WELCOME TO WEEK TWO! Some quick thoughts before we jump in. I am sorry this is late. The plan into the future is for these to come out immediately at the beginning of the week. However, weekly podcast recording has cut into my watching and writing time, so there is a bit of a delay. This week, I managed to watch a lot of films which were not that scary. Since my schedule is not set in stone, what films do YOU think I should be watching that are really disturbing. Let me know, and I will try and work them in. Things get a little rushed on a few of these, again because of time, but if you want more discussion on any of these, just comment below and we can talk about it more! Thanks for reading and for your patience!
October 5th: ALICE, SWEET ALICE
Alice, Sweet Alice is one of those films which I have been aware of for a very long time, and just never gotten the opportunity to watch. In a sense, this is the plus of streaming services like Fandor or Shudder. They open up a world of films that you might otherwise never have watched, without requiring the full investment of purchasing a blu-ray. Then again, if I had to choose between more services like these OR physical media, I choose physical media. Always.
Alice, Sweet Alice is a gritty little movie, one of four directed by Alfred Sole who went on to focus on production design. I recommend checking out his IMDB page: he has had a hand in a large and eclectic variety of productions. This film was shot on location in Paterson, New Jersey and really has a North Jersey feel to it. It was also the film debut of Brooke Shields, though as the victim in the film she doesn’t strike me as particularly notable yet. Alice, brought to life by Paula E. Shepard who literally, besides this, you could only have seen in Liquid Sky, is a precocious and vengeful young woman whose bad attitude causes many to mistrust her. The film, playing with our perceptions of her and her attitude leads us down a path where we assume something which is never directly confirmed.
I want to give you a chance to skip here. While I am not overly concerned with spoilers, this film, unlike many, involves a kind of mystery and surprise which I could in fact ruin for you right now. So, if you need to, skip to tomorrow’s entry. Still with me? Good.
The film leads us down a path where we assume this is a narrative about an evil child. There is the murder of Alice’s sister, and everything points us and many of Alice’s relatives to think she is the little murderer. The brilliance of the film is how it manages to very convincingly lead the audience that way, and then switch gears without any sort of trickery. Every time Alice’s mother points out that we don’t know what she did, she sounds naive to me. I hear her protestations and I think that she is clueless, I have seen how terrible Alice is. This lady just doesn’t know. Of course, I am wrong. The film, while still allowing Alice to be an awful little girl, reveals the true villain is not Alice at all. Instead, the religious old lady is to blame, and her murdering streak is based not on evil, but on a misinterpretation of good. Which, of course, is its own kind of evil. It is such a reversal though, and for me, it worked like a punch in the gut.
The film ends with a shot which suggests that Alice is everything we suspected she is, or rather she will become. However, this final conceit does not change the rest of the movie. Alice, with all her narcissism and maybe even cruelty, is still a little girl. I am of course reading too much into the film when I suggest that there is something morally interesting going on. That is, do we blame Alice because the film tricks us into doing so? Or do we blame Alice because of the same kind of sickness afflicting the religious old lady? That is to say, are we so afraid of evil children because our image of children is so idealized? Does that idealization come to us from a religious tradition (even if theologically it doesn’t make any sense)? I really am overthinking this one, but it just got me, yah know? I spend most of the movie seeing this unpleasant and selfish little girl and thinking she is some sort of awful murderer. Yes, the film leads me that way, but I have seen my fair share of Gialli. I know a red herring most times when I see one, and Alice is a massive one. Then, the villain turns out not to be the mostly unpleasant little girl, but the religious woman? There is something to that, I think, even if the film makers were not explicit about it.
Regardless, the film is very interesting. Is it scary? Not particularly. Alice is a very well realized character and her world has some very eccentric figures in it. Their effeminate and obese landlords strike me as both great and awful. I worry that what I am seeing is a horrifying stereotype, but he adds a bit a flavor to a slightly boring cast. Still, there are a few folks who work. However, once we know who the actual killer is and we see her at work, there is very little menace to her. In fact, there is very little menace in the film at all. Yet, that doesn’t disqualify it as a horror film. The story is still gruesome, if not particularly affecting. Alice, Sweet Alice has a lot more in common with an Italian crime film than many slasher films, but that is part of what makes it very enjoyable.
October 6th: SOCIETY
I am not sure even what to say about this Brian Yuzna satire. Like, it is a giant fun time with some of the most freaking weird and kind of upsetting practical effects I have ever seen. The effects in the film were done by Screaming Mad George, a supposedly well known Japanese punk who switched from making videos for Japanese fast core bands to doing effects in horror films. They are beyond weird, or at least, by the climax of the film they get there.
There are those who will find the film preachy and heavy handed. Its politics are not subtle, and the film takes great joy in pushing its metaphor of the rich as monstrous parasites living off the rest of us. I don’t actually care though. Like, is it in some ways inartful? Is it direct? Is it uncompromising? YES YES YES, but, fuck it, you are reading Cinepunx so I assume in some ways you are already down with eating the rich, am I right? The film is brutal in its caricature of posh rich American culture and that brutality excludes things like nuance, and besides, in a mostly funny gross out body horror picture, how much nuance do you need? Regardless, I have literally no sympathy for anyone who would watch Society and say “well I am offended by its portrayal of Beverly Hills.” You are awful.
I do understand why some folks might find Society more funny than horror, and be turned off at its lack of “edge”. That is not to tarnish what is in many ways a masterfully done movie. It is, however, a giant farce. Society is the story of a young man who is sure he is where he doesn’t belong. Bill has a rich family, an established social standing, even a few supportive friends. However, he is haunted by paranoia and anxiety. He doesn’t trust his family or many of his friends, and he is sure there is something truly horrifying going on under the surface of everything. He tries to adjust, to fit in, to accept the reality he is presented with. He just cannot do it though: he KNOWS something is wrong. Society does an amazing job of balancing tension with humor throughout what is essentially a buildup to a truly gross ending. Society creates this narrative that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Through a lot of the film I found myself thinking that Billy was maybe hallucinating some of the truly strange stuff going on around him. When it is all confirmed, though, this was not a disappointment. It instead plays like an affirmation, not just of Billy’s feelings of exclusion but of all of ours.
However, Society is not truly a political film. Yuzna talked a lot at the films release of the big ideas he was addressing in the film in a humorous light. While there is a lot I resonate with in this film, so much so that I would recommend it to almost any horror fan, the ideas are not that big. The rich are living off the lives of the poor? Yeah man, duh. Society certainly does an amazing job of attacking what feels like an intangible evil, a system without actual locality, and creating a physical reality around it. “Society” becomes one multi-united organism, a posh and white race living among us and actually feeding off of us. However, this idea is not so big as Yuzna assumed. There is not any actual critique of the systems the movie points toward, and it is really the most crass metaphor one could come up with. This rings harsh, but I mean this not as an attack on the film at all. Society worked for me, and I think if you really like gross practical effects and a sense of humor it will work for you too. I am simply suggesting that the reason European audiences connected with the film more than Americans is, it seems to me, not philosophical political. I suggest it is instead aesthetic, though I would have a difficult time making a convincing case as to why Europeans like this sort of film more than Americans. I can say, Society plays to me perhaps less like a traditional tale of horror, designed to cause fear or anxiety. Instead, Society is a sort of gross caricature or satire, and uses the body horror motif simply to make its point more clearly and effectively. It is not a deep film, but man did I have fun watching it.
October 7th: THE CHURCH
Who the hell does Michael Soavi think he is? Or, maybe, “did” he think he was, cause he may be dead now, I have no idea. I love Cemetery Man a lot. I love Stage Fright so very, very much. This film was actually also rather good. However, in researching this movie I discovered a few odd things. The film has a plethora of writers who worked on the script, including Dario Argento who also produced. Rather, who produced for a while. The film was conceived originally as the third of the Demons films. However, Michael Soavi wanted more, pushed Argento out as a creative influence on the film, and took it in a different direction. He even referred to the Demons films as “pizza schlock”
Now, admittedly, if he had meant it as a compliment, “pizza schlock”, would be a great way to refer to these films. He did not however. Instead of valuing the utter over the top insanity of these two great movies, Soasvi aspired for The Church to be something more sophisticated and respectable. He desired an art picture. Strangely, a lot of the dramatic beats, if not the makeup itself, remind me of the Demons films. While watching The Church I actually said to Josh, before knowing this history, that it felt like Demons without cool transformations. Turns out I was kind of right.
The Church is part of a tradition of religious horror films which posit a world in which there is a religious authority and a supernatural evil it struggles against, but honestly neither is particularly trustworthy. Teutonic Knights slaughter a group of “witches” and we suspect that maybe they are innocent bystanders. They then build a church over top of the bodies of these villagers. Only, then the “evil” is released, and a young black priest who for some reason is unaffected by the demonic evil must collapse the church on top of the unholy forces coming into our world. These sorts of movies always confuse me. On one hand, the religious authorities who slaughter these villagers, then build this church, and then torture and kill the church’s architect, well…these seem like bad dudes. In fact, I am not just making an ethical judgment in a vacuum on this one. The way they are filmed, how their story is told, every cinematic clue is that these religious authorities are our villains. Only, it seems as if the villagers actually ARE satanists, and in fact the church really IS protecting all of us from some form of satanic disaster.
These dynamics just seem odd to me. I have written before about the ways that religious horror films seem very often to me not about religion or religious belief itself. They often connect to our ideas about ourselves as modern people. With the end of religious devotion comes the perception that humans have reached some form of higher plain or deeper meaning, or just rational thought. Yet these films, by positing that the skeptic is wrong and the world really is magical and dangerous do not actually affirm metaphysics per se. Instead, I want to suggest that the scary reality behind the reality is about our anxieties about ourselves. To be blunt, it is not that the atheist is secretly afraid they are wrong and God or something not material is real. They may well be, but that is not the anxiety behind the film. No, the anxiety is that, without religion, life is no more or less rational. That is to say, we as modern people, freed from the bonds of the past (which we are not by the way but follow me), are actually just as irrational and superstitious as ever (which I think is likely true).
So this brand of film interests me because it affirms the world view that there is a good and an evil, and they generally map onto the the dynamics we already have. Yet it is the human forces, aligned with “the good,” who cannot in any way be trusted. Perhaps I am being too positive here. Movies like The Church may really show a hostile universe no matter what. Whether it is the human authorities who determine our living and dying, or it is the forces behind the world, the god and demons we fear are there, all is hostile. That seems rather Lovecraftian, which I like, but I am not sure represents The Church fairly.
Let me get back to the actual movie. The idea that folks simply turn evil, without transforming into some sort of horrible demon, is actually in some ways very effective. I think I still prefer the crazy gore and creature effects of Demons to the more subdued vibe of The Church but the movie works. It is shot beautifully, and despite dragging a bit on the setup, once it gets moving it has real energy. I was not overly impressed with the sound of any version I found. They all had timing issues and some really shoddy voiceover work. I kind of love having the one priest unaffected by these insane goings on be black, and especially the way he and little Asia Argento are really the only endearing characters in the whole film. The lovemaking scene with the demon was disturbing at first, but holds too long and the effects seem more corny than disturbing. Yet, for one of the few of this era of Italian movies I have not seen, I am glad I watched it. There is not much here to really ponder, and I find myself for a second time wishing my research had not lead me to the director’s thoughts on the film. Soavi wanted to make something dark and intellectual, and I fear he has fallen short. The Church, though less extreme and perhaps flirting with a sense of the gothic, is still basically a shlock film. Despite lacking in some of the more extreme elements I enjoy in schlock films, it still kept me entertained if a bit bemused at some of its choices.
