Horrorvember Diary #3: Verónica (2017)

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Verónica had its Midwest premiere at the Cinepocalypse genre film festival, held at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The film's director, Paco Plaza, is mostly known for the solid [REC] series. Unlike those films, Verónica does not use the found-footage conceit, though it’s apparently (and dubiously) based on a real-world case documented by police in 1990s Madrid, Spain.

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Verónica (Sandra Escacena) is a 15-year-old who essentially raises her three younger siblings (two girls and a boy) while her mother runs a local bar. During a solar eclipse, Verónica and a few friends from her religious school play with a Ouija board, and end up contacting Verónica’s dead father. Something comes over Verónica, and she begins showing signs of possession. She has disturbing dreams. She starts seeing a figure lurking in the shadows, and her siblings seem aware of something, too.

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I was underwhelmed by the first half of Verónica, possibly due to a personal bias against Ouija boards and possession in horror films. Apart from The Exorcist, I’ve rarely found these tropes effective, and Verónica does little to distinguish itself. When the girls use the Ouija board, the planchette whips around violently, clearly under the influence of something else – sure, okay. When Verónica's in the throes of possession, her body arches grotesquely and she screams – yup, got it. Yes, it’s unpleasant and creepy imagery, but I felt I was seeing a copy of a copy of this trope, and several others, in Verónica.

This is how things went until the siblings’ relationships eventually clicked into place for me. All of the non-adult performances in Verónica are stellar, especially Sandra Escacena and Ivan Chavero as Verónica’s 5-year-old brother, and their family-within-a-family dynamics felt fully realized and truthful. By the time the siblings teamed up to help Verónica battle whatever’s invaded their home, the stakes were clear and I was invested in the outcome.

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As well, Verónica seemed to be building toward a thematically satisfying conclusion. The central metaphors are not hard to spot. Although Verónica is 15 years old, we learn, she has not yet menstruated. She’s quite literally “not growing up,” and being possessed by her dead father, Verónica is quite literally having trouble “letting go” of him. I had The Babadook in mind as the film progressed, and I was hopeful that Verónica might resolve its thematic concerns in a similarly satisfying way.

But Verónica goes another direction I found disappointing, making last-minute insinuations that feel less like a twist than a muddying of the water. There are a few suspenseful sequences in the latter half, and the supernatural horror tropes felt less hacky as things progressed. I also enjoyed scenes involving an elderly nun at Verónica’s school who, despite being blind, can see what’s happening to the girl and offers wry advice. I may be in the minority the film currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – but despite some special achievements by the young cast, Verónica ultimately failed to register as more than a well-made but largely insubstantial Ouija board flick.

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Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Not even the remote forests of the Austrian Alps could escape the Black Death. 

A young goatherd, Albrun, attempts to care for her plague-stricken mother during a harsh mountain winter, as superstitious local clans accuse them of heathenry. Two female goat farmers, living alone in a cabin in the Alps? In the Middle Ages, maybe this alone was enough to arouse suspicion of witchcraft.

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

I watched Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher by mistake. I saw something on TV when I was about 11 years old – a motorist spots a hitchhiker at the side of a rural highway at night. The hitchhiker, mostly hidden by shadow and rain, wears a trench coat and a hat, waving a briefcase over his head as if desperate for a ride. Not that you can really see his face, but as depicted, his features are sort of…absent.

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

1960 is an important year for horror. Four particular movies – Psycho, Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday – pushed boundaries into the modern age while also showing the legitimate artistic potential of horror. The other films tell contemporary stories, but Black Sunday enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest of all gothic vampire movies.

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

As anthology horror films go, Cat’s Eye is one of the more decent entries I’ve seen. None of the segments are fantastic, but unlike most anthologies, all offer something memorable and none can be called a dud. The stories (all penned by Stephen King) are connected by a wandering cat, which seems to have a strange, unexplained connection to a young girl played by Drew Barrymore – he sees her image in a department store mannequin, then in a TV commercial, beckoning him to find and help her. Barrymore is a sort of connecting thread herself, playing different roles in the first and last acts.

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

As the story goes, famed director and producer Roger Corman was tired of making disposable films on a laughable budget. During the 1950s he’d typically produced two black and white films at a time, to be shown as a double feature at grindhouse theatres. But when approached by American International Pictures to make a horror film, Corman had a proposal: maybe this time, he’d make one film, not two, on a decent budget, and it would be shot in color. It would be a real film, he promised, respectable enough to show in mainstream theatres.

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

The Funhouse, a little-remembered follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s influential horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, stars Elizabeth Berridge (the future Constanze Mozart of Amadeus) as Amy Harper. Amy attends a local carnival with her boorish blind date and a few friends, and after seeing plenty of unseemly sights and smoking a few joints, the group decide to spend the night inside the titular funhouse. After they accidentally witness something terrible, a masked freak begins stalking and picking them off one by one.

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Six Favorites

What's this, you say – no Top 10 list? That may be the standard way to take stock of the previous year's movies, for professional and amateur film writers alike, but I had trouble with that approach. I'm yet uncomfortable with making a declaration of the best movies of the year, but I can certainly single out favorites and others I strongly appreciate for various reasons, so I'm sticking with a unique formulation of six clear favorites + ten more great ones.

Elle

(Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Elle  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)</h3>

A gray cat watches impassively as sickening sounds of assault are heard off-screen. An intruder flees, and it's clear Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) has been raped in her home. Michèle's immediate reaction is as affectless as her cat's gaze: she stands, momentarily collects herself and calmly sweeps up the shards of a broken vase. The police are not called.

The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Gracia, 2015)

The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Gracia, 2015)

In the late 1970's, the Russian Woodpecker plagued the world's radio waves. The Russian Woodpecker was a shortwave radio signal that sounded like a series of sharp taps – ten per second – and disrupted public broadcasts as well as communications of boats, airplanes and utilities worldwide. In the chill of the Cold War, people wondered if the Russian Woodpecker might be some insidious attempt at mind control, but the source of the signal was actually a huge Soviet radar array known as the Duga.

Hacksaw Ridge

(Mel Gibson, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Hacksaw Ridge  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Mel Gibson, 2016)</h3>

Mel Gibson's first film as director in 10 years opens with a brutal, slow-motion battlefield tableau. Soldiers become fountains of blood. Limbs are separated by grenades. Human shapes engulfed in flames tumble through the air. Hacksaw Ridge, by the way, is about a soldier who refuses to harm another person. Mel Gibson is back, for better or worse.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American conscientious objector during World War II. As a Seventh-day Adventist, Doss refused to handle a firearm, even during basic training, but overcame the resulting court martial to serve as a combat medic in Okinawa. He then single-handedly saved 75 soldiers during the battle at Hacksaw Ridge.

Shin Godzilla

(Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Shin Godzilla  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi, 2016)</h3>

Godzilla – or Gojira, as it's more commonly called in Toho's new reboot – may be the thing knocking down high-rise apartment buildings. But Japanese bureacracy is the real villain of Shin Godzilla. That, and (of course) mankind's dubious control over nuclear technology.

There's a geyser-like eruption in Tokyo Bay, and the Aqua-Line, an undersea highway, begins to flood. Japanese bureaucrats are scrambling to identify the problem when a tail begins thrashing around in the plume. Soon enough, an enormous creature emerges from the sea to force its way down canals and city streets, pushing a gathering wall of boats and cars.

Under the Shadow

(Babak Anvari, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>Under the Shadow  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Babak Anvari, 2016)</h3>

Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait gazes over an Iranian bureaucrat and a woman who sits opposite him, slouched in deference. It's Tehran in 1988, and Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a young married mother, wants to resume her medical training. Shideh began medical school at the encouragement of her recently-deceased mother, but was suspended for being “politically active.”

This violation marks her forever, the bureaucrat explains. She can never go back. Though it's daytime and the office is well-lit, her black hijab might as well be made of shadow.

The Birth of a Nation

(Nate Parker, 2016)

<p style="display:inline"><i>The Birth of a Nation  </i></p><h3 style="display:inline">  (Nate Parker, 2016)</h3>

The Birth of a Nation arrives as a tangle of controversy and hype, a movie glowing faintly from within.

Nate Parker's telling of Nat Turner's slave rebellion debuted to an ecstatic reception (and Oscar buzz) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. In the months since, Parker has been haunted by sexual assault allegations from his past. Rape culture, police brutality, Black Lives Matter – all these issues seem to intersect with the film and its creator in a jumble that's difficult to parse. But if any aspect of The Birth of a Nation survives the controversy in a lasting way, it may be the impact of its title.