First published by Little White Lies, in anticipation both of the Film4 FrightFest 2015, and of the focus on domestic dread in the (then) forthcoming Crimson Tide issue of LWLies.
Includes reviews of: The Diabolical, We Are Still Here, Pod, Hangman, Slumlord (aka 13 Cameras), The Shelter, Estranged, Demonic (aka James Wan’s Demonic), AfterDeath, Emelie
Whether it is haunted or invaded, whether its intimate secrets are exposed or its buried histories resurface, the house is where horror has long been at home. Here, in no particular order, are ten up and coming genre titles, all screening at this year’s Film4 FrightFest (27th to 31st August 2015), and all unfolding within domestic spaces that are broken, entered and turned inside out for our voyeuristic pleasure.
This opening line – coming after the camera has reeled unnaturally (POV-style) through a darkened house, after electrical devices have started and stopped of their own accord, after there has been an eerie flash of light and a pen has moved across a table by itself – registers not only the fact that its speaker, single mother Madison Heller (Ali Larter), has already witnessed this sort of Poltergeist activity before, but also that The Diabolical is on overfamiliar ground. Indeed, the sudden materialisation and dematerialisation of a demonic figure before Madison’s (and our own) eyes seems merely to confirm that Alistair LeGrand’s feature debut is going through the genre motions, and that Madison’s weary (if panicky) two words point to a long history of horror movie cliché. LeGrand, however, is laying out a classical problem only to find a new, brain-burning solution that involves a blurring of subgenres, a cross-fertilising of some very different ideas, and a complete overhaul of the ghost’s traditional relationship to the past (with only a recent Venezuelan horror title as partial precedent).
If the most human-looking apparition (Kurt Carley) who haunts this house comes dressed in a convict’s uniform, Madison and her children – smart but disturbed Jacob (Max Rose) and the younger Haley (Chloe Perrin) – are themselves prisoners in various ways of their own home. First there is the genetic legacy of anger and violence that Madison’s late husband Mark has bequeathed to their son. Then there is the economic trap that prevents the heavily mortgaged Hellers from simply moving out, soon to be followed by a more mysterious barrier that will physically stop the children leaving the house’s premises. And if Madison’s new boyfriend Nik (Arjun Gupta) is a physicist with his own shady past, science points to a different kind of trap from which the family will in the end find only a paradoxical, ambiguous form of escape.
All of which makes for a rich and intriguing variation on a timeworn theme, as the tropes of the haunted house flick are ingeniously reverse-engineered and rebuilt into something else. Here, even as a troubled family in need of mending remains at the heart of everything, the genre’s infernally looped repetitions come in a radically altered form.
We Are Still Here
Like many a ghost story, Ted Geoghegan’s feature debut traffics in grief, loss and the persistence of the past. Anne and Paul Sarchetti (Barbara Crompton, Andrew Sensenig) move away from the city to rural Aylesbury, New England, hoping to escape the painful memories of their adult son Bobby’s recent death – but still bringing their old photographs along with them. In this barren, wintry setting, in their new home – originally the local funeral parlour, with “history ‘n’ all” – Anne is convinced that she can still feel Bobby’s presence, and invites her New Age friends May and Jacob (Lisa Marie, cult director/producer Larry Fessenden) to come over and perform a séance.
Yet as something stirs in the overheated basement, We are Still Here itself turns out to be no less haunted than the Sarchettis, with the spirit of Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (2015) – and to a degree of Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – emerging to lay claim on the present. At first burning slow and focusing closely on character, Geoghegan’s film flares up into an inferno by the end, as one family’s personal tragedy melts together with the traditions and traumas of both their new community and the genre that comes with it – and home proves to be where the hearth is. Though ultimately a bloody, gory affair, full of sinister citizenry, country conspiracies and revengeful revenants, what makes We Are Still Here stay burnt into the brain is its special brand of irrationality, not so much resolved as perpetuated in the end.
Also featuring a basement and Larry Fessenden is Pod, written and directed by Mickey Keating (Ultra Violence, Ritual). While lacking anything like the budget or scale of Drew Goddard’s reflexive horror The Cabin In The Woods (2011), it is mostly set in one, and similarly challenges viewers to a knowing game of spot the subgenre.
Ed (Dean Cates) has driven his alcoholic sister Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter) out to their late parents’ lakeside, snowbound cabin in “middle of nowhere, Maine”, where their other sibling Martin (Brian Morvant), a disturbed war veteran, is holed up and apparently in need of intervention. Having lined the outer doors and windows with tin foil, Martin rants aggressively about military experiments, conspiracy and a top secret ‘pod’ that he has captured and kept locked in the basement – ever since, drawn to a tracer implanted in one of his teeth, it attacked his dog. Not only do these sound like the ravings of a madman, but Martin has a history of paranoid schizophrenia and violent fantasy.
Playing out under the resonant glare of The Last Man On Earth (1964) on Martin’s TV set, Pod turns on an ambiguity (are we watching a psychodrama or a creature feature?) which will be resolved only when Ed finally, inevitably, ventures into the dark cellar to see if there is anything or anyone really down there. It is a simple, moody film, more talk than action, which presents two possible scenarios in its first two acts, before another narrative frame (via a Fessenden cameo) triangulates its way into the third – and coming in at a breezy 80 minutes, it never outstays its welcome.
The Miller family – Aaron (Jeremy Sisto), Beth (Kate Ashfield), their teenaged daughter Marley (Ryan Simpkins) and younger son Max (Ty Simpkins) – return from a holiday to find that their home on suburban Oak Tree Avenue has been burgled, and then set about picking up the pieces and getting on with their lives. Yet what we know – and they do not – is that the intruder (Eric Michael Cole) has never left. From a nook in the attic, he observes their every move through hidden cameras, moves about the house at night or sometimes during the day, and insinuates himself into the most intimate parts of their lives – even into Max’s dreams.
Made for a mere $15,000, Adam Mason’s Hangman (his fourth feature to screen at FrightFest) ingeniously merges the tropes of ‘found footage’, home invasion and the slasher. Everything we see here represents the fragmented POV of a malicious interloper, shot through a variety of cameras for his own private viewing, though equally exposing this household’s secrets and lies to our complicit eyes. Falling somewhere between the multi-perspective sadism of Marc Evans’ My Little Eye (2002) and the creepy intrusions of Jaume Balagueró’s Sleep Tight (2011), Hangman fucks, both metaphorically and literally, with a family’s personal lives. It is an extremely uncomfortable premise, made all the more tense by a prologue which shows what the intruder did to the last household that unwittingly accommodated him. Yet while Hangman closes like a trap on the Millers, it also offers a diffuse portrait of a man who covets a kind of love and familiarity which will always exclude and elude him. It might even be regarded as a metaphor for our own serial viewings of films that involve us without ever really letting us in.
Slumlord (aka 13 Cameras)
In a superficially similar vein to Hangman is Victor Zarcoff’s debut Slumlord (aka 13 Cameras), in which the marital difficulties of pregnant Claire (Brianne Moncrief) and her unfaithful husband Ryan (P.J. McCabe) are keenly observed by their repellent landlord Gerald (Neville Archambault), who has installed hidden cameras all through their house, and seems to have a bigger plan for them beyond mere remote masturbatory voyeurism.
When Ryan first claps eyes on Gerald near the film’s beginning, his automatic response is, “Yikes!”. Claire’s is, “No fucking way!”, before joking about “bodies buried in the backyard.” We too, even before we have heard them say this, feel much the same way, as Archambault puts in a brilliantly unpleasant ‘muttering man’ performance – like a house alarm that everyone hears but nobody properly heeds.
Unlike Mason’s film, Slumlord does not restrict itself to the footage of the diegetic cameras, but nonetheless it only ever leaves the confines of the house occasionally to show Gerald watching his monitors or buying equipment or burgers. Consequently, the film’s perspective becomes deeply claustrophobic – not unlike the couple’s disintegrating relationship – and is uneasily allied to the ogling point of view of the landlord, whose errant gaze will soon be translated into even more perverse action. Everything here is unnerving and uncomfortable to watch – and that sense of amplified discomfort naturally extends to include an eleventh-hour shift in tone from harrowing psychodrama to black comedy.
Surrounded by Christian iconography and Biblical quotes, the fallen, semi-vagrant Thomas (played by a grizzled Michael Paré) bears the loss, five years earlier, of his pregnant wife and unborn daughter like a cross about his neck (and he has a crucifix charm there too). One dark, drunken night, shortly after accidentally stabbing his foot with a nail (even more Christian imagery!), despairing, doubting Thomas makes himself at home in an open-doored, empty house, only to find himself unable to leave. This is no ordinary building, but a hall of mirrors reflecting every painful fragment of Thomas’ guilt-laden memory – as well as a portal to a more idyllic world where Thomas’ original sinfulness nonetheless keeps resurfacing to spoil the heavenly scene.
If this is purgatory, viewers too may feel they have to do their own share of waiting. Even at a mere 76 minutes, John Fallon’s feature debut The Shelter feels stretched, with far too much time devoted to Thomas wandering about looking lost (which in more than one sense he is). Still, that brief duration does eventually manage to contain two different time frames, at least two realities, and a personal moral meltdown that may also be a Biblical apocalypse – and the house in which most of the ‘action’ occurs is disorientingly unhinged from spatio-temporal norms, offering uncanny accommodation for Thomas’ damaged psyche and spirit as much as for his pierced and scarred body. Here the haunted house is but an outward manifestation of a haunted man, damned by his own lack of fidelity, if not faith.
When we first encounter January (Amy Manson) – named for the Roman god of doors, beginnings and transitions – she is on a Brazilian motorcycling trip with her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) and fleetingly free, having six years earlier severed all ties with her past. Yet an accident leaves her wheelchair-bound, memory-addled and returned to the English stately manor and family that she has now entirely forgotten. As she struggles to get better, and to recall what specifically estranged her from this crumbling pad and its dysfunctional residents (including James Cosmo’s menacing patriarch), January will gradually realise that when it comes to the property’s bloodline of succession, she’s definitely next – and may never be able to escape her genealogy again.
Adam Levins’ feature debut as director is a paranoid chamber piece, where a family home is also a prison of perverse history, aspirational envy and twisted revenge. Estranged shows England’s class structure to be a closed system, its bricks and mortar staying essentially fixed no matter how deep the genetic pool may run. January might just be the revolutionary to let everything burn and to build a new world – but an ambiguous ending, poised on the doorstep, leaves us wondering if an entirely fresh start is ever really possible.
Demonic (aka James Wan’s Demonic)
In 1988, five young people are found dead in a big Louisiana house where they had allegedly carried out an occult ritual. Two decades later, the now abandoned house plays host to a repeat scenario, as some student paranormal investigators who have broken in with various recording devices are later found inside murdered. “It was the house!”, insists confused survivor John (Dustin Milligan) in a recorded interview with police psychologist Dr Elizabeth Klein (Maria Bello), as he tries to articulate what happened. Meanwhile Detective Mark Lewis (Frank Grillo) searches for two other students – including John’s pregnant girlfriend Michelle (Cody Horn) – who are missing from the scene.
Though billed as James Wan’s Demonic to cash in on Wan’s success as a genre director, and slotting easily into the slick haunted house stylings recently repopularised by Wan’s Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), this film (working title: House of Horror) is in fact helmed and co-written by Will Canon (Brotherhood, 2010), and comes with plenty of devilish new tricks up its sleeve. From the start Demonic promises to be a ‘found footage’ film, authenticating its own fictions with the ghost hunters’ diegetic camerawork – but in fact most of their painstaking documentation has been uselessly damaged, so that the story must instead be reconstructed (in flashback) through John’s distraught telling. As prime suspect, however, John is a narrator of questionable veridicality – and here, the lens can lie too. So while Demonic expertly delivers all the bumps in the night that fans of this genre love, it is also haunted by its own paradoxical narratology, engendering something slyly manipulative and deeply irrational, where perhaps Keyser Söze really is the devil.
Like After Life (1998) or Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), Gez Medinger and Robin Schmidt’s directorial debut AfterDeath makes no bones about the fact that it is set is a limbo between life and whatever comes next, as five of the recently departed find themselves washed ashore on a heath (in fact Happisburgh, Norfolk) whose only features are an isolated cottage and an inaccessible lighthouse that occasionally casts a cripplingly painful light. The cottage, a composite of different places from each of their remembered lives, decorated with some creepy artwork and “a mirror that lies”, is all at once purgatorial waiting station and trap, as a snowglobe-like membrane surrounding the area slowly closes in, and a demonic creature strives to take possession of them one by one. The five must work out what sins they have committed and how to expiate them, or face an eternal hell far worse than their current one.
Casting its everyday characters adrift in a bubble of ethical and eschatological conundrums, AfterDeath plays like a chamberpiece of odd ideas and even odder effects. It tempers the soap opera of these folk’s past lives with a truly iconoclastic solution to their core problem, and ends, ambiguously, on a note of Sartrean paradox. For in this house, while hell both is and is not other people, secularism finds a way to tackle theology on its own terms and to kill God once and for all – although who really knows what happens after the screen goes blank and the credits start rolling?
Best till last, Michael Thelin’s Emelie opens with a leafy neighbourhood street, shot wide by an unmoving camera in a single take. First heard talking on her phone about her babysitting gig that evening, a teenage girl gradually drifts into shot, only to be abducted by a woman in a car and a male accomplice in the street.
This disruption of bourgeois suburbia will continue as the car’s driver Emelie Medéa Liroux (Sarah Bolger) – note that middle name, with its infanticidal associations from Greek tragedy – sets about impersonating her victim so as to insinuate herself as the new babysitter in charge of 11-year-old Jacob (Joshua Rush), nine-year-old Sally (Carly Adams) and four-year-old Christopher (Thomas Bair). Emelie’s initial permissiveness soon turns to far more menacingly transgressive behaviours, and as her malicious intentions become clearer, difficult Jacob will need, as his mother has previously insisted, to “step up” and prove that he is “not a kid anymore”, or this family will be torn apart.
Borrowing equally from The Babadook (2014), The Aggression Scale (2012) and Inside (2007), Emelie visits a maniacal form of errant, sexualised adulthood upon children not yet old enough to understand the unhinged predatoriness of Emelie’s conduct, let alone to challenge this malevolent figure of authority. Emelie will eventually turn into a standard-issue movie psychotic as well as a Medea-like study in maternity and madness – but before that happens, she embodies the potential of these three middle-class children, each on their own cusp, to turn out wrong. It is a deeply unsettling examination of childcare’s darker side – set in the supposed comfort of the home.
© Anton Bitel