A friend recently showed me some photos from a party I was at in the ’90s; in one, I’m smiling with another friend and his boyfriend. Yet, I have no memory of the boyfriend despite the evidence. Could this stranger have been the victim of a demon who made him, and my memory of him, vanish? That’s the macabre premise of this unnerving, spooky and elegantly directed film from the writer-director Andy Mitton.
Monique (Gabby Beans) goes to stay with and care for an old friend, Mavis (Emily Davis), who says she suffers from waking nightmares in her sleep and a living nightmare by day, one we all remember: the Covid lockdown. When Monique starts having similar scary dreams, she and Mavis consult a demonologist who tells them the towering creature they’re seeing — who wears a plague doctor’s long-beaked mask — likes the pandemic because isolation is how he gets in people’s heads and makes them disappear. And they’re next.
Mitton’s movie is a poignant story about loneliness and fear disguised as a “Nightmare on Elm Street”-style movie about lurking contagion and a killer entity. Mitton limits his settings and trusts Beans and Davis, two magnetic New York stage actresses, to do their jobs, and the result is a naturalistic scary movie that delivers the creeps far more effectively than would a more unhinged interpretation of the material. Man, the ending broke my heart.
At a gas station in nowhere New Mexico, Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson) bumps into her old friend Elena (Callie Hernandez), who’s living in a trailer after being involved in a horrible car accident. When Jessica reveals that she fled California to avoid a stalker — a former classmate named Kevin (Will Madden) — Elena offers her a place to stay. But then Kevin shows up looking like death, and Elena realizes that only she and her dopey friend Benny (Andy Faulkner) can ensure that Kevin disappears.
I hope the director-editor-cinematographer Pete Ohs doesn’t mind that I put his film in a horror column. Because while he directed this demented and funny cautionary tale about bad men, trauma and zombies — typical horror stuff — what he really made is an unclassifiable genre-hopper with a fiercely feminist heart. His cast gives wonderfully understated performances that pair nicely with a script, written by Ohs and his actors, that tackles grief and guilt with deadpan humor and a subversive understanding of the afterlife. It’s an oddball delight.
‘Para Betina Pengikut Iblis’
Sumi (Mawar Eva de Jongh) is a teenager living in rural Indonesia who dreams of city life. Instead she’s having nightmares of being visited by a pasty-faced demon (Adipati Dolken) who stands at a lake with his arms outstretched. Plus, the town doctor went and chopped off her mean dad’s infected leg, and it now sits in a freezer even though her father wants her to bury it to lift the family’s curse. Then the demon actually appears and convinces Sumi to hack off a chunk of the leg and serve it to her dad in a Sweeney Todd-style curry.
I’ll stop there because if that description makes your nerves tingle — and that’s just the film’s first 20 minutes — I highly recommend watching this breakneck terror tale from Rako Prijanto. Best to have a fortified constitution: The film is chockablock with grindhouse butchery, folk-horror supernaturalism, copious decapitation and even an exploitation-style town idiot. Although the story loses steam as it nears the finish, unable to clearly flesh out what the madness means, the trip there is paved with gross-out mayhem. It ends with the promise of a sequel, and I’m ready for seconds.
What we’ve got here is a “Shining”-like setup with Lynchian aspirations: 28 years after Hugh (Clark Moore) watched his mother fatally slash her neck, he and his wife, Lyla (Jolene Andersen), and their young son, Lars (Mason Wells), go to a secluded lakeside cabin where Hugh hopes to work on his long-gestating book. Along the way, Hugh keeps meeting people who say they know him, but he’s stumped.
As Hugh and Lyla bicker endlessly at the cabin, his writing suffers and he goes spiraling, killing a visitor and wandering through the collapse of time and space. Or something. When the cabin’s groundskeeper says, “It’s easy to lose yourself out here,” I thought, “Out here too, pal.”
I’m recommending this screwy psychological thriller because, as impenetrably enigmatic as it turned out, the writer-director Gordon Cowie is a gifted cinematographer with a visual style that’s eerie and striking, as when he turns a steamed-up phone booth into a kind of netherworld portal. Cowie has a terrific partner in Andrés Acosta, whose score of fat static, fluttering thumps and brooding slow-core strings makes the movie sound as darkly bewitching as it looks.
‘Etheria Film Night 2023’
The 10-year-old Etheria film festival is dedicated to showcasing genre films directed by women. This year’s edition of its annual short-film anthology is an entertaining mix of mostly horror shorts from 10 directors.
My favorite is Nikki Taylor Roberts’s “Go to Bed Raymond,” a sinister little gem about a boy who keeps waking up his parents in the middle of the night to tell them that “the bad kids who live in the woods” are in his room, and they’re angry. It’s seven minutes of tightly paced dread, with a delightfully deadpan performance by Adam Blackstone Jr. as the creeped-out boy from the title.
Other highlights: “No Overnight Parking,” Meg Swertlow’s bloody dark comedy starring Alyssa Milano as a woman who faces an assailant in a parking lot; “Sucker,” Alix Austin’s creature feature about sisters attacked by a life-sucking leech; and “The Erl King,” Genevieve Kertesz’s folk-horror fairy tale about a girl who learns that even magical woods house smooth-talking jerks.