I’m not sure how to quite adequately describe Christian Neuman’s Skin Walker as I’m still not completely sure what I saw, even over a week after watching it. Some horror films not only have all their gore, atmosphere and acting bases covered to draw you in but go so far over the wall of coherency and conventional storytelling they sort of, burn a brand into your perception, never to be lost in the mental catalogue. This film tells the story of Regine (Amber Anderson), a disturbed young girl girl living a grungy nocturnal life in Luxembourg who is called home to her childhood house in the country when her grandmother passes away. She journeys back to the small rural town and massive, creaky manor she grew up in to find her cold, distant grandfather (Udo Kier) inhabiting an empty house full of sour, nasty memories. Her grandmother was a highly unpleasant person, as we see in unflinching flashbacks, but she also has hazy memories of her mother giving birth to a hideously deformed baby brother who may or may not still be wandering the forests on the edge of the property and seems to show up in her dreams and waking perception with unnerving regularity. I loved this film for a great number of reasons, beginning with the score, ambience and ethereal casting choices. Amber Anderson has these angular, dark elf features that are transfixing and somehow vulnerable yet vaguely eerie. Kier, well, Kier is king of the weird but strangely enough he plays a very human character here, where he often is just a spectral or allegorical presence. He’s got a ton of screen time and imbues his bitter old patriarch with a mental decay and resentment that hangs entrenched in the foggy air. The score is creepy, billowing and emotional especially in an early scene where Regine arrives back at her family estate and pours over it with worried doe eyes from a darkened car window as the vehicle ominously winds up the entrance road. The production design is lush, full of deep meditate browns, pale milky skin, cloudy skies, slick crimson blood and late autumn auburn detritus, a visual palette of stunning folk horror sensibility and startling eye candy that’s both gorgeous and gruesome to look at, like an orgy featuring Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro and Lars Von Trier (I’m terribly sorry for that mental image but I promise this film has more shocking ones). The issue with this film is that at a certain point it goes off the map of a logical, linear story and becomes a flailing arthouse caterwaul, a trippy psychological bedlam of noise, twisted memories, unreliable perceptions, so many subplot revelations and horrific, shuddering reveals that it becomes tough to view it as anything other than a story whose meaning and outcome was meant to be decided by the viewer themselves, and not spelled out for by the filmmakers. Now this isn’t an issue for me at all, I love stories like this, but the approach doesn’t always go over well with audiences, hence the mostly confounded and puzzled reviews for this that border on abject hostility. It’s fucking weirder than your most troubling nightmares, I won’t gloss over that, and if the narrative begins with a host of unanswered questions it ends with even more. But if you like bizarre stuff that doesn’t play by any sort of rules but it’s own, are into deep, dark folk horror with psychological overtones and appreciate a visual feast of colour, grotesquerie and unconventional beauty, you’ll love it. It’s a new hidden gem favourite for me.
I got a chance to see the original 1973 Wicker Man for the first time recently and it’s every bit the freaky, messed up yet beautifully made folk horror nightmare I’d heard it was, I loved it to pieces. See the thing is the very words ‘wicker’ and ‘man’ put together in a sentence these days just evokes the mental image of Nicolas Cage with a beehive on his face, such is the pop culture absorption and frenzied notoriety of the much spat upon remake which, without going into too much diversion here, I think is actually a really good film. This one is too, in many different ways, it feels like the folk horror benchmark and I can see it’s cultural influence on much horror material in decades to come. It stars The Equalizer himself, Edward Woodward, as a London inspector sent to a wee tiny island off the coast in search of a missing girl, with not much of anything to go on in terms of intel except just that, a missing girl and a name. I’d be suspicious af, but he plows right into their earthen hippie community, pagan customs and frankly downright hilarious pageantry looking royally out of place with his crisp, chromed policeman’s uniform in such a colourful, wreath adorned, elemental backdrop. I enjoyed his ongoing abject horror at the local’s embracement of free love, loose values and rejection of staunch Christianity, the film is very… of its time and those certainly wouldn’t be things anyone would care about today but it’s fascinating to see how much of a big deal narrow-minded Christianity was for a lot of silly people back when. The film of course circles an ending that’s become legendary, where the titular wicker gentleman makes his appearance and everything kind of collectively goes bonkers for a finale that will wake the gods. Christopher Lee is at once amusing, endearing, charismatically sinister and somehow just a bit eccentric as the sort of “homestead regal” Lord Summerisle, the ringleader and pater manifest of this island dwelling bunch of cult loonies, it’s one of his best, and most entertaining performances, especially when he dons a great big wig for the final hoo-hah that is prophetic in a way, as he’d rock the exact same look decades later as Saruman in Lord Of The Rings. This film is a blast, full of strange editing, spooky music and eerie vocals that show up when you least expect them and a terrific ensemble cast that all do a splendid job of scaring the piss out of this poor, buttoned down big city copper with their collective antics, often funny, frequently frightening, consistently off the wall and always just what you’d expect a weird, island-bound, nature worshipping cult to act like. Excellent film.
In The Earth is only the second film from Ben Wheatley I’ve seen, the first being his spunky noir shootout flick Free Fire which seems to be the odd duck out and a far cry from the dark, morose, esoteric folk horror fans are used to from him. This was a very interesting film and while the pieces don’t necessarily all fit together in a way that struck the ultimate timbre with me, it’s certainly a visually galvanizing, stylistically impressive work. As a research scientist (Joel Fry) and a park ranger (Ellora Torchia) trek deep into a wild forest in rural England on some sort of mission they encounter two very different individuals who are both trying to communicate and study some sort of… I dunno, entity or force that hides within the very structure of the natural world. There’s borderline zealot Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who lives as a homeless person would and approaches this being from a folk point of view, offering it iconography in a religious fashion like the pagans who lived in the region eons ago would have. His ex wife Olivia (Hayley Squires) lives in another region of the woods where nary the two stray into each other’s path (like most exes) and her efforts are a lot more scientific but no less bizarre, using complex machinery to reach out to this thing with light, sound and rhythm. The two leads find themselves stuck squarely between two duelling fanatics who are in way over their heads with a force of life neither can comprehend and are both slowly being driven mad by. And that’s as far as the plot goes in the realm of what is coherent and comprehensible anyways. The closest thing you could describe this entity as is a stone monolith punctuated by an opening through which you can view the stars, and nature on its terms but never is it presented as a physical or visible ethereal being beyond hints, abstract hallucinations and sounds out there in the dark. If that’s your thing than cool, I enjoyed the odd, surreal, impenetrable nature of it and recognized the welcome nods to many influences including Alex Garland’s Annihilation, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening and even John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness in a few brief strokes. Just don’t expect to walk out of this thing with answers; it’s a moody horror SciFi that quickly transforms itself into a wild arthouse romp from which there is no rhyme or reason to be distilled from but what one’s own intuition says.
I love when a horror film hits all the right notes in the aesthetics department of what resonates with me, so listen up if you are into: elemental, esoteric folk horror, lyrical, almost Malick level dialogue and character interaction, eerily hazy home video footage, misty, rugged wilderness cinematography, atmosphere so think you could cut it with an antler knife, demonic pagan deities that live unseen in the natural world and can be summoned by unwitting, weak minded human beings and more. Jordan Graham’s Sator is a stunning, immersive, spectacularly terrifying and absolutely visually gorgeous folk horror that cuts right to the heart of what genuinely freaks me out in the genre: atmosphere, the unknown, being alone, dark forces outside our narrow scope of belief and knowledge and how these forces corrupt, reshape and pervert the human condition to disturbing new heights. The film sees one man (Michael Daniel) alone far out in the remote California wilderness, living in a ramshackle cabin and setting out each day into the territory looking for… something. He has introspective flashbacks to a mother (Wendy Taylor) who went missing years before, a sister (Aurora Lowe) who was on the verge of mental illness, a brother (Gabriel Nicholson) who tried to keep the family together and an ailing grandmother (June Peterson) who spent the last few dementia ridden years of her life chronicling her unsettling internal relationship with a being she calls ‘Sator’, who reportedly talks in her head, dictates books filled with disquieting scripture and seems to have some stranglehold over this family as a group. When he’s not lost in dreamy memory recollection he wanders the perimeter of his property checking on motion sensor cameras he has set up all over the place and trust me you do *not* want to know what he finds they saw. This is a slow burn, arthouse, borderline surreal film through and through, and anyone without the patience for atmosphere, gradually cultivated tension and lyrical storytelling will be lost. There are payoffs and they are huge but first the film asks you to settle, to surrender and be swept away by the sights, sounds and dreamy world it offers before it reveals any secrets. It’s like if A24 did something akin to Blair Witch but with really earthen, nature based lore and a very atmosphere based approach. And as if the film weren’t scary enough, the concept of Sator and all the handwritten lore we see is authentic, very real stuff that actress June Peterson (who is the director’s real grandmother by the way) experienced in real life after a Ouija experience left her in psychiatric care going on about this ‘Sator’ thing for the rest of her life. If that doesn’t stand your hairs directly on end I don’t know what will, because when a film this scary can legitimately claim to be based on a true story in the *truest* sense of the concept, it’s enough to send anyone running for the hills and back again once they find whatever’s really out there. An absolute stunner of a horror film in every sense and one of those rare finds like It Follows, Hereditary, or The Blair Witch Project that successfully do what so many films in the genre promise to yet seldom deliver: scares the absolute fuck out of you. Streaming on Shudder now.
Gareth Evans, no matter the genre he’s working in, has a tendency to throw everything he can think of into the mix, and it’s a tactic that has won me over. In his monumental Raid films it was action sequences piled onto each other so fast and furious it left the viewer gasping and in his gorgeous, positively blood saturated pagan horror extravaganza Apostle it’s every kind of gristly, folk horror inspired, uber-gory piece of horror mayhem you could shake a bloody stick at. Dan Stevens and his eyes so intense they could melt steel play a haunted missionary sometime in the 18th century, tasked with infiltrating a spooky cult residing on a British Isle, the last known location of his estranged sister who has up and vanished. After a stormy, discomforting boat ride out from the mainland, he arrives to find a drab, bleak spirited colony full of whispers, shadows, brooding malcontent and the subtly felt presence of something… otherworldly. The tribes leader is a man of frothing fervour, played by the always excellent Michael Sheen in an impossibly implosive turn with a nice, unexpected arc. The villain isn’t who you think it’s going to be here and once the real piece of work antagonist rears their head, the film shifts from creeping uneasiness right into third gear of fucking maniacal, over the top horror mayhem that doesn’t quit until the exhale on the heels of one of the most jaw dropping third acts I’ve seen in a while. Stevens is a terrific actor in any role, I greatly enjoyed his work in the underrated Liam Neeson thriller Walk Among The Tombstones as well as the schlocky 80’s inspired bit of madness that was The Guest. He’s brilliant here, a picture of hell before he even arrives on the island, and progressively more fierce and despairing as each passing hurdle beats him down. Sheen turns on the wild eyed tenacity as the zealot chieftain who discovers that mutiny and past deeds aren’t even the worst things about to befall him and his freaky little community. This is a ruthless, mile a minute slice of horror and there’s some shitty humans doing terrible things to each other that one must bear witness too, but there’s also some darkly beautiful elements of earthen, witchy horror that balance out the crazed religious mania with something refreshingly more esoteric. Just wear a metaphorical raincoat though, because there’s so much blood n’ gore in this one that no matter where you sit you’ll feel like you’re in the splatter zone. A pretty magnificent horror film.