October 8th: CHERRY FALLS
I have to give big thanks to SATANIC PANDEMONIUM’s Samm Deighan for recommending this film because it was not even close to being on my radar. I had never heard of it, knew nothing about it, and would likely have skipped it as my patience for teen horror of the 90s variety is thin. I think this is the only American film directed by Geoffrey Wright, but I am seriously only familiar with Romper Stomper; from his filmography. Maybe I am burying the lead on this one, let’s start again.
THE DIRECTOR OF ROMPER STOMPER MADE AN INTELLIGENT AND COMPETENT TEEN SLASHER WITH SATIRICAL ELEMENTS SET IN THE UNITED STATES!!
For some of you, that will mean nothing. For others, your brain just imploded. My point is, without Samm’s recommendation, I would ONLY know Geoffrey Wright as the dude who did that one crazy skinhead movie. Instead, I know he can accomplish some brilliant melding of humor and horror. Cherry Falls is a story of a town where a killer is offing virgins. It takes this sexual theme to push ideas of purity, gender, consent, rape culture, and our views of teenagers. Much like Society, Cherry Falls is not what I would call subtle or even deep. It is however effective, and has a few expectation frustrating moments which really got me thinking in helpful ways.
I am over intellectualizing again, so let’s state up front: Cherry Falls is very fun. It has some rough edges and some of the older cast are not great. Surprisingly this includes Michael Biehn, who honestly seems to be treading water for most of the film. The film also suffers from a series of severe cuts. It was rejected multiple times for its sexual themes, and was eventually cut down so severely that it only aired on the USA channel, never theatrically. My perception, and perhaps I am projecting some, is that the film “feels” cut. It feels choppy. It feels like it is missing some elements and what we are seeing was either unfinished or edited very poorly. Now, I knew the story of this film going in. When word gets out that virgins are in fact the targets of the killer, the teenagers realize they have an excuse for a giant sex party. From the top of the food chain to lowliest nerd, everyone is gonna get laid at this party, and all inhibitions are abandoned. It is a fun idea, and one censors were bound to see as awful and in need of destruction. Granted, it is also a satire, not a porno, but why expect censors to figure contextual issues like that out? Ridiculous! Point is, as I was watching it I knew it had suffered some intense scrutiny and editing. So maybe I wrote off some of the rougher aspects of the film to this reality, excusing them because I knew what I was seeing was not in fact complete. I can’t be sure.
I can say that the film does not feel as kinetic as I would like, it has some very rough transitions, and some of the performances needed to be on the cutting room floor more than whatever teen nudity disappeared. STILL, I found Cherry Falls entertaining and engaging. The film really plays with the image of the small town as a brimming cauldron of secrets and gossip and judgment. Cherry Falls is not as sick as some small towns depicted in horror films, but it is not great. While I would not go so far as to call the film feminist, it certainly has some gender and sexuality issues in it. Brittany Murphy is awesomely disaffected and weird, and the heel turn from Jay Mohr is magical. Just a truly off the wall and strange performance. My only actual frustration with the film is from my standpoint as a fan of frightening films. There is almost no tension built up in the movie, and it plays more like a strange 90s teen Giallo. Not to bad mouth Gialli, which I love. However, while they often have central mysteries and awesome gore, they are rarely tense or frightening. Cherry Falls entertains but it never really spooks. The humor and the mystery rule out. I am not sure if this critique matters though, even if I feel it sincerely. The story Cherry Falls tells is actually a moving one. Yes, it is goofy, and at times dark. However, the ways in which violence against women is silenced is real. The issues it draws attention to, if even in a ridiculous way, are real. Cherry Falls takes tropes and gags, but points them towards things worth thinking about without becoming a message film. This balance, of having a compelling story that matters as a narrative but which dwells in the realms of real issues is a pretty good achievement. Plus, I got to see Jay Mohr in a wig? Super cool.
October 9th: ZOMBI 2
(NOTE: Each week I will be collaborating on the Friday post with the awesome Nick Spacek of Rock and Roll Journalist and From and Inspired by podcast. We did this last year, in a less focused way. This year, every Friday, we will be doing FULCI FRIDAYS, focusing on a film by the master Lucio Fulci.)
This was the first Fulci film I ever saw, and it’s still my favorite. There’s quite a few reasons why: its fantastic music by Fabio Frizzi, which includes the piece “Sequence 8,” featuring the ominous mellotron to which the composer would return for so many other Fulci scores like A Cat in the Brain and The BeyondZombie 2 moves at a sedate pace.
However, the way it’s punctuated is almost metronomic — it kicks off with two back-to-back situations that give the viewer a glimpse into what’s happening, but raises more questions than it answers. There’s then a long, mood-setting bit of expositional plot which seems to be going nowhere but some gratuitous nudity, until said nudity also leads into A FIGHT BETWEEN A ZOMBIE AND A SHARK. After that, Fulci’s film starts to pick up steam — again, slowly, but with a purpose that starts stacking shocking horror upon shocking horror.
The pace is part of the magic. No, really. From the opening sequence, as messed up now as it was when I was 17, to the utterly depressing finale. Zombi 2 somehow manages to vacillate from entirely atmospheric to over the top gross without losing any steam. This film defined Fulci for me until I had really dug into the man’s output. Sure, it is an Italian rip off film, maybe lacking in certain unique qualities. Yet it also sets up so many of its own ideas. The aforementioned zombie vs shark is a brilliant if also insane move.
The idea that SOME form of magic or voodoo is definitely to blame really adds a white guilt element missing from some of the other famous zombie films. The gore is some next level stuff. The infamous “eye scene” really established not only the point at which fun and stomach churning meet for me, but also made me watch for eyes in every other Fulci film and realize how much eye close-ups are one of his techniques. Beyond all that, the cast are all scenery chewers in their own way. None plays it subtle, and none should. This film demands they respond to every aspect of it as if it were happening on some hyper plane of reality.
I wonder though, do you think Zombi 2 became the new standard of undead gore over the Romero film of which it is an unlicensed sequel? Would a completely naive modern audience make it through the long stretches of inaction to get at the brief but wonderful moments of ultra gore?
October 10th: THE DEADLY SPAWN
I went into this entirely blind, and I am so glad I did. The Deadly Spawn is one of those films I have seen hyped by sources of film content I trust, like the good folks at The Alamo Drafthouse, but I had simply never given it a chance. Not that I had any reason not to, it was just below my radar. I knew of it, I had seen stills of some of the creature work, but I hadn’t looked into it. Turns out, The Deadly Spawn is one of those strange triumphs of super low budget cinema. IMDB claims it was made for a paltry 25k which, I mean I believe it, but is still impressive. The Deadly Spawn is not surprisingly a darling then to those who value and lift up outsider cinema. The cast are pretty clearly not professionals, the settings all feel like your Aunt or Uncle’s house, and the pacing sometimes suffers from the dragging of these very outsider productions. Doesn’t matter though, The Deadly Spawn is fun and engaging, and features some truly heroic special effects for such a small production.
The blu-ray copy I acquired, at my local comic shop by the way, has quite a plethora of special features. So I am looking forward to learning the endearing underdog story that surely must have gone into such a small and scrappy production. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing I simply have not had time to watch these features. So, while it seems clear to me that the making of this film is definitely part of the story of the film, I will focus on the movie itself. The Deadly Spawn plays in the venerated sci-fi/horror crossover world that has often been described as “the creature feature.” You know, those classic invasion or experiment stories where “man in suit” or claymation creature terrorizes innocent folks. It is, for me, an under explored realm of horror. It seems if we want to understand movies like The Thing or Alien, understanding these less horrifying forerunners would be important as their influence is so clear. The Deadly Spawn is perhaps more modern in its themes and certainly in its gore, but has that classic setup. Alien spores descend from space, and slowly grow into seeming unstoppable space monsters.
The Deadly Spawn is no masterpiece of either acting or screen writing. The dialogue is uninspired, and some of the pacing is a real chore. Doesn’t matter though: you watch this film for two reasons. Reason one is simply the triumph that is the creatures in this film. There seems to be one central anxiety to these monsters, and it is so pronounced that it almost feels pathological. That is, these creatures feature a lot of teeth. So many teeth. Good Lord, why are there so many teeth in space?? These effects are not perfect, yet every place where we see the seams or the conceit, it is still endearing. That is to say, the film shows you at times how it was done, but that only charms. It feels, well, witty. The effects are creative and clever, and even when the film itself struggles, these little monsters just fascinate. The mother spawn, with it’s multiple heads and, well like I said, teeth, is kind of terrifying. There is a sense of humor to how the creatures are used, and that entices as well. You feel as if the film makers are having fun with the production. The baby spawn are like tadpoles but with so many teeth! There are so many varieties of these spawn from space, all with their own strange and interesting features. That is not to say they ever seem real, but reality should obviously not be the point. They are simply awesome in how odd and gross they are.
I am realizing this week has been very heavy on the fun films, and light on the truly disturbing. I watch a film like The Deadly Spawn and it feels like a fun exercise: maybe parts are meant to be scary, but always in good fun. The only film this week that was actually disturbing was Zombi 2. Granted, I am sure that production was fun in its own way as well. Where The Deadly Spawn succeeds though is when it manages a surprise moment or a gross turn, but not ever at getting under your skin. It is, as I suspect many creature features are, a fun exercise in pretend. The Deadly Spawn feels less like an exploration of true fear, and more like putting a mask on and jumping out at your sister. It is silly, but is is also charming. These kinds of movies are also inspiring in that they even exist. That a small community would come together and pull off this kind of production. Think of all the problems, all the issues with creating this world, and knowing that with each mounting difficulty one could never simply spend more money to solve it. When the creature gets too big to take out of the basement, you cut a head off and glue it back on. The film makers present a film that is a triumph to their innovation and creativity, AND it is also entertaining and fun. What a strange kind of miracle that is.
October 11th: DEAD FRIEND
If I am honest, I have no idea how this movie made it into my list. Like, none at all. Granted, I had a brief, if fruitful, love affair with East Asian horror. I watched all the J-Horror films of the early 2000s, and when the horror scene in South Korea started to build up, I caught a lot of those. Yet, my anxiety generated by long black hair eventually started to dissipate and I found myself really only appreciating A Tale of Two Sisters in the long term. However, this is the third year of my Journal of Fear and I have unfortunately mostly ignored Asian films. I felt like this was a wrong that needed correcting. So when I saw this film on my list and then I saw it was Korean, I was all in.
Why this film though? I really cannot say. Dead Friend is an entirely derivative ghost story. I enjoyed it for what it was, and the twist at the end, though ridiculous, worked for me. For a recent film, it was enjoyable. It was also forgettable. If in two years I am asked, hey do you remember that film Dead Friend? I may answer no. The plot is a bit convoluted but I actually appreciate that. A girl with amnesia is visited by former friends because a vengeful ghost is killing them off. She must discover what she did to create this situation, and that means discovering her own forgotten past. There is a twist at the end which relies on some weird metaphysics of possession which I really do not understand at all. Yet, I went with it and it worked for me.
My issue though is that so much of what is used to generate fear here is so derivative. A wet, teenage girl ghost, with long black hair covering her face? The spontaneous drowning she does of her victims is kind of sick, but how scared are we supposed to be of wet black hair. This for me is the issue with many of these more recent films. Yes, the original Ringu is cool, and Ju-on, both versions, is some frightening stuff. Just really terrifying. Yet, to continuously recycle those ideas and themes is terrible. It lessens the potential of truly unique stories to surface and shine. I am trashing this aspect of the film, but it works overall for sure. I mean, is this recycling any worse then the “big guy in woods with weapon” American compulsion. For decades we have squashed Jason Voorhees into Michael Myers, and given this hulking person a new weapon and declare it a new film. So yeah, we have our own compulsions. Still, I wish a film like Dead Friend, which has a few interesting ideas here and there, would develop some new icons of terror so to speak. That is, there must be other sources of horrifying imagery that have not already been used again and again in other films. Not only other films, but other films which used them much more effectively.