indeed execution – of poor, marginalized people. She is standing up to a system that justifies itself through religion and by adopting a historical narrative that distorts the facts for their benefit. Throughout the film, she is repeatedly saved and protected by a black businessman (and former gang member), a Mexican immigrant, and a black woman. Hmm. What could the filmmakers possibly be gong for here?

Well, let’s just say it’s no coincidence that the tagline for Election Year is “keep America great.” Remind you of anybody?

I could take a long time going through the minutia of Election Year‘s politics, but that will be for another time. Sufficient to say that it’s interesting, and very relevant to the current political climate.

However, as interesting as its ideas are, Election Year gets bogged down by them in spots, choosing to develop concepts rather than people. The weakest link in the story is the character meant to draw everything together: Charlie Roan. The problem is that she’s not a character so much as a concept that the film – and characters – can build up or demonize as they wish. The fact that she happens to be a person underneath her ideals is brought up briefly, but never really explored with any depth. This becomes a problem later on, when she meets up with some of her constituents who are carrying out her politics in a decidedly violent fashion – and using her name to justify it. There would be an excellent place for Senator Roan’s politics to collide with Charlie Roan the character, except that the latter never really shows up. She’s sympathetic enough, but never undergoes any character development or arc. This is frustrating, since the film is centered on her and follows her storyline at the expense of far more interesting characters.

In essence, what was Anarchy‘s greatest strength is one of Election Year‘s bigger problems. The Purge series has done its best work as a character piece that explores larger societal themes through the experiences of individuals. The audience cares for the characters, thus they become invested in the world that those characters inhabit. In Election Year, it feels like the filmmakers became more interested in the world than the people inside it, focusing on an underdeveloped lead and Frank Grillo’s Leo Barnes, already established from Anarchy.

While I’m a fan of Grillo’s, I didn’t find his character as compelling this time around. Like Roan, Barnes simply doesn’t have a character arc. He has some interesting moments of reflection and banter early on – especially concerning his personal history with the Purge – but those threads are never tied together.

All and all, Election Year isn’t quite as well written or polished as Anarchy. It’s good, it’s a hell of a lot better than most horror films you’d see in theaters these days, and it’s got some interesting things to say. The action is solid, there are some genuinely well-timed jump-scares, fun characters (just not the leads), and some truly excellent cinematography. The costume department also deserves a shout out for delivering a lot of understated but genuinely horrifying pieces. The Purge: Election Year is a good movie. But, for better or worse, the ideas swallow the story in more than a few places.

Annabelle (2014)

 

Before I see The Conjuring 2, I thought I ought to look up the other entry in the series. Quite honestly, I didn’t come in expecting much. The Conjuring didn’t impress me and the killer doll storyline has practically been done to death, but I figured why not. Better go in having a complete feel for the world, right?

Final verdict: meh. Annabelle has a few interesting visual tricks up its sleeves – the basement scene in particular was much smarter than anticipated – but largely relied on underdeveloped characters, an overabundance of jump-scares, and made no use of the thematic subtext. For a period film set during the Manson murders, when occult paranoia was at its highest, Annabelle has nothing to say about this. With one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, it didn’t have anything interesting to say about race or gender either. The entire point of period films in any genre is that they hold a mirror up to modern times and give the audience a new way to look at whatever themes and issues the characters are dealing with. Given that cults aren’t something we think about much in 2016, how would a family contextualize the violent events that happened to them in 1969, and how strange would that seem to the audience? It matters that these events happened to a stay at home mom, it matters that she’s white, and it matters that she’s middle class.

Or at least it should. Annabelle presents these facts, but doesn’t do anything with them. Visually, the film works as a period piece. It looks nice and the sets get the job done, but there aren’t any visual motifs or themes to dig around with. With the exception of the basement sequence, Annabelle is not an interesting film to look at. This isn’t a dig at the crew – it’s perfectly serviceable and its clear that everyone involved did their jobs – but just to point out that creating a world that looks like 1969 really isn’t enough to make a good film. A period film has to be made purposefully, with clear intent, and this one simply wasn’t.

All and all, Annabelle is underwhelming and forgettable. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but it doesn’t do anything exciting. It does have the dubious honor of being inspired by true events, but that’s about as interesting as it gets.

Except for when it comes to the character of Evelyn, played by the wonderful Alfe Woodard. Evelyn is introduced in the second half of the film, a tenet in the building that Mia and her family move into, as well as the owner of a bookshop that happens to have a suspiciously large section on the occult. She’s a quiet, understated character, notable for her kindness and tragic backstory – the death of her young daughter, Ruby. Evelyn survived the accident that killed her daughter and fell into despair several years before the events of the movie, eventually attempting suicide. She survives but is left with a distinctive scar, claiming that she heard her daughter say that it wasn’t her time yet.

Thematically she works as a foil to Mia, both mothers who deeply love their daughters, but find themselves in disturbing situations because of that love – the impact of grief and depression in one case, and demonic possession in the other. It’s possibly Annabelle‘s only moment of thematic reflection, and their friendship gives the story weight that it otherwise lacked. And it could pass without comment except for a single fact.

Evelyn is black. Mia is white.

Now, I don’t think this is a case of the filmmakers trying to be racist or hurtful. I’ve seen that before. Unfortunately, I’ve even seen it recently. And if Annabelle weren’t part of a larger trend, then it really wouldn’t matter that Mia survives the film and Evelyn doesn’t.

Let’s look at that, shall we?

The climax of film is a tense standoff with the demon and the various parties involved, in an attempt to get the demon to give back Mia’s baby. The demon wants a soul – any soul, as it turns out, and not necessarily the baby’s – but that still requires someone to die. Mia attempts to do so, but is pulled back by her husband. Then Evelyn steps forward, declaring that this is what she’s meant to do, and kills herself.

Satisfied, the demon gives the baby back. Mia and her family have their happy ending. Yay!

Now step back and think about that for a second.

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a black woman giving up her soul for a white woman. Evelyn literally states that this is why she survived her suicide attempt – so she could eventually sacrifice herself for Mia, a woman she’s known for less than a month. Annabelle treats this as an acceptable – even admirable – move, and the ending is presented in a positive light. The demon has been defeated, Mia and her family are implied to live out the rest of their lives in peace. There is no mention of Evelyn after her death. Sure, a demon ate her soul and she’s probably going to suffer in hell for all eternity, but gosh, that cute baby survived! All’s well that ends well, right?

Well…not really.

The thing is, movies don’t exist in a vacuum. The stories we tell and the values those stories extol have a real and powerful impact on the world around us. And what Annabelle and other films like this say is that the lives of black women are somehow worth less than the lives of white women. I honestly don’t think this was done on purpose, but it’s another example of a harmful trend that has been in circulation for a long time.

As filmmakers, we have a duty to think about the stories we tell and the impact they’re going to have on the world. We have a duty to look at how we treat race in all films – horror and otherwise – and really think about what our stories say. These things don’t exist in a vacuum and if a narrative is repeated often enough, then it has a tendency to get absorbed into the popular consciousness.

The lives of black people – especially black women – cannot be devalued like this. Unfortunately, horror does not have a good track record on this count.

This is a notice. We are filmmakers and we have a responsibility to our craft. We can and should do better.

He Never Died (2015)

So, this one’s a throwback. And an interesting one at that. He Never Died doesn’t concern itself as much with the plot (though there is one) as it does with following its brooding, strange lead character around as he ambles through his seemingly meaningless life. Exactly who is Jack? Who knows. He spends his days sleeping, playing bingo, and haunting the local diner – but he can’t seem to avoid getting involved, however accidentally and much to his annoyance, with other people’s lives. He’s got a trunk full of money and knives, a strange hearing problem, and can shrug off a gunshot like a mosquito bite. Which comes in handy now that the local mafia happens to be gunning for him. Why? Jack can’t remember and doesn’t especially care. Things only get more complicated with the introduction of a daughter from a long-past fling. It’s a return to the 90s anti-hero with updated one-liners and an appreciation for history’s many and varied boogeyman legends.

He Never Died is a fun experiment of what happens when you drop the archetypal 90s anti hero into a more realistic 2015, a place where Jack’s casual acquaintances try vainly to empathize with him and incorporate him into their lives, and the line between sociopath and boogeyman becomes increasingly thin. Jack doesn’t belong in this era. No one knows it better than he does. Though he calls himself Cain (“I’m in the bible, if that means anything“), Jack’s backstory and powers almost fit better with Beowulf’s monster – better known as Grendel. A lot of the film’s power comes from this ambiguity – Jack doesn’t know what he is and neither does the audience – and how the other characters react to him. He’s accused of being a lot of things, including a sociopath and a vampire, and it’s never made clear exactly where he stands.

Two things are clear. First, Jack is a murderer. And second, the plot desperately wants him to be a hero.

Jack disagrees with the hero bit. The best pieces in the film come from the divide between his cynical worldview and the film’s stubborn insistence on trying to redeem him. There’s a hilarious couple of scenes where Jack staggers around in the middle of the night trying to provoke the local thugs into attacking him, only to discover that none of them are in the mood to fight with an old man. His indignation and shock when he’s treated politely by the people he’s trying – not at all subtlety – to provoke is a testament to Henry Rollins’s wonderful acting skills. Jack would love the world of He Never Died to be as cynical and mean as he is. The fact that it’s filled with characters who – though deeply flawed – are essentially kind, empathetic people proves the film’s best moments.

On the technical end of things, He Never Died is well made, though I’m not fond of the choices made with the sound design. Jack seems to go through life with the soundtrack to an old battle playing in his head at all hours, which might have been interesting if it had some narrative weight backing it up. Instead it’s just…there. The story does falter in a few areas and takes a bit to really figure out what sort of tone it’s going for. But the acting is excellent (Booboo Stewart stole more than a few scenes) and the story goes in interesting, unexpected places. Give it a watch.

12 Days of Terror (2004)

A shark terrorized a New Jersey shoreline for twelve days during the summer of 1916. These events eventually led Peter Benchley to write the novel that would, in time, inspire the first summer blockbuster – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and one of my all time favorite horror films. Standing up against the strange but inescapable truth of the historical record and the cult following of Jaws – loyal to this day – it would seem that 12 Days of Terror would be swamped by its competition. Especially for a made-for-TV movie, with the subsequent budget, actors, and special effects one can come to expect from such a project. And yet, despite all its competition, 12 Days of Terror puts forth a solid effort. The acting is a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but the costumes are wonderful, the writing acceptable, and this movie really does work as a period piece. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into making this movie feel like it takes place in 1916. On that note, I cannot praise 12 Days of Terror enough. It manages to include a great deal of world-building and subtext in small but effective ways – a feat that many large budget films with similar topics simply fail to address in the first place.

Whether intentional or not, the cinematography and set design work as a homage to Spielberg’s earlier work – 12 Days of Terror and Jaws share a similar aesthetic and composition style. In other films it might come off as copying, but 12 Days of Terror makes the comparison feel like genuine tribute – attempting to expand the legend and feel of Jaws without creating an entirely new world.

On the other end of things, the acting in 12 Days of Terror isn’t great, the characters don’t have much in the way of story arcs, and what were likely intended as perfectly reasonable lines become soap-opera like clichés in the delivery. It’s not a great movie, but 12 Days of Terror packs a heavy bunch for a film created solely for TV. The costumes are great, the set design is some of the best I’ve seen, and the plot isn’t half bad. It’s no Jaws, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

Uncaged (2016)

Uncaged is what happens when you try to mix old school werewolves with modern technology and mix it with an overdose of misguided machismo. It has moments of humor and some decent cinematography on a shoestring budget, but its many faults eventually weigh it down. It’s not that the werewolf story is incapable of modernization – I can give you at least ten examples where it works just fine – but rather that the default themes have become sorely outdated and – much like the filmmaking technology itself – must be revised in order to fit with a changing society.

Let’s start with the base assumption. Traditionally, the werewolf transformation has been a metaphor for the primal, male sex drive that has been constrained by polite society and will eventually break free and run rampant. “Unleashing the beast”, and what not. Later films have changed the metaphor slightly – notably as a metaphor for puberty and female desire in the Ginger Snaps series – but the historical roots remain strong. The “beast” is primal, masculine sexual desire. It can only be contained by noble self-sacrifice – often promoted by a desire to protect a virtuous woman (a Madonna figure) – or by the love of a virtuous woman (again, the Madonna). The beast feeds on nameless strangers and loose women (the Whore), who are usually non-white, and is either aided or encouraged by other male characters. The beast can only come out at night and is weakened by silver. All your standard werewolf lore.

Uncaged makes the connection between sex and werewolves painfully clear – nearly every conversation the characters have revolves around men perusing sex with women. However, the desire is strictly heterosexual and male-focused. Of the few women who appear in the film, none have their own character arcs or agency. Their roles and stories are dependent entirely on the men in their lives. The three female characters each fall into stereotypical roles: the Mother (the mother of one character), the Madonna (Rose, a black woman in an abusive relationship who must be rescued by a white man – she is never sexualized), and the Whore (Crystal, the promiscuous, unintentionally sympathetic hookup of another character). Only one of them – Crystal, the Whore – has any desire or storyline unconnected to men and hers – the pursuit of the farm’s elusive, nonexistent cat – ends up being the thing that gets her horribly murdered. Rose’s entire storyline concerns the varied men in her life who are concerned with her purity – there’s an entire subplot, never fully resolved, about whether or not she was cheating on her husband with one of the werewolf victims. The film ends with Rose getting attacked and infected with the werewolf virus, which could be seen as a metaphor for sexual assault. Notably, it’s the only attack in the film that leaves a survivor – but her life is horribly changed against her will, by men – and she’s stuck at the mercy of a gun-toting man who very well might kill her for her perceived “impurity”.

The entire thing is so ham-fisted that it must have been on purpose, though for the life of me I really can’t imagine why. None of the male characters fit into these archetypes. No one gives a damn about their sexual purity – rather the opposite – and the fact that this sexual drive is apparently leading them to murder people is just…there. Without comment.

So. There’s that.

Aside from its curious views on women, Uncaged has some clunky dialog and unsympathetic character, who commit several murders without showing any particular concerned for the victims – the majority of which are women and black men.

There’s a pattern here. It’s a problem.

The movie has some interesting ideas mixed in along all the racial and gender issues, though there are a few too many plot holes for them to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even without all the other issues, Uncaged suffers from a bounty of competition in the werewolf subgenre and doesn’t come up with anything creative enough to hold its head above the crowd. Skip this one. It made me feel gross.

 

 

 

The Other Side of the Door (2016)

So, this movie wasn’t as horribly racist as it could have been. It feels a bit ridiculous that this is a thing that’s said, either as a compliment or a statement of fact, but here we are. Despite having its white, American protagonist dealing with Indian superstition and ghost stories, The Other Side of the Door avoids the deeper pratfalls that some of its fellows (I’m looking at you, The Forest) this year have fallen into concerning racial stereotypes and producing the nonwhite “other” as the strange, malevolent force that must be battled and that eventually the white people are infected by and succumb to. At its heart, The Other Side of the Door wants to be a meditation on the devouring power of grief and the lengths people will go to in order to try and come to terms with said grief – or avoid it entirely, to the point of extreme, uneasy measures.

An attempt is made, to be sure, but the film falters in too many places for the story to ever find its footing. The pacing is confusing, especially in the beginning, and it feels like several establishing scenes were cut from the narrative that should have been kept in. Aside from the lead, none of the other characters have much of an arch or enough screen presence to make me remember their names. They exist to further the narrative and not much else. The notable exception is a wonderful, subdued performance by Suchitra Pillai, who was criminally underutilized. In all honesty, Mrs. Pillai was the best thing about this movie – despite having about ten minutes of screen time. Her character arc was subtle and tragic, and had more emotional resonance than any of the conflict that drives the main characters that the audience is supposed to care about.

The cinematography has some moments of brilliance, but The Other Side of the Door is a confused, disjointed mess. It desperately wants to say something about the pull of grief in the wake of tragedy and sets up the platform to do so, but falters once it actually gets to that point. A tragedy occurs. The characters are sad. And…that’s about it. That’s the narrative. Setting the story in India could have made for some interesting dialog about the cultural conventions of grief and mourning, but those conversations just never happen. To its credit – I really can’t believe I’m saying this – the film isn’t as racist as it could have been. Though the supernatural forces are clearly racially Other, the malevolence is related more to grief in general than any culturally specific evil. Or at least that’s the attempt. Still, there is a great deal of cultural appropriation and the prioritization of white grief and white stories, over the narratives of characters like Piki, who’s own loss is brushed aside once its narrative purpose has been served.

This story has been done before. It’s been done much better. I can provide examples. Go watch something else.