A still from 'I Am Not a Witch'.
November 5, 2018
By Cait Lore

2017 / UK, France, Germany, Zambia / 93 min. / Dir. by Rungano Nyoni / Opened in select cities on Sep. 7, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature I Am Not A Witch is one that SLIFF audiences have likely heard of, largely due to the enthusiastic embrace it has seen across Europe. Partly funded by Cannes, but also the British Film Institute and Berliane’s World Cinema Fund, I Am Not A Witch is perhaps the most "international" of all the films screening at this year’s SLIFF. However, it is also one of the most accomplished, having won the BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut, and securing a submission, on behalf of the United Kingdom, for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards. All of these should be sufficient reasons to make I Am Not a Witch a priority at this year’s festival. Even on its own textual merits, however, the film is one of the year’s most ambitious features, a razor-sharp satire of fear and subjugation, both in Nyoni’s native Zambia and on the global stage.

The film’s story focuses on a young Zambian girl, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), whose enigmatic expression betrays her youth. That inscrutability also seems to get her into trouble with her community; the other villagers have accused the 8-year-old of being a witch. Children so young aren’t usually deemed witches, but Shula’s fate feels predestined, like a fairy tale gone wrong. Resigned to her situation, or maybe just baffled by it all, Shula refuses to confirm or deny the charges leveled against her. In fact, she says very little over the film’s duration, suggesting a lack of agency or perhaps disillusionment; Nyoni is smart enough to leave certain aspects of her film ambiguous.

The charges against Shula range from petty to obscure, but the accounts are uniformly absurd, almost farcical in nature. Take for instance the able-bodied man who tells a crowd of onlookers that Shula used magic to sever his arm from his body, blood spraying everywhere. Moments later, he admits that it was just a dream. This seems to be a knowing reference to the ‘She turned me into a newt!’ sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Which is to say, I Am Not A Witch is like Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), if it was played for laughs  – somber laughs, but laughs all the same.

The local leaders banish Shula to a state-run settlement, where long white ribbons hang from the trees. Attached to these ribbons are older women, also accused of witchcraft and now confined to the camp, just as Shula has been exiled there. People warn the young girl that, if she cuts the ribbon, she’ll become a goat. They assure her that a life as an indentured laborer is better for her own well-being and for the community. Non-African tourists flush with cash come to gawk the witch camp, for example. However, some specially chosen witches, perhaps including Shula, work more closely with the state. They can even become small-scale celebrities, helping with court cases and the like. It is up to Shula to decide what she wants to be – goat or slave – but that seems to be the only choice that is hers alone.

Notably, witch camps are, in fact, quite real and still in use today in Ghana. Rungano Nyoni spent a month visiting one, prior to making her film, but the feature does not position itself as a public service announcement about the plight of these camps. Instead, I Am Not A Witch actively places its conflicts in a global context. The politics of power are what’s on trial here – not just the curious phenomenon of witch camps – and Nyoni’s wry satire cuts to the bone.

I Am Not a Witch screens Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, Nov 10 at 5:00 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Cait Lore

A still from 'Zama'.
November 5, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2017 / Argentina / 115 min. / Dir. by Lucrecia Martel / Opened in select cities on Apr. 13, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

It’s unsurprising that the colonists in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama would be in awe of the spider wasp, an insect that hunts arachnids and uses their bodies as hosts for its developing eggs. This metaphor for the Spanish who invade and inhabit a South American territory sometime during the 18th century may seem obvious at first pass, but Martel also extends it to include the film’s central figure, corregidor Don Diego de Zama. Played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, an actor with a such a sculpturally stately profile that it’s all the more satisfying to see it twist in pathetic anguish, Zama is a man whose entitlement and estrangement in a foreign land begins to rupture his futile existence. (Cacho may be familiar to audiences from Bad Education, a 2004 film by Pedro Almodovar, who also has a producing credit here.) These fissures manifest in the aural and visual fantasia that is Martel’s wickedly funny and beguiling film.

Zama begins in medias res as Don Diego sneakily leers at a group of nude indigenous women who then discover and chastise him. Is this an act of perversion or curiosity? Martel purposely withholds narrative information and directorial hand-holding as if to suspend the audience in a dizzying existential crisis similar to the one the protagonist is undergoing. The joke is that as the central figure of this Age of Discovery narrative, Zama is the ineffectual opposite of the strong-willed men in this film’s forebears: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2004). 

In adapting the postmodern novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, the director eschews grandiosity and instead employs surreal comedy of bourgeois hubris à la Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1961). In that film, a sacrificial lamb signals the absurdity of its players’ entrapment. Here, a wandering llama invades the frame and the narrative, as oblivious to the humans’ follies as they are to the animal itself. In addition, much like the dinner party in Buñuel’s apocalyptic missive, Don Diego is perpetually stuck. He vainly attempts to relieve himself of his middle-management post and return to his family in Spain, while also failing miserably to seduce a local courtesan (Lola Dueñas, another Almodovar alum). There’s comic pleasure in watching Zama’s impotent desperation, but as the film boldy shifts from his life of bureaucracy to one of faceless militarism, Martel ratchets up the violence and aggression to deepen her condemnation of the masculine need for conquest and acclaim. 

Throughout the film, however, Martel’s impressionistic, slow-burn approach to filmmaking weaves an entrancing spell. The director’s trademark vertiginous sonic design envelops the viewer in a foreign land and a man’s existential flux, but it also includes the anachronistic 1950s Argentine surf rock that Benedetto was said to enjoy while writing the film’s source novel – a possible nod from the director about the futility of adaptation. Frames decapitate people (Martel did make The Headless Woman [2008], after all), forcing focus on movement, behavior, and environment rather than narrative. The film’s characters often wander around like ghosts – sometimes even appearing as literal specters – in a perfectly realized depiction of burgeoning modernism overtaking the jungle landscape. As wildly adventurous as any eager voyager, Martel is a filmmaker whose all-too-infrequent features –  just four over the past 17 years –  are often niche cause célèbres for cinephiles, but Zama firmly places her as a supreme master of the art, one worthy of widespread attention. 

Zama screens Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 9:00 p.m. and Friday, Nov 9 at 9:30 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story'.
November 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2017 / USA / 102 min. / Dir by Tiffany Bartok / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Far too often, biographical documentaries end up as mere delivery devices for drowsy, unedifying banality. Perhaps it’s simply that the nine out of ten biodocs all seem to follow the same playbook, spinning a neat and tidy narrative from a chronological overview of the subject’s life, usually by relying on archival footage and talking-head reminisces. The more memorable biographical films are often those that break this well-worn mold. Just this year, Sophie Fiennes’ Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami interrogated its subject almost entirely through present-day concert footage and intimate, vérité video. Meanwhile, Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney adopted a vivid exposé approach, reminding the viewer of forgotten facts and digging (sometimes uncomfortably) into the Queen of Pop’s hazy complexities. And Eugene Jarecki’s The King turned the biodoc inside out and took it on the road, using Elvis Presley’s life to cross-examine the American experience itself.

Director Tiffany Bartok’s Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story isn’t daring or questioning in the manner of those films, but it discovers a comparable forcefulness simply by doing the biodoc fundamentals exceptionally well. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as reaffirm the reliable robustness of its familiar shape. In recounting the striking accomplishments of the late American makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, Larger relies on all the usual hallmarks of the subgenre: the unlikely Horatio Alger tale, distilled and neatly arranged; the plethora of vintage photos, press clippings, and home videos; the parade of family, friends, and colleagues who wistfully share their cherished anecdotes. However, Bartok shapes these standard raw materials into a vivacious, authentically touching portrait of a man who, in his mere 40 years on Earth, changed the landscape of beauty, fashion, and celebrity in sneakily profound ways.

In 2018, YouTube is a repository of countless how-to makeup videos, a resource that enables eager viewers (women, men, and anyone else) to soak up thousands of hours of accumulated professional and DIY wisdom on the art of beauty. Arguably, this dazzling, streamable compendium of knowledge would not exist at its present scale without the influence of Kevyn Aucoin, a gangly boy from Lafayette, La. who adored cosmetics and photography. Perhaps as repayment for the tribulations he suffered growing up gay in the small-town South, the universe smiled on Aucoin when he moved to New York, as he landed himself a gig making up models at Vogue just eight months after his arrival. Over the ensuing years, Acouin established himself as a coveted corner-man for models, actors, and other celebrities. His technique was peerless, his passion infectious, and his giant yet nimble hands a curious source of comfort in the frenetic backstage world. At the height of his renown, he had the sort of professional caché that was unheard of for makeup artists – Cindy Crawford could bring a European photo shoot to a halt to have Aucoin flown to her side.

A fluffier sort of biodoc might have leaned overwhelmingly into the film’s cavalcade of glowing testimonials from seemingly dozens of famous faces – which are, admittedly, a pleasure. (A marvelous detail: Regardless of fame, all the talking heads are identified onscreen as “Actor”, “Model”, “Designer”, and the like, with one exception. Cher is simply "Cher", because she needs no further introduction.) It’s obvious that not only Aucoin’s talents but also his warm, lively personality left a deep impression on the people with whom he worked. However, Bartok also pushes deeper into the man’s cultural legacy, showing how his innovations shaped the way that millions of people view and approach their own beauty. It was Aucoin who developed and popularized the highly sculpted contouring that came to dominate the makeup world in the early 21st century, and it was Aucoin who pioneered more natural cosmetic shades that could accommodate the broad swath of human skin tones. More intangibly but just as essentially, he proffered an actual ethos in his three best-selilng makeup books, one that valued radical self-love and sought to tease each person’s inherent beauty to the surface.

Aurcoin was an almost obsessive self-documenter, and as such Bartok is blessed with an enviable wealth of letters, mementos, photos, and home movies to draw on. These reveal her subject’s unselfconscious private joys, but also his dogged insecurities, not to mention the unthinkable pain he endured as his tumor-associated acromegaly – the same characteristic that made him tower over a room and bestowed him with those colossal hands – took its toll on his body. Bartok strikes a careful balance in addressing Aucoin’s addiction to painkillers and his eventual death in 2002 due to an overdose of the same. Larger Than Life is not needlessly coy about this ugly, heartbreaking aspect of his life, nor does the film gloss over it as though it were inessential to an understanding of the man. However, Bartok emphasizes – modestly but firmly – that Aucoin is worthy of wider recognition primarily due to his resounding professional achievements, rather than because he represents some tragic case study in disability or addiction. Even viewers who know nothing about cosmetics, fashion, and beauty will find Larger edifying and inspiring, an illustration that raw, revolutionary talent paired with an earnest, generous soul can make the world a little less ugly.

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story screens Monday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at .ZACK. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
November 2, 2018
By Cait Lore

Sorry, Not Sorry

2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by Marielle Heller / Opened in select cities on Oct. 19, 2018; locally on Nov. 2, 2018

In today’s New York, West Village is one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. It wasn’t always that way, as Marielle Heller’s new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, will remind audiences. This is the neighborhood where the Stonewall riots took place, and where Max Gordon founded the Village Vanguard, a haven for poets and jazz musicians alike. Even as late as the 1990s, a freelance writer could still live there (very) modestly. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, never better) is such a wordsmith – or, that is, she would be, if her publisher would only give her a deadline.

Having written biographies on the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn, and Estée Lauder, Israel isn’t entirely without success. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she touts. The problem with being a good biographer, as Lee sees it, is that the writer disappears behind their subject matter.

Glowering through the better part of two decades, Lee hasn’t seen a new book deal in a long time. The tell-all biography she’s penning on Fanny Brice isn’t going to pay the rent. No one’s interested in reading about vaudeville actors whose stars have long faded, especially in the case of her publisher, who won’t even take Lee’s calls anymore. (Unless, that is, she pretends to be Nora Ephron.) Lee needs money and she needs it quick, but in a world where no one seems to respect history, let alone the written word, what’s a incipiently homeless biographer to do? Turn to a life of crime, of course!

Adapted from the real Lee Israel’s memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the story of a writer's mid-career swerve into the narrow criminal niche of literary letter forgery, all for the prosaic purpose of keeping a roof over her head. Lee just might be a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker, as it turns out; she can’t write the letters fast enough to keep up with demand from collectors. Her silver-tongued drinking buddy Jack (a pitch-perfect Richard E. Grant) is just the person to peddle these forgeries. “Who says crime doesn’t pay?” the real-life Lee wrote, and Heller’s cinematic version of the biographer agrees, drinking away her ill-gotten gains as fast as she can earn them.

As Jack and Lee run amok in New York’s bookstores, their work starts catching the attention of everyone, including the FBI. However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not that interested in being the mini-heist film it initially might appear to be on paper. Heller’s camera is far more interested in documenting the physical spaces – a not-so-long-ago vision of New York that no longer exists – than in focusing on the crimes Lee and Jack commit. Through Heller's lens, all of West Village looks like a musty old bookshop, washed in rich browns and golds. It always seems to be raining, and it’s always the same shops, empty bar stools, and lonely faces staring back Lee. New York has never looked so small. 

As smart as Heller’s direction is, the film undoubtedly belongs to Melissa McCarthy’s career-salvaging performance. It’s no easy task to endear an audience to a boorish writer with a caustic wit, but there’s something faintly wistful about McCarthy’s Lee. It’s a subtle performance, which does occasionally break into the physical comedy she’s known for. Watching the way McCarthy’s face crinkles into disgust when someone suggests she perform community service is worth the price of admission alone.

Despite a richly empathetic performance from the film’s lead actor, viewers may not find Isreal as endearing as the film does; if only Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script could keep up with McCarthy’s nuanced conception of the writer. The picture seems to lose its way during its later scenes, as the artist-in-decline character study fades into the background. Instead, audiences are stuck watching the same con games played over and over again, waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

By the film’s end, audiences are likely to grow weary of Lee’s malfeasance. Indeed, they may begin to wonder why exactly they considered forgiving her in the first place. It’s a disappointing turn, as the film ultimately leaves most of its psychological insights unexcavated. That said, it seems likely the Can You Ever Forgive Me? will net McCarthy some well-deserved attention during the imminent awards season – including a possible second Oscar nomination.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'The Great Buddha+'.
November 2, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2017 / Taiwan / 102 min. / Dir. by Hsin-yao Huang / Opened in select cities on Jan. 29, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

The Great Buddha+ is so indebted to many cinematic influences – the deadpan comedy of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and its varied emulations, the early meta-movies of Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few – the fact that it coheres together so brilliantly is something of a miracle. Director Hsin-yao Huang adapted his own prize-winning short, The Great Buddha, adding the “+” to his feature version to cheekily acknowledge the role technology plays in his condemnation of class structures in his native Taiwan. 

The narrative proper centers on Pickle (Cres Chuang) and Belly Button (Bamboo Chu-Sheng Chen), two perverted members of the proletariat who become embroiled in a murder plot after entertaining themselves with dashcam footage from Pickle’s supremely rich “artist” boss Kevin Huang (Leon Dai). Buddha+ could have easily been approached as a stylish genre exercise, but the filmmaker enriches it with endless cinematic invention. The first is his voiceover announcement that he, Hsin-yao Huang the director, will serve as a guide to the film. The narrative and thematic digressions he voices throughout the film are just a few of the rich Brechtian distancing techniques he freely deploys. 

Another innovative choice is the blown-out color of the dashcam footage that interrupts the film’s sumptuous black-and-white digital cinematography – the best this side of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) – that captures the natural beauty of rural Taiwan alongside the rotted-out hovels for its forgotten inhabitants. Like Amirpour’s subversive genre-bender, The Great Buddha+ also contains threads of political commentary, here about the widening chasm between rich and poor. Pickle and Bell often talk about their financial aspirations, hilariously undercooked to the point that director Huang points out their laughable futility. "Birth is eight-tenths of destiny," Pickle declares at one point. 

The film gets its title from a towering Buddha statue Kevin is constructing in his residence-cum-art-factory compound. During the film’s funniest scene – Buddha+ indeed expertly balances potent satire with vulgar comedy – Kevin’s clients pray to the statue while simultaneously criticizing its wonky features. Its makers and those who brokered the deal then awkwardly attempt to sell the work’s shortcomings, and the moment reveals itself as the filmmaker’s condemnation of the intersection of art, religion, and commerce. 

What they don’t know is that their ultimate religious icon has become a vessel for a nefarious activity, and soon the director announces that the film is at its midpoint. The change is palpable as gears shift from a nose-thumbing missive that is nevertheless creatively engaging to a somber tale about the abuses of power that oppress the underprivileged. Kevin’s easy evasion of police interrogation thanks to his public persona, along with Belly Button’s violent roadside arrest – the latter shown through dashcam footage and later in an audience-privileging bird’s-eye shot – are reminders that these imbalances are universal problems. In its graceful and mysterious final act, though, The Great Buddha+ suggests that higher forces may be working to realign the injustices. It’s a hopeful move for a film that has already portrayed humanity at both its best and worst. 

The Great Buddha+ screens Saturday, Nov. 3 at 7:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 6:35 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'Good Manners'.
November 1, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2017 / Brazil / 135 min. / Dir. by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas / Opened in select cities on Jul. 27, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Roughly halfway through its running time, the sublimely strange Brazilian feature Good Manners shifts with shocking savagery from one species of story into a wildly different one. As such, it’s challenging to discuss the film – a lurid and ambitious genre mashup from the writer-director team of Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas (Hard Labor [2011]) – without straying into serious spoiler territory. The feature begins in a measured, realistic mode laced with prickly racial, gender, and sexual subtext. São Paulo native Clara (Isabél Zuaa, wonderfully self-possessed) is an Afro-Brazilian nurse who interviews for a nanny position with Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a wealthy white expectant mother in a chic, high-rise apartment. Despite her thin résumé, Clara lands the job when she leaps to respond soothingly and intuitively to Ana’s stabbing pregnancy pangs.

Ana is a bit of a spoiled little rich girl, but she’s estranged from her family and seemingly friendless, exiled from her plantation upbringing to raise her imminent child alone in the big city. Clara’s new position is characterized by what management types term “scope creep”: She’s not just the nanny-to-be, but also Ana’s maid, cook, shopper, and confidant-by-default. Despite the systemic racial and class inequalities built into their relationship, the two women grow on one another, discovering a steadfast friendship that eventually takes on romantic and erotic dimensions. The passion is laced with dark unease, however. Clara discovers that Ana sleepwalks on the four nights of the full moon, rummaging through the fridge for raw meat and eventually shuffling out into the streets to catch and devour (!) stray cats. There’s also the matter of the baby’s biological father, a hirsute mystery man who vanished into the night shortly after hooking up with Ana – also during the full moon.

Dutra and Rojas present this bizarre scenario with an air of crisp, ghoulish absurdity that’s reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster [2015]; The Killing of a Sacred Deer [2017]), albeit warmer and queerer. Until the film’s midpoint heel-turn, Good Manners feels deliciously unpredictable in a way that only daring genre-benders such as this ever really manage. (Oh, yes: In addition to a flashback rendered in vivid hand-drawn pictures, this grisly lesbian werewolf movie also happens to feature musical numbers.) After one night of horrific heartbreak, however, the film leaps forward in time and shifts gears, assuming a much more familiar shape, especially to veteran creature-feature fans: a ticking-clock tragedy about a latent lycanthropic curse.

While it undeniably loses some of its idiosyncratic ambiance in its second half, Good Manners still manages to put an agreeably distinctive spin on its beastly tropes. Besides grounding their story in the rich textures and jarring contrasts of Brazilian city life, the directors lean into the intrinsic poignancy of a parent-child relationship in extremis, evoking films both creepy and angst-ridden, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968), It’s Alive (1974), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), and Room (2015).

Granted, Dutra and Rojas take their sweet time checking off the same story beats that landmarks like The Wolfman (1941) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) dashed through with predatory urgency. The ponderous pace isn’t all bad, however: It gives Good Manners the chance to simmer in its dense atmosphere of sorrow and doom, offering a welcome counterpoint to the campiness of dodgy CGI metamorphosis and a literal torch-and-pitchfork mob. The film concludes with a markedly ambiguous moment that seems to preclude a traditional happy ending, which is of a piece with its open-ended thematic character. Depending on the angle, Good Manners can be regarded as the story of a mother protecting her queer child from a resurgent fascist political climate … or that of a gay woman anxiously navigating her straight son’s nascent, snarling pubescence. Or it might just be an admonishment to never feed kids red meat.

Good Manners screens Friday, Nov. 2 at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov 11 at 8:20 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Memoir of War'.
November 1, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2017 / France / 127 min. / Dir. by Emmanuel Finkiel / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Marguerite Duras is most familiar to cinephiles as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ breakout narrative feature Hiroshima mon amour (1959), an earth-shattering announcement of new cinematic possibilities that is often lumped in with the beginnings of the French New Wave. However, Hiroshima – with its impressionistic portrait of personal and collective World War II trauma – couldn’t be further removed from the rough-edged, freewheeling movie-movies of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Francois Trauffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), two other key proclamations of French filmic liberation. 

In viewing Memoir of War, Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation of Duras’ autobiographical novel Le Douleur (translation: pain), it becomes clear that the nouveau roman-contingent author is owed as much credit for the supreme emotional depth of Hiroshima as is its director. In Finkiel’s film, Duras herself (Mélanie Thierry) is the protagonist and narrator, with the author’s prose serving as her internal dialogue as she navigates both Nazi-occupied and post-liberation France. Duras obsessively searches for her detained Resistance-member husband (Emmanuel Bourdieu, mostly viewed in ghostly glimpses) and attempts to trace his movements through prisoner-of-war and concentration camps, ultimately fighting a battle to retain her own personal agency and mental strength.

Given that it portrays the early life of a French national treasure, one might expect Memoir to be a hagiographic biopic, but both the source novel and the script are too intelligent for such banality. There’s also Thierry, an actor given the monumental challenge of portraying a well-known figure. She does so not with gilded reverence for Duras, but with the quiet restraint and power necessary for this specific story – only allowing for emotional fireworks in one particularly appropriate and heartbreaking moment near the end of the film. 

The bifurcated structure mirrors Duras’ shattered internal self, but it also presents a unique rhetorical shift for a film. The first half is a suspense narrative as the writer psychologically (and nearly sexually) manipulates an SS officer (Benoît Magimel) into divulging information about her imprisoned husband, while also obscuring her own involvement with the Resistance. When that con proves futile just as France’s liberation begins, the film shifts wholly into a patient grief narrative, as Duras is left to wait for her husband's return. Her learned helplessness mutates into supreme guilt. She can’t settle what she feels is a selfish need for one man’s survival with the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, a dilemma compounded by both the celebration of returning prisoners and the erasure of nameless victims by the Gaullists. 

While this film is much more of a literal depiction of survivor’s guilt than Resnais’ Hiroshima, Finkiel’s feature still occasionally dips into surreality, mirroring its protagnosist’s dissociation, anguish, and guilt. The director manifests ghosts haunting Duras just outside of the frame – or just out of focus within it – and the heroine often finds herself staring at her future or past self in an attempt to reconcile her actions with her feelings. Finkiel also keeps his camera remarkably close to his protagonist, disorienting his audience with blocking and manifesting Duras’ dislocation through shallow focus and choice camera setups; often, she is partly obscured in windows and door frames. The film’s final shot is a superb encapsulation of this working mode when the camera shifts and loses focus to resemble a pointistic painting, visualizing the murkiness of death in its many forms: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Memoir of War screens Friday, Nov. 2 at 12:00 p.m. and Sunday, Nov 4 at 12:00 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'Suspiria'.
October 30, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Dance Dance Revolution

2018 / Italy, USA / 152 min. / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select cities on Oct. 26, 2018; opens locally on Nov. 2, 2018

First things first: Director Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is not really a remake of Dario Argento’s inimitable 1977 giallo-turned-fantasia of the same name, at least not in any remotely meaningful sense of the word. Both films are (loosely) horror features, and both are centered on a Berlin-based dance school that serves as a front for a witches' coven. Other than those reductive facts and some shared character names and traits, Suspiria 2018 has almost nothing in common with Suspiria 1977. To say that the former is a remake of the latter is akin to asserting that Blood for Dracula (1974) is a remake of Nosferatu (1922): technically correct in some tortured sense, but not very relevant or edifying.

Nonetheless, owing to the shared title – and a “based on characters by” credit to Argento and his collaborator and then-partner Daria Nicolodi – it’s perhaps inevitable that Guadagnino’s film will be discussed in the context of its predecessor’s long, blood-red shadow. Indeed, it’s clear that Guadagnino has, in numerous respects, quite deliberately fashioned his Suspiria as a counterpoint to Argento’s feature. The 1977 film operates according to the logic of a nightmarish fairy tale, reveling in the way that color, sound, and music can be employed as vectors for pure, almost abstracted terror. The Suspiria of 2018, meanwhile, is chilly and cerebral, a thesis on all the unsettled atrocities of the past and present, couched in the vocabulary of feminist theory and body horror. It’s gray and severe where Argento’s film is garish and florid; political rather than mythic; forlorn rather than fantastical. If the first Suspiria is Matisse’s Dance, then the second is Francis Bacon’s Pope Innocent X.

Almost by definition, Guadagnino’s version could never be as aesthetically and primordially galvanic as its namesake. (How could it? What filmmaker would even want to try?) For that, Argento enthusiasts will perhaps inevitably give this reimagining all kinds of flak, some of it deserved, most of it not. Unquestionably, Suspiria 2018 is an intellectually immodest thing, as swollen with ideas as a 2,000-page dissertation on Marxist themes in the oeuvre of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose works this film at times evokes). Yet Guadagnino’s feature is ultimately content to be thought-provoking rather than groundbreaking – if occasionally horrific in bizarre, innovative ways.

Where a different sort of art-horror filmmaker might have resisted any gesture that could be construed as pretension, Guadagnino – here taking his initial, without-a-net plunge into the genre, after the Apollonian warmth of last year’s Call Me by Your Name – seems to have embraced pretense, preemptively and lustily. That’s certainly a choice, as they say, and the director deserves credit for his boldness. This Suspiria, after all, is a ground-up reworking of a horror feature that has been canonized as a singular, untouchable masterpiece. Guadagnino could have been forgiven for playing it safe and treating his film merely as an opportunity to pay reverent homage to Argento’s original.

Instead, the director has taken some wild risks. Most prominently, he has explicitly set this tale of blackest magic against the backdrop of the real-world(-ish) events of late 1977 (the “German Autumn”). The Red Army Faction is abducting executives, the Stasi has eyes everywhere, and the Lufthansa 181 hijacking plays out on overheard radio broadcasts. This sort of pointed political context doesn’t necessarily pay the thematic dividends that Guadagnino seems to have intended, instead often coming off as a kind of jarring Cold War cosplay. Smoking cigarettes and bustling about their shared kitchen, the film’s witches ironically seem more realistic than the crowds of generic left-wing protesters agitating for the release of RAF founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof – the latter already (oops) dead in the ground over a year by October 1977. Overall, however, Guadagnino is broadly successful in his efforts to frame this Suspiria – a mad tale of esoteric feminine power and ritual dance-as-magic – as one vivid fragment in an eternal human drama of coups, purges, and glorious revolutions.

Set in a “divided Berlin” the same year that Argento’s original was released, this version is similarly centered on an American ingenue named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), although here she is fleshed out as a Good Christian Girl hailing from a Mennonite enclave in Ohio. Having once seen Berlin's vehemently modern Markos Dance Academy perform during a trip to New York, Susie became obsessed with joining the school at an early age. Now a young adult, she has made her way to Germany, even as her poor, ailing mother lies bedridden back at her family's Ohio farm, wheezing painfully on the brink of death. Susie guilelessly presents herself to the Markos Academy instructors, including headmistress and creative director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), an artiste’s artiste who glides about in black caftans making proclamations such as “We must break the nose of every beautiful thing.” Despite her complete absence of résumé, references, or formal training, Susie’s audition dazzles the academy’s teachers, who assure her that no tuition is needed, the school being long ago organized as a financially autonomous artist's collective.

That detail – as well as the absence of the male students who appeared on the margins of Argento’s film – hints at this Suspiria’s absorption with female power wielded independently of any relationship to patriarchy. Early in the film, Guadagnino captures the academy staff during an informal election, his camera circling hypnotically as the women gather and verbally vote for either Blanc or the absent incumbent, academy founder Helena Markos. (The latter emerges as the victor, a point that will be relevant later.) Outside the walls of the academy there might be Popular Front hijackings and blood-dimmed chaos, but within there is feminine accord – at least at first glance.

Pointedly, the only male character of any import in the film is a doddering, half-deaf Jewish psychiatrist, Josef Klemperer (portrayed by “Lutz Ebersdorf,” actually Swinton under old-age prosthetics). Wracked by survivor’s guilt over the wartime death of his wife (played in flashbacks by the original Susie Bannion, Jessica Harper), the elderly doctor is perpetually shuffling through dismal government checkpoints, first West to his office apartment, then East to his one-room dacha, then back again. He’s a fitting proxy for the men that the Markos matrons find so contemptibly inessential, a figure ultimately more pitiable than threatening.

It’s through Klemperer, however, that the viewer first learns of the Markos school’s dark secrets, just before Susie arrives in Germany. One of the doctor’s patients, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), turns up on his doorstep in an agitated state, babbling paranoid fantasies. A student at the Markos Academy, she’s come to believe that her instructors are witches with foul designs on her body and soul. “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate,” she declares with matter-of-fact fatalism. Convinced that every eye peering out from a photo or book cover is a scrying organ for the coven, she abruptly flees Klemperer’s office and thereafter vanishes. She leaves behind a scrawled journal, however, which the doctor peruses with mounting concern in the coming days. He may not believe in witchcraft, but he does believe in criminal conspiracy, in addition to knowing thing or two about the darkling allure of symbols and titles.

Conveniently enough for the newly arrived Susie, Patricia’s disappearance – which the academy staff suggests is related to her flirtations with radical Communism – happens to open up a bed in the school’s dormitories. There, Susie befriends Sara (Mia Goth), a fellow student with a savvy-sweet personality, and soon enough the pair are embarking on a Nancy Drew-ish snooping expedition and cuddling up together in bed as a bulwark against disturbing nightmares (such dreams being "a Markos Academy specialty"). Seemingly overnight, Susie assumes the mantle of school phenom, much to the consternation of some of the established students. When the lead dancer (Elena Fokina) in the academy’s new performance departs in a tearful huff, Susie volunteers to rehearse the protagonist role without any prior experience. This she does in a bravura scene that culminates in grotesque horror, as Susie’s thrusting hands and stomping feet become – unbeknownst to her – literal weapons in a rite of sympathetic death magic. It seems that Blanc and Co. have big plans for their new star, as evidenced by murmurs concerning failed rituals, imperfect vessels, and Markos’ clandestine arrival at the school.

For this macabre tale, Guadagnino affects an eccentric visual style that evokes classic 1970s horror features: giallos from Mario Bava and Argento himself, of course, but also British genre landmarks like The Wicker Man (1973), The Shout (1978), and especially Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). As they did in Call Me by Your Name, Guadagnino and Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom employ 35mm film and a relatively conservative 1.85:1 widescreen ratio to give the film a faintly dated look. However, it’s the more ornate visual gestures such as snap zooms, freeze frames, and jittery slow motion that place Suspiria decisively within its (illusory) 1977 context. While aesthetically distinct from the crumbling necropolis that Roeg fashioned from nocturnal Venice in Don’t Look Now, the cold, slate-gray edifices of Suspiria’s brutalist Berlin architecture feel similarly forlorn. There are radical protests in the streets, but this Germany seems decimated, depopulated, and besieged, full of empty spaces peopled mostly by the ghosts of the Third Reich’s victims. The words of Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert resonate: tuesday: the mayor is killed by unknown assailants / wednesday: talks of armistice the enemy interned our envoys / we don’t know where they are being kept i.e. tortured.

Caught like a pinned beetle between the almighty Deutsche Mark and Communist terror – and still agonized by the convulsions of its psychic denazification – Suspiria’s Berlin is an unexpectedly redolent backdrop for a repulsive, gore-spattered tale of politicking witches. For political upheaval is ultimately what Susie’s arrival represents in the conception of Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich – who also penned the director’s A Bigger Splash (2016) and AMC’s icebound horror series The Terror (2018). While the Markos coven is presented as a group that thrums with very real yonic energy, its machinations are not all that different from those of the male-dominated nation-states and guerilla cells it reviles. Suspiria is, at bottom, the story of a revolution, and whether political or magical, all transformations require a blood sacrifice. The coven simply pursues such ends within a fiercely feminine occult idiom that explicitly muddles creation and destruction. (Kali might well be their patron goddess.) It’s hardly incidental that the witches’ favored weapon is a gruesome bronze hook; where a male villain might wield a more overtly phallic stabbing blade, the Markos women prefer a parabola-like instrument that suggests a uterine or vaginal form. These witches also cackle: shrilly, mirthlessly, and disdainfully, their peals slicing assaultively into the sound mix in a way that recalls the film's pre-sync giallo antecedents.

Susie is less the protagonist of this anarchic story than its catalyzing agent. Harper’s 1977 iteration of the character was a wide-eyed babe in the woods, shrinking like a silent-film damsel from every fresh horror. Johnson’s Susie is dreamier and more inscrutable, her wavy auburn tresses suggesting not innocence but threat. Even Blanc seems a bit perturbed by her new protégé’s sorcerous power, eyeing her nervously as Susie asserts control over her choreography and speaks in disconcerting non sequiturs: “Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?”

Her suspicions prodded by a meeting with Klemperer, it is Sara who fills the role of the film’s sleuthing heroine for a time, at least until she stumbles onto the coven’s secrets and draws the witches’ ire. With Patricia’s forgotten journal in hand – its margins scribbled with arcane hierarchies, RAF logos, and references to three immortal “mothers” – Klemperer is thereafter the only character left to carry on the search for the truth. Ultimately, however, the aged psychiatrist is more of an impotent bystander than a seeker: sadistically manipulated, humiliated, and enslaved as a mute witness to the coven’s sabbath. Flouting genre conventions that demand a (often male) “detective” character who successfully ferrets out the facts, Guadagnino’s film is more elegy than thriller, a long, shuddering exhale of sorrow for all that has been (and will be) lost in the myriad atrocities of human history.

It’s weighty stuff for a lurid tale about murderous witches, and at times the director’s intellectual ambitions outrun his ability to keep the whole confounding thing held together. The constant references to the events of the German Autumn often feel unaccountably phony, and while the aim might be to ground the fantastical elements, all the Wikipedia name-dropping has the perverse effect of dislocating the film’s events from reality. Relatedly, it’s not clear what purpose is served by slotting Swinton into the Klemperer role. This bit of stunt casting is more distracting than illuminating, as is often the case with incidents of coy, latex-assisted age- and gender-bending. Perhaps the filmmaker’s intention was along the lines of the Wachowskis in Cloud Atlas (2012) – a vivid, faintly transgressive means to illustrate the characters’ shared humanity – but the result is similarly off-putting. (Swinton is, nonetheless, quite good in the role, especially as the film wears on and the suffocating weight of Klemperer’s guilt and helplessness is more keenly felt.)

Nothing is quite so emblematic of the film’s over-extension, however, as Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s calculatingly schizophrenic score. In the abstract, it’s a fine, even entrancing composition. However, the score's musical style swings so wildly from scene to scene that that it quashes any sense of unifying theme. The film’s aural landscape is perpetually shifting, abruptly and discordantly: now rumbling ambient noise; now a slinky melody layered with sitar-like droning; now a chilly synth requiem; now Yorke’s characteristic ethereal vocals and piano tinkling. Most perplexingly, the composer rolls out a lush, almost lounge-like love song for the film’s blood-drenched climax, a choice that ranks alongside the use of Joe Cocker’s cover of “You Are So Beautiful” in Carlito’s Way (1993) for sheer, left-field dissonance.

Much more resoundingly successful is Guadagnino’s employment of dance, an element that was almost incidental in Argento’s original, but here serves as the film’s writhing, stamping heart. What color was to the 1977 Suspiria, motion is to the 2018 Suspiria. The Markos Academy does not teach classical ballet, or even the edgy modern ballet of Black Swan (2010), but a ferocious and dramatic mode of contemporary dance, in the style of legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch. Editor Walter Fasano cuts the dance sequences – wonderfully choreographed by the artistically dauntless Damien Jalet – in violent and emphatic fashion, underlining the thematic essence of Guadagnino’s film: The movement of human bodies according to ritual formulae is nothing less than a kind of spellwork, and like all magic it may be used for purposes either beneficial or malign. (Mostly the latter in this case.)

Of course, the Markos coven never really seems to do much with its supernatural talents, other than to consolidate power for its own sake, and in this respect their dark sisterhood ironically mirrors the squabbling male polities outside the academy. If there’s a feminine grace to be found in their conjurations, it’s paradoxically embodied in Mother Suspirium, a demon witch-goddess who lurks at the story’s periphery. It’s she who delivers the film’s rare gestures of mercy, and it’s she who appears in a stunning transfiguration at the climax. Her ribcage split open to reveal her throbbing viscera, she evokes not only the exaggerated vulva of a sheela na gig on a medieval church, but no less a figure than the Virgin Mary with her pierced and flaming Immaculate Heart.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mid90s'.
October 30, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Youth in Revolt

There’s lately been a resurgence of films centered on teens, but these features don’t quite resemble either John Hughes’ watershed films of the 1980s or the light comedies and slashers of the late 1990s that used the late director’s work as a templates. The individual films of this latest crop could hardly be seen as treading common ground. Instead they tend to spring from their makers’ unique creative visions and experiences, while generally eschewing the genre’s tried-and-true narrative setups. Although films exploring pubescent anxieties have hardly been a rarity at any time in the past century, these new films are finding a fresh way to use coming-of-age stories to explore the shared anxieties of contemporary America and its subcultures.

The year 2018 has yielded an interesting and varied array of teen films that could be included in this mini-movement. Coming-out story Love, Simon was a saccharine-sweet studio film that actually did use a Hughes schematic, albeit with queer characters at the fore – while also managing some modest box-office success. While that fim tended towards generalizing queer life, comedian Bo Burnham’s debut feature Eighth Grade was so exacting in creating a young woman’s experience in contemporary times, he made one of the most precise (and cringe-worthy) portraits of living in the social-media era. Likewise, the sublimely off-kilter indie Madeline’s Madeline centers on another young “woman under the influence,” here a theater-troupe member whose fractured psyche is manifested not only in the show in which she’s performing but also in the film itself. On the other end of the cinematic spectrum, two recent documentaries about skateboarding kids, Skate Kitchen and Minding the Gap, mine the world of the sport to explore gender politics in contemporary times. 

In current release, the narrative feature Mid90s, the directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill, shares the skatepark setting of the aforementioned docs. While monumentally breezier, it also contains some common threads concerning race and toxic masculinity that tie if to yet another – albeit much more overtly political – film currently in theaters, the YA adaptation The Hate U Give.

The Hate U Give

2018 / USA / 133 min. / Dir. by George Tillman Jr. / Opened in wide release on Oct. 12, 2018

The Hate U Give borrows its title from THUGLIFE, an acronym coined by the late West Coast hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur. Its original meaning – The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything – is as blunt and jejune as the film itself. The feature centers on Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a young black woman who straddles life between her predominantly black and fatally dangerous neighborhood, the fictional Garden Heights, and the largely white private school she attends in the suburbs. This double life is one of weekdays with her upper-middle-class schoolmates and weekends with her less privileged neighbors and distant family members. One fateful night in Garden Heights finds Starr as the sole witness to the murder of her lifelong friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), at the hands of a white policeman. 

Her struggle with how to deal with her black-culture-appropriating white friends – including her white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) – are just the first moves the film makes to establish a microcosm of life for people of color in the United States. The feature is thuddingly obvious about ideas more sneakily woven into the texture of another, and much better, recent film with racial politics on its mind, Support the Girls, However, director George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give morphs into astoundingly resonant melodrama, a form that couldn’t be further from Andrew Bujalski’s low-key comedy-of-manners. (The two films also share the sublime Regina Hall as their mother figures.) The microaggressions start to take on (appropriately) monumental weight for both the viewer and Starr after the film’s inciting incident, creating a holistic and vital portrait of the systemic oppression against black Americans. 

By depicting an all-too-real narrative with an achingly earnest mode of expression, Tillman straddles a line between audience involvement and abandonment. The director nearly falls off this tightrope in the film’s climax, which literalizes Shakur’s acronym. However, when the surrounding film also contains startlingly moving scenes of Starr’s increasing involvement in a Black Lives Matter-like movement, the misstep is easily forgiven. The seemingly conflicting tones are largely balanced by an excellent cast, including Hall as Starr’s conflicted mother, Russell Hornsby as Starr’s ex-con-turned-entrepreneur father, Common as a black cop torn between protecting his niece and what he sees as his duties, and Anthony Mackie as Garden Heights’ violent drug kingpin. They satellite the superb Stenberg, who capably handles the tasks given to her in performing one young woman’s coming of age, a transformation rooted in her realization of the gross injustices facing her and her community. 

Rating: B-

Mid90s

2018 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Jonah Hill / Opened in select cities on Oct. 19, 2018; locally on Oct. 26, 2018

Placed dead-center in Mid90s’ squarish Academy-ratio frame, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) glides down the middle of a sunny, busy interstate on his skateboard, lagging slightly behind his new, more experienced and older skateboarding friends. Soundtracked to the anachronistic the Mamas & the Papas’ hit cover of “Dedicated to the One I Love,” the shot is a choreographed expression of newfound passion and belonging. Director Hill mirrors this shot again after one member of that group, the particularly talented Ray (Na-kel Smith), provides the 13-year-old Stevie with a shot of much-needed reality regarding the world he’s just entered. Sans the autumnal harmonies of the ’60s pop group and now at sparsely populated dusk, the setup reflects the melancholy underlying teenage years when the world begins to present itself more clearly.

The film is sparingly decorated with small-scale miracles like these – a foreshadowing crane shot showing the journey Stevie will take when he fails a jump across roofs is another – but their purposeful infrequency demonstrates that Mid90s is not some grand announcement of a new directoral talent in actor-turned-director Hill. Instead, this low-key and sun-drenched portrait of identity formation coasts on the smallest of gestures and movements. Stevie lives with his single mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), a woman split between providing for and caring for of Stevie and his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The two boys’ fraught relationship is further widened by their macho posturing, which frequently erupts into violence. That masculine toxicity ripples outward into the film in the form of Stevie’s self-harm – a means of feeling something, anything – and the competition and jealousy that nearly destroy his new group of friends before the film’s climax coheres it back together.

These are ideas more explicitly explored in Bing Liu’s years-long self-portrait of himself and his skater friends, Minding the Gap – there’s even a character parallel to Gap’s Lui who is documenting Stevie and the gang in Mid90s. At a scant 85 minutes, Hill’s debut as a director is as minor as its diminutive protagonist, but its most graceful moments prove there’s still reasons to make yet another teen movie. This one is sure to be compared to Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird (2017) due to its similar pedigree, but that director's supreme wit and precisely drawn characters easily ushered her feature debut into the pantheon of great movies about youth. Mid90s, however, is such a light affair that it merely piques interest in seeing what the capable director Hill will do next. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Dark'.
October 29, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan)

2017 / Indonesia, South Korea / 107 min. / Dir. by Joko Anwar / Premiered online on Oct. 4, 2018

Writer-director Joko Anwar’s self-assured remake of an obscure 1980 Indonesian cult classic is couched in an evocative rural Javanese milieu that lends the feature a lived-in richness. It’s fortunate that Anwar sweats the details of his Islamic-flavored ghost story, given that the narrative beats and jump-scares in Satan’s Slaves feel regrettably derivative. Nicking liberally from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Omen (1976), The Conjuring (2013), and several decades’ worth of J-horror, the new film concerns the hard-luck family of an ailing and forgotten pop chanteuse. Following their mother’s death early in the feature, the four siblings discover that they are being haunted – not just by mom’s restless spirit, but also by the aftershocks of the twisted occult dealings she had in life. All told, it’s a well-worn yet gratifyingly creepy tale, where the creased, humid setting consistently distracts from the nagging familiarity of the ghostly head games and “shocking” plot twists. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Await Further Instructions

2018 / UK / 91 min. / Dir. by Johnny Kevorkian / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 5, 2018

For a sizable chunk of Johnny Kevorkian’s clunky sci-fi horror fable, the sheer inexplicable weirdness of the characters’ outlandish dilemma is (barely) enough to keep the film sputtering along. When Nick (Sam Gittins) takes girlfriend Annji (Neerja Naik) to meet his family on Christmas Eve, the hyperbolic awfulness of his suburban British clan – including Nick’s tightly wound father, snippy sister, and bigoted granddad – is more enervating than amusing. However, once the family discovers that they’ve been physically sealed inside their home by some mysterious entity, the escalating lunacy of their baffling situation has an undeniable dark energy, one veined with gruesome techno-organic terror. (Think The Outer Limits meets David Cronenberg.) However, in its final stretch, Await Further Instructions reveals itself as a hollow, hamfisted polemic, one with all the profundity of a bumper sticker. The filmmakers slather on shallow moralizing about the evils of screen slavery and blind obedience to authority, all to distract from how little thought they’ve given to the film’s scenario. Rating: D+ [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

The Body

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Paul Davis / Premiered online on Oct. 5, 2018

Hulu’s new anthology Into the Dark straddles the hazy line between cinema and television: Each month, the streaming service is serving up an original, standalone, feature-length horror film. Unfortunately, the series’ opening outing, The Body, is not an encouraging sign for future monthly offerings. Cleaning up after a high-profile job on Halloween night, stone-faced hitman Wilkes (Tom Bateman) discovers that when ghouls and goblins are about, no one bats an eye at a man lugging a cellophane-wrapped corpse through the streets. This should make a hired killer’s life easier, but Wilkes has the bad luck to be swept up in a cascade of fiascos with a gaggle of clueless, costumed partygoers. The dominant tone here is ostensibly a blackly comical one, although Paul Davis and co-writer Paul Fischer – expanding their 2013 short film of the same name – fail to wring laughs from all the bloody mayhem and tiresome Millennial potshots. The result is just dumb and dull, if fittingly gory in spurts. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Hulu.]

Malevolent

2018 / UK / 89 min. / Dir. by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson / Premiered online on Oct 5, 2018

In 1980s Scotland, siblings Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Angela (Florence Pugh) have a tidy scam going, staging phony “cleansings” of alleged haunted houses as a way to con grieving relatives and desperate homeowners. However, Angela – who plays the part of the medium – abruptly begins to have very real visions of the restless dead, not long before the pair take on a job at a rambling former foster home where several girls were once viciously slain. Malevolent has a few tick marks in its favor: some enjoyably musty production design, several genuinely unnerving shocks, and the presence of Pugh, who was so spellbinding in last year’s pitch-black Lady Macbeth. However, director Olaf Fleur Johannesson often seems to be flailing, as though he is uncertain where the plot is heading next or what sort of story he even wants to tell. By the time the film takes a hard left into grisly serial-killer territory, most of the suspense, pathos, and personality have long slipped away. Rating C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Terrified

2017 / Argentina / 87 min. / Dir. by Demián Rugna / Premiered online on Oct. 11, 2018

In a quiet Argentinian neighborhood, seemingly divergent paranormal phenomena are unfolding in three nearby houses. A horrified husband witnesses his wife being brutally murdered by an unseen force; a frazzled man is convinced a bogeyman is lurking somewhere in his home; and the recently buried corpse of a young boy turns up in his mother’s kitchen. Eventually, a police detective and cadre of paranormal sleuths arrive to uncover exactly what is happening. These characters are the closest thing to co-protagonists in the scattered and uneven Terrified, a sci-fi horror puzzle box that is less interested in telling a coherent story per se than in serving up bizarre incidents with a twist of cosmic terror. Writer-director Demián Rugna isn’t that concerned about little matters like lucidity or pacing, preferring to lean into those components that are grotesque, unfathomable, and morbidly amusing. It’s not good cinema, exactly, but the almost matter-of-fact approach to the film’s mélange of H.P. Lovecraft, Dean Koontz, and Stranger Things is memorable stuff. Rating C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Apostle

2018 / UK, USA / 150 min. / Dir. by Gareth Evans / Premiered online on Oct. 12, 2018

Writer-director Gareth Evans’ bone-crunching Indonesian action diptych The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2013) is many things – bloody, propulsive, ludicrous – but it is certainly not unfocused. The same cannot be said of Evans’ first foray into feature-length horror, Apostle. Set in the early years of the 1900s, the film follows Thomas (Dan Stevens) as he infiltrates an xenophobic pagan cult on a remote Welsh island. Posing as a newly converted pilgrim, Thomas seeks his missing sister, who is allegedly being held for ransom by the cult leadership, among them the charismatic prophet Malcomb (Michael Sheen). It’s plain Evans has enthusiasm for the material here, which blends elements of The Crucible, The Wicker Man (1973), and Children of the Corn (1984) into a forbidding and gruesome tale of ritual practice gone gangrenous. Unfortunately, the director’s propensity for indulgence leads to numerous scenes that – while often harrowing in the moment – feel protracted, meandering, and disconnected from the story as a whole. Rating C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

The Witch in the Window

2018 / USA / 77 min. / Dir. by Andy Mitton / Premiered online on Oct. 18, 2018

Undoubtedly, some of the flaws in the chilly The Witch in the Window are attributable to the limitations of a low-budget production. Most conspicuous in this respect is the haunted setting itself, a Vermont farmhouse with chintzy, too-modern décor that clashes terribly with the moldering, gothic mood that the film is aiming for. However, the screenplay from writer-director Andy Mitton – who also edited and scored the feature – has other problems, primarily a peculiar disregard for the unsettling, tragic history that is the proper centerpiece of any decent ghost story. Instead, the titular witch is almost an afterthought in a melodrama about the fraught relationship between a father (Alex Draper) and his adolescent son (Charlie Tracker). The performers do their best to make this component credible and affecting, and Mitton admittedly has some talent for conjuring sensations of spine-tingling dread and surreal dislocation. However, Witch never gels into anything substantial; if feels less like a full-fledged horror film than a muted, bargain-bin approximation of one. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

The Dark

2018 / Austria / 95 min. / Dir. by Justin P. Lange / Premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

Writer-director Justin P. Lange’s grim, pitiless road film The Dark is the sort of horror feature that is plainly striving to say something profound – in this case, about the topics of abuse, trauma, and recovery – but never quite articulates its thesis with clarity. What the viewer is left with, then, is a strange, miserabilist fable-cum-character study, one with a refreshing absence of world-building gobbledygook. Lange’s film collides an undead cannibalistic girl (Nadia Alexander) and a blind kidnapping victim (Toby Nichols) and then watches as their twisted survival mechanisms mutate in one another’s presence. It’s a ponderous, harrowing piece of work where death often arrives swiftly and cruelly, although Lange makes time for moments of bruised poignancy and gallows humor. The film’s moral worldview is an exasperating muddle, but on the whole, The Dark is a novel, intriguing riff on myriad monster tropes – zombie, revenant, werewolf, serial killer – that remains its own defiantly ghastly thing. Rating: B- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt