Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year. Horror fans all over the world rejoice at the crisp leaves, the ever-expanding pumpkin fields, and the witch’s brew simmering on the stove. This month we’re going hard for Halloween, a boon of celebration for our regular Unholy Matrimony. Read on for horror recommendations and stay awhile, there’s a lot to eat.
Need to catch up, or missed the last monthly recommendations? Just click here.
Something Old: The Sender (1982)
A man awakens near a family park, disoriented and seemingly afraid. He walks quietly through families enjoying the sun, placing rocks into his pockets and slowly heads into the water. His eyes silently scream the desperation he’s in, enough to end his own life*. When he’s admitted to the hospital, nobody knows who he is, including himself.
This is how we meet The Sender or, John Doe 83, admitted to the state psychiatric ward for suicidal risk. John Doe is played by a nearly unrecognizable young Zeljko Ivanek (Argo, Donnie Brasco, In Bruges) who maintains the constant hum of someone plagued by mental illness, a sense of exhaustion that only comes from a relentlessly busy mind.
This, too, is how we meet Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) who despite a spicy method of psychiatry takes a liking to John beyond regular patient/caregiver status. It’s not that she’s in love with him, but that she sees herself as some sort of surrogate mother to this nameless boy. After all, they do share a special connection. In his sleep, John is able to transmit his feelings and dreams to the people around him causing a special kind of terror. At first, Gail is terrified at the mysterious hallucinations she beings to experience, creepy crawly things and ghostly intruders upon her home, but she begins to make the connection between her patient and herself and, most selflessly, decides to do anything she can to help him.
It’s 1982 and electroshock therapy is still touted as a successful treatment for suicidal depressives. So is throwing words like “crazy” around and using gross stereotypes to “display” mental illness so at times the film feels insensitive, especially if you’ve personally struggled with these issues. Gail is a woman who fights for the rights of her patients despite clear pressure from her superiors to just shock the thoughts out of them. She’s relentless and endearing, trusting her instincts and listening to the cues she receives from those she helps.
One of The Sender’s most impactful scenes involves Gail washing her face at a bathroom sink, the water turning to blood, running down her face as she looks in the mirror with horror. The mirror begins to crack, fragments of glass fly out as blood pours from its broken frame. It’s unsettling and particularly well done, especially as Gail remains impressively calm and understands this is another message for her from John, who can’t control his own transmissions. Her openness to psychic abilities allows her to save his life more than once.
Playing into John Doe’s struggles is an uncomfortable relationship with his mother, who appears without warning and makes ominous warnings about her Christchild. She displays a sense of warped ownership over him, and he displays an unhealthy attachment to her. Parental issues often play a huge role in mental health, but this one takes an eerie turn that will have you think twice about a momma’s boy. John’s inability to control himself directly impacts the people around him, causing other patients to view him with fearful respect and causing us to view him with empathy no matter how little we understand his origin and his motivations.
The Sender is 35 years old this month, and it still holds an insightful message about the way we deal with trauma and how we communicate with the people we love. It certainly deserves a re-visit, or a first time watch if this one fell into a blind spot.
*The Sender deals heavily and repeatedly with attempted suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out. National help lines can be found here.
Something New: Euthanizer (Armomurhaaja) (2017)
Animal lovers beware, difficult scenes abound in Euthanizer. Written and directed by Teemu Nikki, this Finnish thriller is certainly going to be a festival favourite. This is the story of Veijo (Matti Onnismaa) who out of necessity and mercy euthanizes animals as a black market service. He views death as a necessary part of life, and has deeply-held views about pain and restitution, holding every lazy and abusive pet owner to his judgement. Veijo’s run-ins with these villains are tense and teeming with quiet rage, and his interactions with the few others in his life push to the extreme. While no animals are killed onscreen, the scenes involving them are as chilling as they are necessary. Euthanizer is dark as hell, exploring corners of both society and the human psyche in a particularly unsettling way. Themes of justice, karma, debt, and masculinity bear juicy fruit in this one that had me wowed by the end, but you’ll want to hold your dog and your family close while you watch.
Euthanizer played at TIFF, and releases in Finland November 24, 2017
Something Borrowed: Intruder (1989)
Sometimes all you need a simple slasher, and where better to pull from than the 1980s? Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell come together in this supermarket slasher picked up for its tagline “He’s just crazy ‘bout this store!” and simple premise: the employees of a closed supermarket are tortured by a mysterious maniac all night long.
Though this gem popped up in the death throes of the decade (and the subgenre, depending on who you ask), everything about it is supremely ‘80s. Elizabeth Cox as hot girl Jennifer is rocking those sweet, sweet bangs and popping gum at the checkout and nobody balks when a pack of cigarettes costs less than two dollars. I spent several years working as a checkout girl in a grocery store, so it warmed my heart to see her and Linda (Renée Estevez) gossiping, giggling, and disregarding a perturbed elderly customer. The juicy goss is this: Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend is about to show up and get real mean. He’s still in love with her, but she thinks he’s a creep. After causing a scene trying to buy cigarettes, every man in the store tries to beat him up with no real luck. The police intervene and he’s booted into the dark night to deal with his loneliness and masculine rage issues.
As if the assault isn’t enough, the employees are informed that the store has been bought out and their final task throughout the night shift is to mark down all the product for clearance. They all have special memories there and share them in heartfelt ways, trying to cope with the fact that they’ll all be out of a job soon. This is especially sad for Jennifer, because everybody likes her and she’s obviously a great checkout girl! While they’re trying to decide what to do about their bright futures, her ex begins to call and stalk the store putting everyone on edge. The bodies start to stack up, maimed in horrific and entertaining ways, and it becomes clear there’s a killer on the prowl.
The best part of Intruder is the delightfully grotesque death scenes. This is that special kind of movie that has you laughing and cheering at its inventive POV deaths and exploding eyeballs. Scott Spiegel just goes for it, putting the camera in the most random locations to keep things interesting. It’s fun, but doesn’t have much else going for it despite some well-known and respected names (Bruce Campbell received top billing even though he only appears briefly near the end of the film) Sam Raimi gets the meat hook and Ted Raimi plays an unforgettably priceless character, oblivious to the murders around him as he grooves to his walkman. Overall, Intruder is a real slice of its time and worth a watch for gorehounds and ’80s lovers.
Make sure to catch the director’s version of this one for an added five minutes of sweet holy gore.
Something Blue: Left Bank (2008)
Every now and then a mystery movie hits all your pleasure points. This time it’s a film ripe with Polanksi-esque paranoia and a solid cast out of Belgium called Left Bank (Linkeroever). Pieter Van Hees has managed to shoot a film that looks great and feels smooth and coherent despite its risky narrative largely due to the team of performers he’s chosen to work with. Eline Kuppens (High Heels, Low Tide) stars as Marie, a young runner with her sights on the European championship. She has the chops to do it, relentless ambition, a solitary life and a strict physical regimen all contribute to her astounding success.
That is, until Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts) comes along and reaches into her quiet sojourn pulling her into a whirlwind that’s just fantastic enough to be believable. Bobby pulls a smile from her normally stoic face and displays a rare patience for her tendency to look for the worst in everything. Marie’s personality is both a protective mechanism and a driving force. Her overprotective mother and queerly invested coach put a lot of pressure on her and pull her in different directions – her only true freedom is when she’s running and pushing her body to its maximum potential. Nothing in Marie’s life is ever good enough for her, a sad glimpse at perfectionism and self-defeat.
Marie is easily impressed with Bobby’s easy personality and his lifestyle on the illustrious Left Bank, a side of town known just as much for its wealth as for its dark secrets. When she is diagnosed with an immune disorder that begins to wreak havoc on her body, she needs little convincing to move into his lavish apartment to recuperate. Here, Marie battles the realities of her life and mourns her lost chance to compete, but rather than improve her health steadily declines. She notices bizarre changes in her body, soot-like dust coming from her vagina (after a seriously hot sex scene) and hair growing from an aggravated wound.
These symptoms, combined with an inability to continue running and a serious case of insomnia, give Marie some extra time to investigate the previous tenant’s disappearance. A mysterious box under the sink and a threatening phone call implore her to find the truth about the missing girl and continue on her bizarre personal research project. What they discover is a delicious mix of urban folklore, mystery, and deceit. There’s something lurking in Left Bank, and has been for some time. If you’re interested in finding out what it is, I highly recommend this one. As an added bonus, this one’s in Flemish which I’d never heard before and quite enjoyed discovering its peculiar lilt.
Still hungry? Here’s what you may have missed around here on the horror front:
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Stephen King Week: