Monday, March 28, 2022

Flame-Colored Glasses

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we're still wandering the forests of folk horror with yet another Shudder reissue of a Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched referenced film, and yes, IT'S MORE HISTORICAL HORROR. 

But this one...

This one has laser stuff.

Quick Plot: In 1750, teenage Fanny and younger Meg are found wandering French territory by a pair of unfriendly soldiers who don't take kindly to colonial pioneers. Fanny begs the soldiers to let them stay, recounting her tale of the horrors they discovered in the wild forest.

It began earlier in a British settlement, where Fanny's mother was nearly executed by the rigid Puritans who didn't approve of her shacking up with the preacher William Smythe. Smythe is noosed up and dropped from the gallows, but a mysterious surge of energy saves him.

Nobody notices that said laser surge occurs as his foster daughter (of sorts) Leah shouts some gibberish. 

Leah, you see, is a bit of a wild card. Her mother was burned as a witch, her own life spared by William's intervention. Since then, the young redhead never quite assimilated into the Puritan way, though her premonitions and ability to manipulate the natural world is certainly a handy tool to have when on the run.

Smythe gathers a few more townspeople to head west, where they quickly discover they're in uncharted Shawnee territory and worse, territory too terrifying for the indigenous people who have been surviving on the land far longer than our pasty white settlers.

What follows is a pretty groovy delve into haunted forest lore, with spirits' faces poking out of trees, ready to devour the woefully unprepared caravan. It's up to Leah, all frenetic red curls to match her fiery screams, to battle the horrors and see her surviving adopted family to safety. 

Like Dark Waters, Eyes of Fire is another of those "how have I never HEARD of this?" movies. It's simply unlike the typical titles I would have passed by on VHS shelves, and that is a damn shame. Once again, I'm left wondering how many other cult horror films owe it residuals (A Field In England pops to mind first) and why it's so hard to find more work from writer/director Avery Crounse (his other efforts, The Invisible Kid and Sister Island, are nowhere to be found in accessible release). 

It's weird, creepy, and best of all, surprising. What a find. 

High Points
Look: I know I started this review by teasing you with lasers -- and make no mistake, there ARE lasers -- but Eyes of Fire is wonderfully committed to its period, with admirable discipline to sticking its scenery, attitude, and actors in true 18th century sensibility

Low Points
I hate to pull the old job interview trick of "my weakness is that I work too hard and there are only 24 hours in a day" con, but it's true here! There's so much more I wanted to know about the forest's mythology and Smythe's shady past, about the origin of Leah's powers, and so on. I don't know if Eyes of Fire was always intended to be such a brisk 90 minute ride, but I would hang a witch for a director's cut

Lessons Learned
Old tricks are old tricks because they work

All ghosts are scary, but the ones that steal bonnets are truly terrifying

Indigenous children of the 18th century rocked perfect bangs

I'm a very easy mark for historical horror, but as The Last Thing Mary Saw should tell you, the movie still has to be GOOD. And Eyes of Fire is a blast. WITH LASER THINS NO LESS. Have at it. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

The Last Thing Mary Snoozed


Nothing pleases me more than when the trends I've longed for finally seem to catch on. For YEARS now, I've been begging the gods for more historical horror, something that was a true rarity for quite a while. Sure, we had sprinkles and sprinkles of some low budget attempts (and some were actually good) but I'm a greedy, greedy woman.

Robert Eggers' The VVitch answered my call, and has since helped usher in a small, quiet trend. Shudder's latest original seemed to fit that bill. But is it any good?

Quick Plot: It's 1843 on eastern Long Island, and teenage Mary is not living her best life. With blood dripping from her blindfolded eyes, she's forced to recount her past to the strict Calvinist town constable. 

Her story is not particularly cheery: after falling in love with Eleanor, the maid (Esther herself, Isabelle Furhman), Mary was put through a variety of cleansing rituals at the behest of her eerie grandmother. The rest of her extended family joined in her reprogramming, some with more enthusiasm than others. 

Things take an even darker turn after Granny's sudden death. The quiet funeral is interrupted by Rory Culkin as a mysterious agent of evil...or something.

I like to think of myself as an intelligent film fan who enjoys a thoughtful genre tale, but I have to say it: I am, it would seem, not smart enough to follow the plot steps of The Last Thing Mary Saw.

This is the debut of writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti, and as first films go, it's technically quite impressive. Period stories on limited budgets are never easy, but Vitaletti crafts an incredibly authentic landscape for his cast to moodily shuffle through. 

Of course, "moody shuffling" isn't always a positive way to define your movie. For an 85 minute runtime, The Last Thing Mary Saw feels awfully laborious. A forbidden queer love story should be compelling, but the film's tone is as Puritan as its characters. It doesn't help that Mary and Eleanor are both extremely bland in their romance and even dumber in their inability to cover it up. There comes a point where, because the film hasn't really decided its stakes, it becomes kind of impossible to understand just how aware of their danger these girls are. 

From both a plot and character place, this movie is muddy. It plays with big ideas about God and Christianity without coming to any clear conclusions (or really asking challenging questions). But worst of all, it's, I hate to say it, mostly very dull. 

High Points
EVENTUALLY, The Last Thing Mary Saw managed to surprise me with a fairly shocking act of violence that unfolded in a sufficiently disturbing way

Low Points
Having said that, two seconds before said shocking event, I wrote in my notes, "I want to like this movie so much but it's so boring and nothing is happening"

Lessons Learned (the 1800s Edition)
19th century firearms took a few minutes to reload, but moving slightly out of the way of said firearms apparently took even longer

If you can't manage to hide your illegal romance, at least learn how to make a decent pair of kneepads

Locks on doors were luxuries even the most upstanding families couldn't afford

I wish I could tell you to dim the lights and queue up The Last Thing Mary Saw on Shudder with a buttery bowl of popcorn in your lap. I'm not NOT telling you to make the popcorn, but sadly, I think there are better films that pair with it. A valiant effort. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

Black Mirror Revisit: Hang the DJ

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Today, we've officially reached the top 5 with Hang the DJ.

The Talent: 
As always, Charlie Brooker writes, but this time, we get a director with very specific Doll's House credentials: Tim Van Patten, known now as a successful television director with key episode credits of The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and the pilot of Game of Thrones but known first to us for his unhinged in Class of 1984

The Setup:
Amy and Frank are first-timers using Coach, a new dating app with a twist: upon your first night out, Coach will tell you the length of the relationship. When that time is up, you're instantly set up with the next suitor/ette.

It's an awkward but enjoyable evening, yet Coach only gives Amy and Frank 12 hours before moving them on to new partners. Frank gets stuck with a woman who seems to despise him, while Amy is sent down a series of one-night stands. Eventually, the pair are matched again. Finally happy, they agree to not check the expiration date and enjoy whatever time they have together. 

Frank can't resist, but as soon as he checks Coach's predictions, the timer winds down, cutting their relationship from the projected 5 years to just one more day. Not long after, Coach gives Amy what should be good news: the system has found her true match, and it's not Frank. 

Amy gets one last date of her choosing before committing to her soulmate. She naturally chooses Frank, then attempts to make an escape from the system that wants to keep them apart. 

The Ending:
Or does it? Turns out, Amy and Frank are living inside a simulation designed to test their compatibility. 998 out of 1000 trials have ended this way, with the couple choosing each other over the system. In the real world, Amy gets a notification for her next date: a 99.8% compatibility with a stranger named Frank.

The Theme:
The fact that Black Mirror airs on Netflix, a service that's done more to increase algorithmic marketing than, well, let's guess 99.8% of other companies, puts Hang the DJ's messaging up to more debate than many other episodes. It's easy to see the story's twist as a criticism of modern dating, which relies on data mining to determine something very human. But had Brooker really felt that way, how easy it would have been to nose that thesis over the finish line. Throw in a winking popup ad for another Black Mirror-themed bite of capitalism and it would all be clear.

But that's not how Hang the DJ ends: our last image is a smiling Amy, a woman we've had an hour to get to know and like. She sees her match and smiles, and we smile before her because we know that Frank is indeed a suitable match. They share a sense of humor, one of the most important foundations for a relationship. Maybe they wouldn't have found each other in the "real world", but what does that really matter? Had they both independently ended up at that bar on the same night, they might not have thought to lock eyes. An app helped them along, and there's nothing wrong with that. 

So what is Hang the DJ saying, exactly? In my glass half full read, that people who are open to love can find it. There are tools to help but ultimately, the responsibility is yours. Not every prospective girlfriend is willing to challenge the very universe she's occupying to risk being with a man who's already failed her once. But Amy does, because even in her pixelated form, her love drives her. Real-life Amy will probably never know how far she was willing to go and heck, who knows that same passion will work in 3D. But if it doesn't, what's the worst that happens?

I know there are more cynical (and even sinister) readings of this episode, and while I could see them clearly when looking at the similarly themed San Junipero, Hang the DJ just feels joyous. 

The Verdict:
Clearly, I enjoy this episode. If watched in the right mood, it's a Twilight Zone rom-com. What's wrong with that?

Technology Tip:
Sure, algorithms can know you pretty well, but ultimately, connection is based on instinct. Trust yours.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 1/10

Quality Scale: 7/10
Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole's performances go a long way in making this an engaging story with a couple you root for.

Enjoyment Scale: 8/10
Hang the DJ isn't mind-blowing, but it's clever and cute, managing to put online dating under a different light. I know this one rarely makes best-of lists because it doesn't necessarily have as much to say as, say, Nosedive, but for me, it just works. 

Up Next (Month): Switching moods just a pinch, we head down a different version of an alternate reality with the cheery, super kid-friendly White Bear!

Monday, March 7, 2022

Alison, It's Your Birthday

Dear readers and lovers of all things horror, I should hope that by this point in our odd internet relationship, I don't have to still pitch the benefits of subscribing to Shudder. It remains such a wonderful destination for the genre, both new and old, hosting titles we've all long loved and even better, those we've never heard of. 

Their biggest recent release (literally; it's 3 1/2 hours long) is Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. It's a must-watch for any genre fan, shining thoughtful discussion on both well-known titles like The Wicker Man and a whole batch of more obscure work previously unavailable on general home media. 

But it gets better! Dozens of titles referenced in the doc are also now streaming on Shudder, which makes perfect sense (though try telling that to other streaming sites doing similar work). I'll warn you that I've definitely fallen down the grassy hole of the genre, so expect the next several weeks to include a LOT of forest haunts. 

First up: 1981's Alison's Birthday, a folk horror so folksy it has its own tiny Stonehenge. 

Quick Plot: A trio of teenagers are having fun with their homemade ouija board until things turn dark. Chrissy is possessed by a spirit from the other side with an important message for young Alison: don't return home on your 19th birthday, because Mirne is after you.

Alison doesn't know a Mirne, and before the night is over, she'll no longer know a Chrissy. An unusual breeze blows a bookcase on her friend, killing her instantly.

Three years later, Alison has moved away from her suburban hometown, eking out a living at a record store while she dates the charming Peter. Aunt Jenny, who raised her after her parents died in a car accident, calls Alison begging her to come home for her fated 19th birthday. Sure, it's not an exciting age, but Uncle Dean is dying, and Jenny has big party plans for their last family celebration.

Peter and Alison head home, and while Jenny and Dean are nice enough, Alison quickly remembers the many reasons she moved far away. There's something off about the place where she grew up. Maybe it's the non-suspicious replica of Stonehenge hiding in the backyard or the Minnie Castevet-ish tonics Aunt Jenny is always pushing down Alison's throat. Perhaps it's the bizarre nightmares now haunting Alison, visions of ritualistic sacrifice causing her to toss and turn as her 102-year-old great grandmother wheels herself into Alison's bedroom to watch her sleep. 

Yes, you really can't ever go home again.

Written and directed by Ian Coughlan, Alison's Birthday is a genuine treat. A sad, haunting little taste of something unnerving, but a satisfying bite nonetheless. It somehow feels both oddly familiar and completely fresh. The story is smartly small, focusing so finely on poor Alison's fate, wisely fleshing out Peter just enough so that we're equally invested in his mission to save her. 

There are serious Hereditary vibes circling the themes, and I'd be shocked if a VHS rental of this movie didn't imprint on a young Ari Aster. I'm also fairly shocked this movie hasn't been discussed more over the years. Maybe it was its lack of easy availability or small scale: ultimately, this is a very intimate story about one young woman's fate. Let's face it: that type of material doesn't always connect with a general fanbase who would rather see women in a very different light.  

Make no mistake: there is a lot of pain in Alison's Birthday, and a mounting sense of sad, inescapable dread. The ending packs an incredibly powerful punch that I won't forget. 

This is good stuff.

High Points
One of the key factors in making Alison's Birthday work is how the characters actually address the far-fetched supernatural possibilities at play. Alison is logical but dubious, and Peter, as he becomes deeper and deeper involved in solving the mystery, enlists the aid of his professional psychic pal. She in turn doesn't speak about these cults as if they're an ear to the underworld, but is very clear that Peter needs to know WHY and HOW they think the way they do if he has any hope of saving his girlfriend. It's an important distinction that helps ground the chaos

Low Points
It's the era, and that's that, but some of Alison's Birthday's score occasionally dates itself with such an electronic action-packed sound that doesn't quite align with the old-world eeriness of its folk horror roots

Lessons Learned (The Oz Edition)
Lyle was not a popular surname in 1980s Australia

All Australian babies are born with blue eyes

Pagan rituals down under call for the finest formalwear

I adored Alison's Birthday, and would be shocked if you didn't too. Go get it.