Horror movies always work best for me when the scares are in service of story, when character and emotion come first and the supernatural or horrific elements work their way into the human side organically, which is what we see in Sergio C. Sánchez’s Marrowbone, a wonderful, terrifying, heartbreaking masterwork that I just happened upon while browsing Shudder. You’d think it would have made a bigger splash with how prolific it’s four principle young cast members are, but it’s just as well that it retains hidden gem status. An English family of four children migrate over to America with their mother, running from a dark past and taking up residence in Marrowbone House, a place once owned by vague family. After the mother passes away the four are left on their own to financially keep the house, look after each other and survive demonic trauma that hovers over all of them them. Oldest brother Jack (George MacKay from Captain Fantastic, How I Live Now and 1917) is the natural leader and caretaker, trying his best to look out for younger siblings Billy (Charlie Heaton of Stranger Things), Sam (Matthew Stagg) and Jane (Mia Goth from Suspiria and A Cure For Wellness). They basically have no one in the world now except their friend local librarian Allie (Anya Taylor Joy, The VVitch, Split), who soon falls deeply in love with Jack and has a desire to help him and his family through dark times. Soon they hear eerie noises from the attic and a suspiciously sentient full length mirror draws attention in inexplicable ways as the ghosts of their past rise up to haunt them and memories once long buried begin to surface. I don’t want to say too much because this is such a fun puzzle box of a story to unravel and includes some twists that are tough to see coming (pay attention to the poster, where a big clue hides in plain sight). It’s a sad, forlorn tale about children growing up far quicker than they should have to, familial trauma and violence leaking over into the next generation and the ripple effect that evil and malcontent in a family can have. There’s wonderful romance that is sold effectively by MacKay and Joy, who are both superb, as are Heaton and Goth in roles that are secondary but no less deeply felt and acted. The scares are genuinely, bone chillingly fucking terrifying stuff, and the fact that restraint and subtlety is used make them all the more effective. Seriously, there are a few squirm out of your skin, shudder down your spine moments that push the creep factor past eleven on the dial, which isn’t easy to do. What makes the film work so well for me is that it cares deeply for these kids, their situation and makes each character stand out in their uniqueness, thanks to strong acting work, writing and music. It has a slight gothic feel, and I almost got like a ‘horror version of Narnia’ fantasy feel from these characters and their plight, but that could have just been me. Brilliantly written and directed by Sánchez (his freaking feature debut I might add), vividly and emotionally acted, it’s just a beautiful and frightening story worth immersing yourself in and one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. 10/10.
I’m not usually too lenient on remakes of my favourite films and 1977’s Suspiria would have been a deal breaker, but holy goddamn if they didn’t do it justice and then some with 2018’s fierce, austere, unrelentingly gruesome update. It shouldn’t even be called a remake anyways as besides title and general premise, it’s an entirely different beast possessing of its own unique aesthetic and themes far removed from Dario Argento’s vision. Italian director Luca Guadagnino is not a voice I’m familiar with, I haven’t seen a single other film he’s done and looking at his credits it seems this is his first venture into the horror genre, a winning first stroke for sure.
The visual atmosphere here is decidedly different and that’s part of what makes this such a piece all its own. Argento’s neon bathed, opulently saturated colour and lighting is traded in for bleak greys, browns, sickly beiges and suffocated hues that breed uncomfortably onscreen for something less attractive yet far more unsettling than the bejewelled beauty of its predecessor. It also fits the late 70’s Berlin setting which as history reminds us was pretty fucking grim. Young Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) journeys from an Ohio Mennonite community to the prestigious Markos dance academy, which as fans of this story know, is front for a nasty coven of ancient witches. Things go awry almost from the second she arrives but the film plays deftly with who and what it means to be a protagonist here and we see a dynamic shift from other girls (played solidly by Mia Goth and Chloë Grace Moretz) who get suspicious and then wish they hadn’t. The school is run by angular, mercurial shryke Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton in one of three roles, because apparently she can do anything.
So is this a better film than Argento’s original? There is of course no right answer to that and I don’t even think they should be compared alongside one another, they may as well be from different galaxies, let alone genres. There’s a sense of diseased malfeasance to these witches, who go out on the town, drink and party just like anyone else but are anything but human. I loved the decision to change Susie’s character from doe eyed heroine to an eerily intuitive avatar with a seemingly dark destiny already written in blood years before. The film wanders about in draft filled hallways, echoey dance studios and chilly, depressing Berlin streets for much of the runtime until the climax arrives, and holy fuck I was not expecting this to go the whole nine yards into outright wanton, surrealistic chaos horror mode. There’s a crazily violent collective piece of mania that happens deep within the bowels of the school building that might be one of my new favourite set pieces in any horror film ever. It tells this story through image, impression, carnage, lighting and fantastic performances from all involved including a terrifying cameo from the grim reaper itself. All set to a hauntingly unconventional score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s not a sequence I’ll soon forget and propels the overall film into classic territory. What an experience.
Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness is a tricky one to pin down or feed readers a review that will point in either direction. Parts of it are sleek, beautiful, scary beyond words and terrifically staged. Others are bombastic, out of left field and completely unwarranted. During the head scratching climax I found myself wondering aloud, ‘how did we get from where the film started off to… *this*??!’. It’s senseless, meandering and probably a bit too long as well, but despite all that, I kind of loved the damn thing, eels and all. When you see the name ‘Gore Verbinski’ as director, you know that the film you’re about to see is going to have a few distinct qualities: lengthy, ambitious, stuffed with ideas both visual and auditory, offbeat and usually in no way similar to the last film he did. He’s the king of variety, I love his work a ton and think he’s one of the most under appreciated directors out there. This is his stab at a grand old horror picture, and while he admittedly doesn’t get everything right, there’s much wonder to behold and keep the viewer mesmerized. I don’t believe I’ve seen a more visually sumptuous horror flick since Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. This largely takes place in the Swiss Alps, and shot after shot is just cold beauty and immersive vistas, a beautiful terrain surrounding the facility where a young businessman (Dane DeHaan, who I’ve never really been a fan of, but his weird spindly goblin aura suits the material here) ends up, trying to extricate a senior member of his company back to New York for a life and death merger. Life and death are also key components of this establishment, or more-so the latter, as he will find. The place is an eerily calm self help retreat run by icy, devilishly charming Director Volmer (Jason Isaacs eating up scenery with ferociously measured relish). There’s foul play afoot, which is glaringly obvious from the moment the young man steps through the front door. That’s the thing about this film, or much of it anyways, there’s no surprises or unpredictability to be had. We know the sinister path of these types of shockers quite well, and it all seems so familiar. Then when the third act rolls around, we wish we didn’t hope for something deviating from that path, because the narrative pretty much sets the path on fire, runs off the map into it’s own deranged subplot that will shock, if not awe. The film has some truly icky moments, one involving eels and a dubious looking plastic tube that’s a squirmer for sure, and the sickly atmosphere in the air all about this hellhole in the heavenly mountains. There’s fine acting to be seen, not just from terrific Isaacs but also ethereal looking Mia Goth as a creepy young waif who’s presence the plot hinges on later. The end ramps up for something that ditches the clinical body horror and heads right into old school, Hammer Films style horror a la Frankenstein or something kinkier, and while jarring, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained or giving it the aghast slow clap of sheepish approval simply because the film had the balls to *go* there, without a care spent on whether we wanted to see such absurdities or not. I admire such brazenness in film. A curiosity of a flick, seemingly cobbled together from ideas that don’t always quite mesh, but are still fun to bear witness to. A mess, but a hot one, and a damn good looking one too, if all over the place.