Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

St. Agatha, or: Hold Your Tongue

Horror-lujah (sorry not sorry), it’s Horror Month at last! We’re kicking off the best month on the Blog Collab with a classic yet underrepresented genre: nun horror. And, seriously, the nuns here are much more likely to join forces with Pinhead than feed the hungry or tend to the sick.

The Film:

St. Agatha

The Premise:

A young pregnant woman turns to a convent for help…only to discover the Sisters choose to do the Lord’s work using rather sinister methods.

The Ramble:

In 1957 Georgia, the aptly named Mary runs away to a secluded convent in the woods, of course in the creepiest, most dilapidated building imaginable.

A woman carrying a suitcase faces the exterior of a 2-story building on a foggy evening.

Pregnant with her boyfriend’s child and on the run from her abusive father, Mary has nowhere else to turn. Noticeably absent is her little brother William, with whom Mary planned to escape, as well as any cash whatsoever.

Mary receives a rather chilly welcome from Sister Paula, who cautions that the shelter provided by the convent comes with a price: Mary must leave behind all connections to her former life and take a vow of silence. Her only concern now should be the approval of Mother Superior, who is something of a piece of work.

A woman in a nun's habit looks down at a younger woman in a green dress.

Believing the world to be a place full of sinners, bars on the windows protect the Sisters from evil outside forces…or do they prevent all who live in the convent from making an escape? According to Mother Superior, pain brings you closer to God, a message that does little to soothe Mary as she hears the sounds of crying and screaming from behind locked doors.

The only friend Mary can find is her roommate Catherine, who is also pregnant. Her other roomies live in perpetual terror of the Sisters and all have plenty of horror stories about their experiences at the convent.

Meanwhile, the Sisters seem more preoccupied with earthly concerns than sticking to that vow of silence as Mother Superior sits around counting her money and preparing for a dinner with their mysterious benefactors. When Mary learns that all of the Sisters are or have at some point been pregnant, she grows even more suspicious. Add to this Mother Superior’s constant gaslighting and warning that Mary is too irresponsible to raise her own child, and this is more or less the final straw.

Nuns in habits surround a young woman who is struggling to emerge from an open coffin.

Frightened for her own well-being and the future of her child, Mary decides to make a break for it. However, when things don’t go as planned, Mary winds up in the secret underground torture basement in the convent (what–you’ve never heard of a convent with a secret torture room?). Mother Superior will never release Mary until she accepts her old life is over…and in her new life, she is now Agatha.

Who will win the battle of wills between Mary and Mother Superior?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

For a film in which almost all of the major characters have taken a vow of silence, there is a LOT of dialogue here. And while some of it is effective, a lot adds very little value to the film.

Let’s start with the unnecessarily tragic backstory of Mary, (SPOILER) involving her father’s abuse, brother’s death, and descent into poverty with her boyfriend. I’m not sure all of these details tie in well to the story, and are merely tacked on to elicit sympathy for Mary–and to help us understand why she may be so desperate that she’d willingly stay at the convent from hell.

I do certainly feel for Mary, but the creepiness of the convent is immediately apparent, and it makes no sense the number of horrific things she puts up with before thinking that maybe–just maybe–she should get the eff out.

However, the ambience is quite well done: the suspense created because of the dilapidated building in the secluded, foggy woods comes through well. And there are truly horrendous things going on inside, most of which relate to an oral fixation. The psychological terror is effective as well, with the nuns, who are demonic yet do not have any demonic special powers, very easily manipulating their victims through emotional abuse.

I will give this film credit for its ambition as well; if I interpret it as intended, the story is a major critique of the church’s abuses historically and into the present. The hierarchical structure of the church has allowed for the systemic physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of pregnant women, young children, and indigenous people in particular. Though this is a horror film, some of the tactics employed by the Sisters have been used to abuse and manipulate victims, as well as to silence them. While they claim to do the Lord’s work, the Sisters’ motives are no different from a for-profit corporation: money and power.

But, in the end, the story isn’t as well thought-out as it could have been, and its message doesn’t come across in a way that’s as clever as it thinks it is.

Would my saintly blog wife devote herself to this one or slip a special ingredient into its frosty refreshments? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Secret Obsession, or: Pics or It Didn’t Happen?

Sometimes we celebrate freaks and weirdos on the blog. At other times, we wait for them to die. In this week’s film, the latter is appropriate for our stalker, murderer, and buyer of lye in bulk.

The Film:

Secret Obsession

The Premise:

After an accident wipes out her memories, Jennifer returns to her life as a newlywed with her husband…or at least the man who claims to be her husband.

The Ramble:

Running in terror from an unknown assailant, Jennifer is hit by a car when she runs out onto a dark and stormy road. After being rushed to the hospital, a man who claims to be her husband arrives, waiting for news on her condition. Conveniently, everyone just believes him and never asks for proof of his identity (beyond knowing Jennifer’s name and her tattoos???).

A man sits next to a woman lying in a hospital bed, who is wearing several bandages and casts.

Meanwhile, the Allstate guy plays a detective sent to investigate Jennifer’s accident (perhaps appropriately as the face of an insurance company?). Because his daughter disappeared at the age of 10, Detective Frank is determined to solve Jennifer’s case(?). Yeah, I’m not seeing the connection either, TBH.

When it becomes clear that Jennifer’s head trauma has affected her memory, it’s up to husband Russell to fill in the gaps. Or, conveniently, for an impostor to plant a bunch of fake memories in her brain. Don’t worry, though–he has the pictures to back it up. According to Russell, he and Jennifer are newlyweds who have recently moved to a remote cabin. Her parents died a couple of years ago in a fire, and Jennifer has quit her job to start a family with Russell…leaving no connections left in the world.

After making enough progress to return home, Jennifer discovers their house is not even remotely ADA compliant and struggles to get around with a healing leg. Russell is ever so nicely willing to help her get around, carrying her up to their room while leaving her without a wheelchair.

A man carries a woman up a wooden staircase.

Discovering a witness (or something?) trying to contact Jennifer, Russell makes the obvious next move of following and killing this dude (even though I honestly don’t understand who he is or why he’s around). Of course, this leaves Russell with a body to bury…and he naturally chooses the backyard. Suspicious when she spots him digging around the garden late at night, Jennifer starts investigating.

A woman picks a lock with hairpin.

What she uncovers is a bunch of Photoshopped pictures–in fact, all of the images in their wedding album have been altered. On top of this, Jennifer has a flashback while in bed with Russell, so she pumps the brakes on rekindling their relationship. Losing his temper, Russell reveals his dark and creepy side (or, rather, yet another dark and creepy side).

When we catch up with Detective Frank, we discover that (shocker) Russell provided a fake address to the police. Frank also connects the dots on a white pick-up truck that was spotted at the scene of the accident…and security footage of Russell arriving at the hospital in a white pick-up truck. After identifying Jennifer’s back tattoo as some sort of symbol for the name Allen(?!??!?!?!), Frank is able to locate her parents’ home. Surprise surprise, the occupants of the home are no longer in this world and have been mummified or something? They didn’t have pleasant deaths is the moral of the story. (Which surely would merit, IDK, having more than ONE dude investigating this shit???)

A man in a suit sits in front of a computer, working in a police station.

As it turns out, Russell is really Jennifer’s coworker Ryan, who was obsessed with her. After years of yearning for Jennifer from afar, it’s Russell who pulls off the office romance and marries her. On the night of Jennifer’s accident, Ryan attacked the newlyweds, killing Russell and terrorizing Jennifer.

Realizing how fucking creepy her so-called husband is, Jennifer tries to leave the house, but Ryan is one step ahead of her. When Frank manages to track Ryan down, he is caught off-guard with this psycho’s signature move: whacking people in the back of the head. To be fair, it’s a pretty solid choice for a stalker and murderer.

Will Jennifer and Frank be able to take down the unhinged Ryan before he can make use of all of that lye he bought on sale?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

JFC, this film is bland and not at all suspenseful. It’s very PG-13 for a film dealing with such a horrific concept, and conveniently ignores reality whenever it moves the plot along. For example, neither the hospital nor the police seem too concerned with verifying shit like people’s names and addresses. For fuck’s sake, I have to show my ID to pick up mail–there’s no way Ryan is skating through so many offices without having to prove his identity.

I feel for Jennifer, of course, but she’s so completely devoid of personality that it’s difficult to care about her a whole lot beyond just generally taking a feminist stance against, you know, stalking and murdering people. It may have helped to get more glimpses into her life before the accident, but IDK…Jennifer was probably boring then too.

The most offensive part of this film to me is the absolute pointlessness of Frank’s story. His fictional daughter’s kidnapping has nothing to do with this case, and it’s a major stretch to connect these two events. If you follow the thriller formula, Frank’s daughter should have been murdered by Ryan or at the very least Frank should have known Jennifer in some way. Beyond that, Frank is just a cop doing his job, and that doesn’t make for a good story.

The “closure” that Jennifer gets at the end (and Frank for that matter) is absolute garbage too. I wanted a more badass ending for her, but we were never going to get that. This is the ending of a TV movie that doesn’t lean into its trashiness–and all I ask from a TV movie is for it to embrace its own nonsense.

Would my 100% real and unedited blog wife follow this one to the ends of the earth or push it in front of a fast-moving vehicle? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, or: I Left and Entered This World Covered in Blood

Appropriately, we’re wrapping up more-or-less sophisticated scary month on Halloween with an extremely atmospheric haunted house story.  The title is truly excellent and the actress from my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre stars.  Sometimes I feel the filmmakers have bugged my brain.

The Film:

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Where to Watch:

Netflix (US)

The Uncondensed Version:

Beginning with a suitably creepy narration, this film is atmospheric AF—no one really owns a house where a death happened; they’re just borrowing it from its ghosts.

Lilly is a nurse who tells us she is 28 but will never be 29.  She is a hospice nurse working for a new patient, Iris Blum.  Blum is a writer of classic horror novels in the style of Shirley Jackson.  Lilly has never read any of these, finding even a few pages much too scary for her tastes.

A woman reads a book in a minimalist but pleasingly decorated room.
I have nothing to add except this shot is beautiful and I would live in this house, ghost or no.

It’s honestly kind of a miracle Lilly has made it to 28 as a functioning adult as she seems to be afraid of virtually everything.  She’s really creeped out spending the first night alone with Ms. Blum and calls a friend for comfort.  I’m not sure when this is set, but the tv has an antenna, and the only phone option is a landline, which rather ominously flies out of her hand while she’s speaking.  There are also some mysterious thumps coming from upstairs.

When Ms. Blum wakes up in the middle of the night, Lilly puts her back to bed.  Confused, Ms. Blum refers to her as Polly, which Lilly shrugs off…until it happens again and again.  Who the actual fuck is Polly? she wonders, but probably with nicer, Midwestern language.

Two women wearing sweaters sit on a bed, staring at each other.
Poker faces.

Lilly doesn’t expect Ms. Blum to live for long, but 11 months later, she’s still going strong.  The estate agent checks in to make sure all is well, and Lilly asks if the wall that has mysteriously sprouted mold could be fixed.  He’s not sure the estate will approve the expense, but he does helpfully explain the mystery of Polly, a character from Blum’s novel The Lady in the Walls.

The novel is notable for its lack of horrific ending—to stay true to the premise of Polly telling her story to the narrator, we never know exactly what happens to Polly.  However, it is hinted that she met a rather grisly end before staying even one night in the house with her husband in the 1800s.  Polly tells us she left the world the same way she entered it:  wearing nothing but blood (that line, man).

A woman in period clothing wears a dark-colored hat and looks worriedly out as she stands in a doorframe.
See also:  wearing a hat (sorry/not sorry–too much 30 Rock).

As Lilly learns more about Polly’s fate, she also begins seeing things to upset the pristine world she has created.  Dedicated to cleanliness, she almost always wears white, but marks begin to spread on her clothes and body like spots of mold.  Following the mold leads her to a box of letters that reveal a haunting truth.

Lilly does finally get a glimpse of Polly…but really wishes she hadn’t.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Atmosphere, people.  The filmmakers crush the hell out of the atmosphere on this one.  Coincidentally, I discovered the writer/director is none other than the son of Anthony Perkins, and he has the damning first name Osgood.  All coming together now, isn’t it?

But anyway, atmosphere check.  Creepiness check.  Gorgeous cinematography check.  However, what annoys me here is complete lack of explanation.  Any time it seems we’ll dive deeper into character motivations and backstories, we jump back out of the water immediately (to take the diving metaphor further than strictly necessary).  I know that’s the goddamn point of this ghost story—we are, after all, only borrowing the story.   But I still wanted to understand the characters much better than I did because I can sense they would have had fascinating backstories.

I saw a review about this film that said something about this being the most faithful adaptation of a Shirley Jackson novel without actually being based on a Shirley Jackson movie.  I could see that, especially considering Lilly’s voice as a narrator, and the masterful creation of suspense.  Very little happened, but I found myself holding my breath through most of the film.  All I know is I’m seriously ready for the film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, ok?  Listening, Osgood Perkins?

Is Christa the Pretty Impressed Thing That Lives in the House or the Pretty Nonplussed?  Find out in her review here!

Book Reviews

Through the Woods Book Review, or: We Need to Talk About Carroll

I’ve decided to do another book review and you can’t stop me. Not sure if I’ve mentioned on this blog my love for graphic novels/comics/picture books…whatever you want to call them. I love the art and design and that they feel like watching a silent film. Also a disproportionate number of graphic novelists seem to enjoy telling creepy, dark, surreal stories, though perhaps these types of stories magically find me no matter the format. Creepy book of the week is Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods.

cover art

It’s a collection of short stories, all of which I would describe as dark fairy tales taking place in different historical periods. These are stories about things lurking in the woods, dysfunctional relationships, ghosts, madness, betrayal, and murder. Unlike many fairy tales we tell to children, no one is going to help in the end and, in fact, other people are most likely actively plotting to destroy you. Assuming, of course, that they are actually human.  (So…realistic fiction, essentially.)

Most of the stories are quite short, and Carroll teases us with some details but ultimately leaves a lot of ambiguity. What is great is that the stories continue to surprise even with the building sense of dread and inevitability. I basically love all of the drawings, but the best/eeriest are black, white, and red. There are several images that will haunt my dreams.

My favorite is the last story, but even the fucking epilogue I love, and when the fuck can you ever say you love an epilogue? The last story is the longest, and I felt I could really sink my teeth into it. It follows Bell, a young woman in the 1920s whose mother has recently passed away. After her year at boarding school ends, she goes to stay with her brother and his fiancée in the country. Bell would like to stay inside and read all summer, but her brother is intolerably cheerful and outdoorsy, encouraging her to spend time outside and to get to know his fiancée. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bell discovers the fiancée has a much darker secret than a cupboard full of overdue library books. All I’m going to say is that you will probably shrink in terror from the next flapper you see (if you regularly encounter flappers).

The only disappointing thing is how quickly you can get through this book, and Carroll doesn’t have any other collections of her work, and she is apparently busy being a Twitter goddess. Sample tweets: “next time I sit down to read another Classic Must-Read Horror Book by a dude, I’m just going to save myself the trouble & do anything else.” Also “let me guess, is there a sexy evil woman in it? how about a shrew? fellas, if that was scary I’d scream every time I looked in the mirror.” We get it, Emily Carroll. You’re really cool and probably an interesting person to talk to. Get back to work. EDIT: Emily Carroll does have quite a few comics you can read for free on her site:  http://www.emcarroll.com/ Girl apparently just picked up some Eisner Awards for Through the Woods and her short story “When the Darkness Presses.”

Before I go, I’m not fucking kidding. Haunting my dreams (and wait until you see what happens to those teeth):

red spaghetti-like strands emerge from a woman's nose, mouth, and from behind her eyeballs
UGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGH.

Carroll’s stories, most of which are about young women encountering sinister, otherworldly creatures, remind me a lot of Libba Bray’s novels, and I would follow that woman into battle. As the epilogue reminds us, “you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…but the WOLF…the WOLF only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.” Through the Woods is like that too: full of fragments, stories, and images that are beautifully disquieting. Disquietingly beautiful?  All of the above.  Yes.