Hey all, we have an investigative flavour happening this month which is kind of cool and unplanned. Very Blotter-esque. Dish up!
Need to catch up, or missed the last monthly recommendations? Just click here.
Something Old: The Ugly (1997)
The ‘90s were a weird time for horror, but there are some hidden gems out there. For awhile we talked about how it’s the “worst” decade for the genre, now we talk a lot about how we talked about that but were wrong. Just like low-rise jeans. Anyway, this hidden gem came out of New Zealand in 1997. I’m recommending The Ugly with some reservation because despite its modest performance, there’s something special there.
Simon (Paolo Rotondo) is a serial killer locked in an asylum, regularly abused by the guards. He requests an outside psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Karen Schumaker (Rebecca Hobbs) who seeks to understand the motives for his crimes and determine if he is able to stand trial. Schumaker is a real budget Dana Scully, fierce and cunning with boxy shoulder pads to boot. She’s defiant towards Simon’s guards and primary psychiatrist and pushes Simon to his limits—despite his handsome, charming nature—to decide whether he’s a danger to himself or the public. She’s a great character that had me looking for more of Hobbs’s work, but short of TV series her roles have been few. Between her and Rotondo they make the entire film work even with its limited budget and distracting side performances.
Much of the story is told through flashbacks that aim to instill empathy for Simon, and they certainly work. We learn about his troubled past at school and at home, and we learn about his one love, sweet Julie. Most importantly, we learn about what haunts his mind and what he sees in his peripherals. Simon’s victims seem to have little in common besides being murdered with his straight razor, but we’ll learn this story is more about The Ugly, his alter-ego and a bastardization of his favourite book (and a predictor of his own life), The Ugly Duckling.
Scott Reynolds wrote and directed this ambitious little indie film to mixed effect. Some of the supporting performances are almost dream-like and tamper with the tone, and the stylized editing feels a little wonky at times though it’s impressive at others. Simon feels a sort of disconnectedness from his victims, seeing them as non-human. The symbolism is there—any blood in the film appears as black rather than deep red. This cuts some of the visceralness away from the murders which might be appealing to more squeamish viewers. Those left a little disappointed by the choice will be pleased with the supernatural elements of The Ugly, as Simon is surrounded by the bleeding, groaning ghosts of his victims which is effectively claustrophobic.
The movie is 20 years old this year, and it really is “of its time.” This is evident not only in the way the movie looks and feels, but also in its very ’90s psycho-crime-thriller story. Even so, it has a surprising amount of heart, and makes for a neat viewing that’s worth your time.
Something New: Charismata (2018?)
Ah, that video still is sick. Murder is a compelling storyline on its own, but once you add satanic rituals to it, the party hats come out. Charismata is a cheeky little British horror by co-directors and co-writers Andy Collier and Toor Mian. The impish Sarah Beck Mather plays Detective Faraway who seems to have some personal issues that may be affecting her investigation into local murders. Combating her own paranoia while solving the crime will prove to be a mind-bending challenge that looks confidently stylish and compelling.
Charismata calls itself “…a tense, fast moving police thriller reminiscent of Fincher’s “Se7en” with a nightmarish, paranoia-infused psychological horror story which tips its hat to Polanski’s classic Apartment Trilogy…” you know me, I’m first in line for something like this.
Charismata doesn’t have a release date yet (possibly spring 2018) but I got my claws on it so you’ll see a review coming soon. In the meantime, why don’t you check out the website?
Something Borrowed: Thesis (1996)
Do you remember the days of early P2P sharing and IRC? When digital piracy was much more difficult than it is today, antivirus software couldn’t handle the load, and porn snuck through every crack in the medium? Oh, Kazaa.
I remember those days. More specifically, I remember a strange, graphic video making its way to my screen of a man in some far-off country screaming in pain as he was slowly decapitated with a hand saw. I only saw a couple minutes suspended in terror and disbelief, but they are moments I have never been able to forget.
Since then I’ve been fascinated by snuff—not watching it, but the idea that there are people who purposefully want to witness authentic and grotesque violence, torture, and death. I’m the first to agree that horror is a cathartic genre, but knowing that there are people who want to go beyond corn syrup blood and spaghetti-o guts fascinates me. Snuff is a very real industry with real supply and demand. I accidentally saw a beheading video as a pre-teen, but they’re a dime a dozen now with sites dedicated to showing the gruesome process.
In May I wrote about 8MM, a movie starring Nicolas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix who investigate an alleged snuff film at the request of a grieving widow. This month I want to talk about Thesis, a Spanish film from 1996 by Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside, Regression). It follows Angela (Ana Torrent), a master’s student in film studies completing her thesis on audiovisual violence in the family. In her research, she comes across a snuff film of what appears to be a missing student being tortured and disemboweled. With the help of social outcast and pornographic violence connoisseur Chema (Fele Martínez) she investigates its origins only to find herself in way over her head.
First and foremost, though Angela repeatedly denies she has an affinity for or an attraction to violence, she displays a healthy dose of morbid curiosity. She, like many of us horror fans, can’t help but crane her neck and peer over the boundary to witness the aftermath of death. This is indicative of Thesis’s meatiest parts, its commentary on not only film but humanity. The movie implicates a larger conversation around an audience’s reaction—demand—for violence despite its finger wagging about its effect. When Angela’s professor and thesis supervisor mysteriously dies, his replacement Castro (Xabier Elorriaga) repeatedly challenges the film students, reminding them that it’s about giving the audience what they want. Feeding the vulgar appetite is what will finally elevate Spanish cinema above American, according to him.
Thesis delivers on the violence without becoming a caricature of itself. While some graphic images are shown, much of it is only described and we are left watching the characters steel themselves through what they’re observing. In many ways this is more effective than seeing the footage ourselves, and this has been true since Rosemary’s Baby. As I always say, what we imagine is often much worse than reality. Well, that used to be the case anyway.
Drama abounds in Thesis as Angela is simultaneously charmed and frightened by the suspect of the crime while Chema flaunts his unrequited attraction to her like an adolescent boy, angry and pouting as they attempt to solve the mystery. Lies and betrayal abound, and the guilt hits every rung of the ladder, including the one we sit on as spectators, since spectating is part of the deal.
Many will recognize Ana Torrent who has been gracing the screen since she was a child, most notably in 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive where she plays a young girl traumatized after watching Frankenstein (check that one out!). In Thesis she achieves a sense of realism with her laid-back delivery and focused nature. Watching her performance bounce off her costars is proof of her immensely understated talent.
In every Unholy Matrimony post, there’s always one movie I would recommend above the other three, and this month it’s Thesis. It’s a smart thriller that doesn’t sacrifice its artistic style even at its most bloody, and every performance hits its intended mark. This one stays long in the brain. Have a watch, and tell me what you think.
Something Blue: I’m Not Scared (2003)
Italy brings forth some lighter(?) fare with Gabriele Salvatores’ I’m Not Scared. Coming of age stories aren’t my favourite unless they involve discovering a dark secret that changes the way they view the world and the people around them. The loss of childhood innocence is a strange and sad concept, and everybody has their own story of how it came about. Michele’s story is one of a chilling discovery that he will learn might implicate his entire village.
A small group of children are playing around an abandoned farm area in the south of Italy. They’re playing the way kids do, egging each other on, forcing others into public humiliation and practicing cusswords. 9 year old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) is there, our young protagonist who, lingering behind as the others have left, discovers a deep hole in the ground. Inside, he discovers Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), a little emaciated blonde boy chained in the darkness. At first, he’s not even sure he’s alive. But Michele’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he continues to return to the hole and make contact with the other boy inside.
At first it’s hard to understand why Michele keeps this discovery to himself. It’s difficult to place yourself in the past and look through childhood eyes, but it makes sense the more you slip back to that time of incomprehension and fear. For a moment, Michele has his own private playmate, one he can visit when he likes and care for in his limited way. The childhood delight of keeping a secret is evident, but it’s also clear that it wears on his conscience knowing that this boy is alone and chained in the ground. Most importantly, like us, Michele wants to know the bigger question: why?
Gabriele Salvatores’s film is as strangely beautiful as it is discomfiting. The golden wheat seems to reflect the sun into the flawless blue skies as the children pedal madly down a dirt road. The lines are surprisingly clean for the setting, at times looking like a graphic novel in their luminosity. What it says about family is beautiful too, if aching. It’s best to go in knowing as little as possible, so I’ll end it here. Just be prepared to think about the role of provision in the family, the meaning of manhood, and the effect our decisions have on the generations who follow.
Are you still hungry? Here’s what you may have missed around here on the horror front:
P.S., Did you see the Mother! trailer? Ohhh boy.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment