Filmed partly in Wales, this Shudder exclusive is frequently quite funny, in an extremely dark way. Actress Alice Lowe apparently conceived (no pun intended) the idea when she was pregnant, and ended up writing, directing, and starring in the final result, Prevenge (2017). She plays Ruth, a very pregnant woman whose partner died in a mountain climbing accident; Lowe visually equates the red climbing ropes with blood-filled veins and umbilical cords, connections to life. Now, distraught, she visits a midwife that says her baby is “in charge.”
Ruth takes this literally and begins listening to her baby’s sinister, high-pitched voice, as it urges her to kill. Her targets include a large, balding DJ (Tom Davis) in a small dive bar and a career woman (Kate Dickie) who agrees to meet Ruth for a job interview. She even keeps a “baby book” of her murders. One man seems nice and Ruth decides not to kill him, but the baby speaks up and the choice is made. Lowe gives this a lot of grit and style, and it feels deliberately murky and smudgy, as if it were meant to be a “video nasty” or a grindhouse feature. Don’t miss the climax set on Halloween night. Double-feature idea: Brian Taylor’s absolutely bonkers Mom and Dad (2018) [Hulu] also deals with the very darkest of parental impulses.
Though not exactly a horror movie, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017) is still a gripping, blood-soaked thriller in the vein of drive-in exploitation classics like I Spit on Your Grave and The Evil Dead, plus it’s available exclusively on the horror streaming service Shudder. It’s filled with edge-of-your-seat moments as the beautiful Jen (Matilda Lutz) takes a helicopter ride with her secret lover, Richard (Kevin Janssens), to his spacious desert home. Unfortunately, his two buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) also show up to join Richard on an annual guys-only hunting trip.
After some highly inappropriate, sexually assaultive behavior, Richard attempts to silence Jen by pushing her off a cliff. Impaled on a tree branch, but not yet dead, she gets up and attempts to set things right. Jen’s physical transformation is amazing, going from a spoiled, magazine cover-girl to a blood-and-grime-covered Rambo-ess, the two opposites linked only by a single star-shaped earring. The movie’s level of cat-and-mouse, one-upsmanship is as tense as it gets, and its use of physical space is masterful. Double-feature idea: Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto (2015) [Netflix] is another hunter/hunted story set in the desert, but with a racial angle rather than a sex-based one.
Expert genre filmmaker Brad Anderson turns to the master, Edgar Allan Poe, for inspiration for this opulent, quietly sinister period-horror movie. Stonehearst Asylum (2014) is set in the year 1899, when Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the remote, creepy asylum, hoping to become a resident doctor. He meets superintendent Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) and his thuggish right-hand man (David Thewlis) as well as beautiful inmate Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), who has the “hysteria.”
At first he gets along well, but begins to discover strange things afoot, starting with the discovery of a basement full of locked-up inmates. One of them claims to be Dr. Salt (Michael Caine), the true superintendent of the facility. Anderson, who also made the brilliantly terrifying Session 9 (2001), which was also set in an asylum, uses the dank walls of the place for maximum atmosphere, and the superb cast seems to be having a great time playing with the tricks and treats written into their characters. Double-feature idea: Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) [Amazon Prime], while vastly different, is another movie about strange maladies and disturbing behavior.
Under the Shadow
Written and directed by Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow (2016) is all the more powerful for being steeped in world affairs, and for vividly capturing the emotional sense of what it might be like to be caught in a war. It’s the 1980s, during the long Iran-Iraq conflict, and Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is forbidden to re-enter medical school because of her past as a political demonstrator. Her husband has been called off to serve in the war effort, and she must take care of her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone, with the threat of Iraqi bombs falling on their Tehran home.
Worse, a djinn has become attached to Dorsa, and the girl, sick with fever, refuses to evacuate until her missing doll is found. The film—best viewed in its original Persian with English subtitles—concentrates on realism and on small details of life rather than elaborate visual effects of scares, but the film nonetheless remains a satisfyingly unsettling experience. Double-feature idea: Tobe Hooper’s unjustly panned final film Djinn (2013) [Amazon Prime, Hoopla] also deals with the evil creature of lore.
Last summer, news outlets began reporting that Paco Plaza’s Veronica (2017) was so scary that Netflix viewers couldn’t even finish watching it. News like that is catnip for horror fans, but the truth is that, though the movie isn’t as scary as all that, it’s still quite good. It has a fine touch for horror that grows organically out of ordinary situations. Apparently based on a spine-tingling true story, it’s set in 1991, in Madrid. (The movie is best viewed in Spanish with English subtitles.)
The title character (Sandra Escacena) is a 15-year-old who is in charge of her three younger siblings while her widowed mother works. At school, during a solar eclipse, she sneaks into the basement with two friends to speak to her dead father via a Ouija board. Of course, that goes spectacularly wrong, and all kinds of creepy, hair-raising things start happening around the house. The movie ends with what appear to be photographs from the real-life incident, leaving viewers with genuine chills. Double-feature idea: Given its based-on-a-true-story origins—and the fact that it features a creepy nun—how about James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 (2016) [Rental—iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, etc., from $2.99]?
This found-footage anthology series is deliberately meant to recall the forbidden thrill of watching creepy movies in that muddy, low-quality, old-video format that somehow seemed to emphasize the unholiness of things. The general consensus is that the second entry, V/H/S/2 (2013) is the best of the trio. In the wraparound sequence, cops go looking for the missing characters from the first film and find a weird house with the bank of video decks and buzzing TVs. On the tapes are stories of a man who gets an eye transplant and begins seeing ghosts, a biker who is attacked by zombies and then wanders around with his GoPro still filming, a film crew trying to get the scoop on an Indonesian religious cult, and aliens attacking a teen party.
Frequently the grungy, deliberately sloppy, homemade camerawork can cleverly enhance the horrors by keeping things just a little out of frame, or off-balance. Directors on this entry include Adam Wingard (You’re Next), Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project), Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption), and Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun). Double-feature idea: Another decent found-footage movie, Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010) [Roku, Hoopla, Vudu, TubiTV] features a strong performance by Patrick Fabian as a tormented preacher.
(Amazon Prime, Netflix)
For his excellent feature debut with The Witch (2016), writer and director Robert Eggers did copious amounts of research, making sure that dialogue, sets, costumes, and everything else about his 17th-century tale were as authentic as possible. The result is not so much a feeling of being transported to another time, but to another state of mind. In this world, witches are believed to be real—no question. All horror cliches involving disbelief and carelessness are gone. These characters live in actual fear. In New England, a Puritan family is banished and sets up their own isolated farm near a spooky woods.
Life is already hard, and then one day, while eldest daughter Thomasin (the astonishing Anya Taylor-Joy) is looking after the baby, it suddenly disappears, possibly taken by a witch. More crazy things begin to happen, and the family members begin to suspect each other of being under the influence of witchcraft. The gloomy atmosphere and eerie music is more haunting than it is flat-out scary, but this fascinating movie still subtly suggests parallels to life today, and, unlike many horror films, it demands thinking about. Double-feature idea: For a similar level of art-house creepiness, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968) [FilmStruck] makes a good spiritual sidekick.