Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Ten Reasons: Why THE INVITATION (2022) is not that bad…

The Invitation, not to be confused with the very good 2015 film of the same name, is a new take on the old tropes of the Dracula story.  

Several years ago, in the era of True Blood, I couldn’t get enough of vampires…and believe me, they were everywhere—books, movies, television. But like all things presented to us in excess, I grew weary of fanged frights.  

But along comes a new film that upon seeing the trailer catches my eye with all its gothic glory. And so I had to take a look. 

Critically panned, The Invitation doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the sub-genre, with uninspiring dialogue and our lead character making one bad decision after another…but I’ve managed to find ten things that make the film salvageable. Here goes: 

1) “New Carfax Abbey”

More on the use of names from Stoker’s Dracula later. But let’s be serious, can we just talk about this location because it is…simply put…amazing.

Nadasdy Mansion in Nadasdladany, Hungary is not only an astoundingly beautiful estate, but has ties to Elizabeth Bathory (which if you are unfamiliar with that name I suggest a google that will lead you down a bloody rabbit hole). The fact that this movie was filmed in Hungary lends quite a bit of realism to a new take on an age-old story based in the quiet creepiness of Eastern Europe. 

2) The score. 

Dara Taylor is a composer I knew nothing about and didn’t learn a whole lot after googling.  But her intriguing score is part of what drew me to the film in the first place. Much of the music is in a minor key, as one would expect, and there are many unsettling cues—perfect for a dark and foreboding tale.  Eerie female vocals and ominous synthesized themes really do elevate from being ordinary. 

3) Nathalie Emmanuel, as our protagonist Evie, is someone else I was unfamiliar with, and at first glance I thought I was looking at Meghan Markle. Besides being beautiful, she was actually quite believable as a poor catering waitress trying to make it in NYC.  Though as previously mentioned, she makes exceedingly bad choices, she is an ass-kicker at heart. 

4) While we are discussing casting choices, I do have to say Thomas Doherty as a Walter “Lord of the manor” De Ville, does reek modern vampire deliciousness. He very much feels like the lead in a new CW supernatural show, with tangible finesse and suitable charisma.  Any woman thrown in a gorgeous gothic mansion owned by this guy would be sure to throw all logic aside with one wink of those mesmerizing blue eyes. 

5) The homages to the original Dracula legend, particularly with names, seem obvious but are still fun. Carfax Abbey, Lucy, and Mina and Jonathan Harker are all mentioned here, and the “three brides” is a direct reference to Dracula having three devoted brides.  We learn right away that the mansion is named New Carfax Abbey, so it’s not really a secret where the story is going. 

6) The house. 

As previously mentioned, the mansion is a stunning estate just from the outside alone. But the inside is just gorgeous, with dark wood everywhere—and with all the rooms one can imagine a house of this size would have, including a library which is unfortunately only shown in darkness or by candlelight. There are statues and grandiose art all over, including dragons (as in “son of the dragon” aka Dracula). Antiques abound, and the grounds are as beautiful as the inside. Definite eye candy. 

7) Set design. 

What the designers did with the house needs its own mention, as it drips with class and wealth. Ornate architecture is shown off in mirrors and doorways and rooms filled with period furniture and tapestries, rugs and draperies, all very lush and inviting. Even the attention to detail of how a room is lit was so impressive. So that things lurking in the corner would be seen only if they are meant to be seen. 

Shout out to the amazing costumes as well.

8) The romance. 

Okay here’s where I might lose your interest but wait… while I am a huge fan of scary vampires like the ones from Salem’s Lot and 30 Days of Night, I do believe the vampire lends its history to a romantic side as well, with all the various legends of vampires taking human form and coercing a beautiful young lady to succumb to their every whim. And despite Evie being utterly foolish for not seeing the boatload of clues alluding to the secrets that are so very obvious to the rest of us, it always hits a girl right in the heart to see someone being swept off their feet in a whirlwind romance. If only he wasn’t out for blood. Literally. 

9) The rehearsal dinner. 

In which all is explained and all is certainly revealed. Amongst a feast of epic proportions in which guests are wearing masks and there is enough food to feed the whole of the armed services. A smorgasbord of food and truths. 

10) The bloodletting. 

This is, after all, a vampire film. We wait quite a bit for any real bloody gore, and it probably does seem tame up until nearly the end when there is finally THAT SCENE in which we are treated to a visual explanation of just what’s going on. And the blood continues from there. 


Sunday, December 25, 2022

Sunday Bloody Sunday: Bloody Christmas Edition

Violent Night (2022) 

Silent Night Bloody Night (1972)

A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

A Christmas Horror Story 

A Christmas Horror Story

A Christmas Horror Story 

Silent Night Deadly Night (1984)

Monday, December 19, 2022

Review: Splinter (2021)

I had originally picked this film to watch because it is rather falsely advertised as a Christmas horror movie. While it does take place—well part of it, anyway—at Christmas, it is really not a horror film but more of a psychological thriller, and I use the word thriller loosely.
  And it doesn’t involve anyone dressing up like Santa to go out and murder innocent folks. 

When Splinter starts, John (Bill Fellows, in a terrific performance) is arriving home with his arms full of Christmas packages. (I will say he is donning a Santa hat but it’s nothing malevolent!). He comes inside and upon stepping into the kitchen, sees his wife and son dead…murdered in cold blood. 

Six months later John is a complete recluse. He doesn’t leave his house and in fact doesn’t even open his curtains. The Christmas tree and all the other holiday decorations are still up and out and he is very obviously not able to move on from the tragedy.  He continues with a daily routine overshadowed with melancholy and the inability to process his grief. 

While we are not sure if John works from home or lost his job or is retired, he doesn’t seem to work. He also struggles with OCD, which we aren’t sure if that is new or if he always had the affliction. He turns the light off and on exactly five times before leaving it on, taps his spoon on his cup four times every time, etc.  

John does see a therapist (Jane Archer!), albeit one that is nice enough to come to his house since he won’t go out. She tries to get him to relive the time when his family was killed to try and get past it but he still struggles, as anyone would. He also has a medicine cabinet full of what we can assume are antidepressants and/or anxiety pills. But it is possible John’s other mental health issues are also preventing him from moving on? 

When John begins to sense someone is watching him, he begins to wonder if it could be his wife and son….or something more sinister. He sees shadows, receives threatening notes under his front door, and just has an altogether sense of unease. 

I was actually pretty impressed with this little indie film. The lead performance of Fellows shows incredible range and impressive depth. To pull off a believable struggle with the complexities of mental health issues is no easy task—but in this role he was able to capture so many emotions from mourning to anger to disbelief to confusion. 

Though Splinter is no fast paced thriller, it does have moments of bloody horror that they don’t really hold back from.  What it does have in droves is a man’s struggle to deal with the worst possible thing one could go through—and how that trauma affects every part of his life…so much so that he isn’t sure what is real and what is imagined. 

I’d recommend this slow burn and will be interested to see what director David Bryant has in store for us going forward. 

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Sunday Bloody Sunday

The Hunt (2020)

It Chapter 2 (2019)

The Brood (1979)

Run Sweetheart Run (2020)

The Grudge (2020)

Mandy (2018)

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Rapid Review: The Krampus (non-fiction)

From 2016, Al Ridenour’s beautiful and absorbing book: The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, is the perfect companion to your evening by the fire during that nasty snowstorm. Wait….is that the wind you hear howling outside or……

I always love to pull this book out this time of year. It’s an extremely fascinating look at Krampus and all the various incarnations, festivals and lore.

 From its roots in Germany and Austria to its recent resurgence in America and beyond, Krampus and Krampusnacht have woven their way into the fabric of the holidays. Considered the “dark half” of the Santa Claus legend, Krampus supposedly grabbed up naughty children—in contrast to Saint Nicholas showering children with gifts. Forget coal! In old world lore, Krampus would just disembowel bad kids. Yikes! 

 Chapters include everything from the traditional look of Krampus (suits and masks) to where he came from and how he relates to St. Nick and other Christmasy types, to descriptions and folklore of many other Yuletide and winter ghosts, devils, and monsters of olde. 

 Exhaustively well researched by someone with an obvious love of the Krampus legend, this book has tons of exceptional photos and drawings as well. Parade and festival pictures abound from all over the world, showing masks and Krampus outfits-detailing how seriously this is all taken, particularly in Germany/Austria. It even includes maps of significant towns and landmarks. 

 Anyone interested in folklore and in particular DARK lore should definitely check this book out and make it part of your holiday reading.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Troll (2022) -- Norwegian Folklore Meets Monster-Sized Effects

 In Norwegian folklore, trolls factor very much into the tapestry of the stunning Scandinavian landscape.  Nordic mythology describes them as being family oriented but not much of a fan of humans especially those embracing Christianity, and will deliberately  cause harm if disturbed from their mountain homes. There are varying descriptions and characteristics of these beings, but the general consensus is that they are dangerous and shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

There have been a few movies about trolls—for adults, that is—with 2010’s Trollhunter leading the pack.  But with the new Netflix film Troll, we get something a little more akin to Godzilla than your average monster-of-the-week flick.  Yes the language is Norwegian but you won’t even notice it, there’s much more to look at.

A project to blast a tunnel into the side of a mountain goes awry when it awakens what we know is a troll (hence the obvious title!) from its ancient slumber.  It begins wreaking havoc in the countryside and begins to raise the eyebrows of the prime minister and her cabinet. 

Nora Tidemman is a paleontologist working out in the field when she is interrupted by the prime minister’s advisor Andreas who directs her to accompany him at the order of the government.  She discovers what has been happening and immediately thinks of her father Tobias, a folklorist who raised Nora alone after her mother’s death.  He instilled not only family values but the notion that you need to believe to see (and not the other way around).  They were once close but have been estranged for years, yet when Nora shows up at his cabin with Andreas and a military captain, Kris, Tobias is hesitant and even hostile—until he sees the computer footage of what is certainly a troll destroying homes and killing unsuspecting folks. He is 100% of the belief that the government’s plan to pretty much blow up the troll is a massive mistake in judgement. He consults his years of research into trolls (which incidentally got him fired from his past job) and tries to convince the powers that be that using military force will not stop and only aggravate the monster. 

Alas, as is common in most governments across the world, power and stupidity trump reason and they attempt to take out the troll with heavy artillery. When that doesn't work, they try various other options that are not successful - and the troll is determined to be making his way to the capitol. The prime minister and her cronies finally decide to utilize nuclear weapons which will most certainly cause death, destruction and long-lasting effects for Oslo, but they feel they have no choice.  Naturally Nora and her rag-tag team disagree - and the question starts to become not when they should nuke the troll, but IF. 

Fans of horror, be aware that this is not particularly a "horror" film. It is much more akin to Godzilla or King Kong, and brings the action in droves.  There are a few moments of abject terror, but nothing particularly scary.  The monster is spectacular, and that moment when Nora discovers what they are dealing with put me in mind of the scene in Jurassic Park where Dr Grant & Co. first see the Brachiosaurus. Shock, excitement, disbelief....

There is not a whole lot of originality in the base of the plot -- which is basically "Where'd that come from?! Kill it!" --but the troll himself as well as the deep dive into Norse folklore more than make up for it.  The sympathy that you express when they are shooting King Kong or trying to bomb Godzilla?  It's exactly like that.  Your love of the monster has you rooting for him by halfway through the film.  

I feel like they ended it in such a way that a sequel is imminent, particularly because the film has done so well on Netflix. It's a fun popcorn movie that is probably well on its way to being a franchise - and I'm okay with that. 

Sunday, December 11, 2022

The Return of Sunday Bloody Sunday

 It's been a long time coming, folks!  So here we go........

Son (2021)

Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Rabid (1977)

Terrifier 2 (2022)

Eat (2014)

Ready or Not (2019)

Friday, December 9, 2022

TEN REASONS: Why I Love Black Christmas

We’re starting a new feature here on Fascination with Fear called Ten Reasons. Not necessarily a countdown, just ten reasons…..to watch something, to love something….or even to dislike!  

I’m starting with perhaps my favorite Christmas horror, 1974’s Black Christmas. Please note there are spoilers within this post—so if you haven’t seen the film (and if you haven’t, get on that!) you may want to wait until you have! 

{I still find it crazy that the same director was behind both Black Christmas and one of the most popular family holiday films, A Christmas Story. What range!}

Anyway—-here’s ten reasons I LOVE Black Christmas! 🖤🎄

  1. Barb.  Foul-mouthed, crass, and perpetual drunk Barb is one of the best if not the best character in the film. She has several great moments, with the “fellatio” discussion with the clueless cop and the turtles having sex for three days straight speech being the stand-outs.  She knows she’s ignorant and uses that to her every advantage. But we see she does have a heart….when her mom ditches her on Christmas to spend the holiday with some guy, we know Barb’s feelings are hurt—but she quickly brushes it off with more humor.  The late great Margot Kidder exceeds expectations and elevates the fun here. 

  2. Mrs Mac.  Housemother of the sorority house, she’s a closet drinker with a loud personality.  With booze hid in places like the toilet tank and a book with a bottle size cut out inside, she’s both covert as well as resourceful. It’s clear she loves the girls and pretty much lets them get away with murder…whoops, poor choice of words! 

  3. Chris Hayden.  Chris is the boyfriend of Clare Harrison, our first victim. While she sits, dead, in a rocking chair in the attic, Chris leads the stampede to find her. When the cops don’t take her disappearance seriously Chris stomps angrily into the police station and demands something be done. In his fur coat and sporting movie star hair, Chris is a good looking and obviously caring boyfriend who is present for all aspects of the search. 

  4. Pi Kappa Sigma. That house! With its big rooms and gorgeous woodwork, it’s a star in and of itself. With the roaring fireplace as a backdrop for all the festivities of the house, holiday decorations abound while half the girls get toasted and the other half listen to lewd phone calls. And its pleasing Christmas lights on the outside make it the perfect setting for murder and mayhem. 

  5. Inventive kills. This is not your average slasher flick.  First of all, it pre-dates 1978’s Halloween, so it could be considered the OG slasher (if you’re not counting Norman Bates!) Secondly, there’s none of that just going around slashing folks with a knife! This killer uses suffocation by plastic bag, a crane hook (which was in the attic for some reason), a crystal unicorn figurine…truly imaginative. 

  6. The phone calls. Doubtful that any film has more ringing phones than this one—except the similar storyline of When A Stranger Calls (1979).  But what sets this one apart is the vulgarity. They hold nothing back in this script, using all manner of indecent and foul language. It’s so dirty it’s almost laughable, if it weren’t coming from someone so perverse. 

  7. Creepy-ass Peter.  Poor Jess. Her neurotic boyfriend is one weird son of a bitch. He is quite deluded and apparently thinks he can control Jess’s decision whether or not to get an abortion. He tries to say she can’t do that, but I assure you buddy, she can.  He has a whole future planned out for them that Jess has no desire to be a part of. When he fails to perform well at his classical piano audition, soon thereafter he utterly trashes the grand piano. This leaves us (the movie  audience) wondering if Peter may be the killer. He’s kind of fun to watch become more and more unhinged. 

  8. The police station.  Oh man, there is a scene at the police station that when I think about it, I can still get a good chuckle. Barb convinces Sergeant Nash that the new phone number at the sorority house is “fellatio” 20880.  The clueless cop even has her spell it.  Funniest of all are the other cops reactions when he tells them about the new exchange. The one cop’s laughter can set anyone off in a fit of giggles. We also need to praise the movie gods for placing John Saxon (in a similar role as his Nightmare on Elm St character) in this film. 

  9. Jess.  Olivia Hussey is great as the main protagonist in Black Christmas. She takes most of the calls from “The Moaner”.  Good hearted and kind, Jess seems to be the heart of the sorority, and much of the focus is on how she deals not only with the obscene caller but with the situation with her bonkers boyfriend once he finds out she wants to have an abortion. She sticks to her guns even though she knows Peter is essentially threatening her. She breaks up with him, searches for Clare and a local high school girl who is lost, helps Barb with an asthma attack, keeps the killer on the phone so they can trace the call, settles roomie Phyl when she becomes terrified, and is pretty good with a fire poker in a pinch.  A role model for sure. 

  10. Billy/The Prowler— From the moment we see the killer climbing the rose trellis to the attic of the sorority house, we know this jackass is off his rocker. Those phone calls!! Flagrant profanity and disgusting innuendoes! And the killing, when it starts, is cold hearted and seemingly random.  Add to that the fact that he continues to talk about Billy and Agnes—who are still unknown to us at movie’s end. We never find out his reasoning for being a psychopath. And that’s truly the scariest part of the whole film. 
*Black Christmas poster art by Gary Pullin 🖤🎄

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Christmas Evil (1980) : Deck the Halls with Despair

Christmas Evil
--a.k.a. You Better Watch Out-- has gained a reputation as a rather obscure holiday horror film, and doesn't really fit into the typical killer Santa category. It's admittedly a bizarre film.  At its start, it's even a little slow and boring. But upon closer inspection, you can see the main character's decline into mental fragility coming into full view. The holidays are a precarious time for anyone who has had any trauma or loss in their life, and our sad Santa is suffering from a particular kind of PTSD.

On Christmas Eve, young Harry Stadling and his younger brother witness Santa Claus putting gifts under the Christmas tree.  Shortly thereafter, when Harry should be in bed, he hears murmuring and goes downstairs to take a look.  He sees Santa and his mother fondling each other and looking to take things to the next level.  Shocked, Harry rushes to the attic where, in the throes of hurtful dismay, he cuts himself on a snow globe he throws to the floor.

Thirty-some years later, Harry is weirdly and thoroughly obsessed with the man in the red suit.  He awakes each morning to a Christmas carousel alarm, plays carols all day, and has his entire apartment decorated for Christmas no matter what month it is.  He himself even dresses like Santa to sleep.  Though it's obvious he has some mental health issues, Harry manages to hold down a low level management position at the Jolly Dreams toy factory.  His co-workers make fun of him behind his back and trick him into working extra shifts on the assembly line making toys.  

Perhaps the most disturbing is Harry's habit of watching the neighborhood children to see who is "nice" and who is "naughty", taking it so far as to have two giant books in his apartment that he documents his findings, as in "Billy has impure thoughts" and "Susie is a little darling". While this is a disconcerting situation, it never quite gets to a creepy sexual level, thankfully. 

Harry comes to genuinely believe that he is the true Santa Claus - and he doesn't like how "bad" not only the kids but the adults, have become.  When one of his co-workers asks him to work a shift so he can be with his family, Harry agrees - only to discover Frank drinking and carrying on at the local pub.  

Harry's brother Phil invites him to Thanksgiving dinner with his family but Harry can't be bothered, and cancels last minute. He's still enraged about his co-worker lying.  He also gets upset when he finds out the owner of the Jolly Dreams factory is duplicitous in his idea of donating toys to kids - it turns out the staff has to work overtime and donate their own money.  

All of these things prey on Harry's mind until he pretty much snaps.  He dresses as Santa, steals toys from the factory, and paints his van like a sleigh. It's obvious that at this point, he truly believes he IS Santa Claus, and feels the need to exact revenge - while at the same time providing toys for the disadvantaged (and "good") children.  He takes off, starting with a local hospital, where he leaves bags of toys.  When he arrives at the local church right after Christmas Eve services, he is teased by a bunch of local yokels, and that's when he truly begins his reign of terror, killing the men and then quickly driving off, heading next to his co-worker Frank's house and then to the company Christmas party.

It's such a sad story, to be honest.  The depths of Harry's mental illness are not immediately recognizable, but come out in droves once he is pushed over the edge.  I think everyone can relate to having the holiday blues - or even getting completely overwhelmed and stressed out by all the expectations, but Harry's lapse of reality is next level. The worst part is that he has no one to help him.  His brother and co-workers surely all noticed that he was teetering on the edge of madness.  The trauma from his childhood caused the odd obsession with Santa, even pushing into believe he WAS Saint Nick himself.  

While some could see this film as not worthy of a watch because it does take its time to engage viewers, building poor Harry's tale of mental sickness slowly - which in turn makes it all the more believable.  The more angry he gets, the more delusional and reckless he becomes, culminating in his expected -- and quite frankly, pitiful-- downfall.  

The way society treats its "outcasts" is one of the reasons why the amount of mental illness that goes undetected and untreated is so high, particularly in America. It's a disgrace that more care is not taken.  We all should be watching for signs of depression, anxiety and other mental struggles in our families, friends, co-workers, neighbors.....anyone.  Sometimes people just need a friendly hello.  Sometimes they need intensive therapy.  It's not always easy to see, and it's not always easy to get involved, but it's something we all should be more aware of.  

I don't mean to be preachy, after all, this is just a horror movie.  But within the 90+ minute running time, there are plenty of examples of things to watch for - in the movie, and in real life.  And that gives "You Better Watch Out" a whole new meaning, doesn't it?