Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Hellbender, or: A Worm Welcome

Sometimes we watch horror films that aren’t about witches…and I question this decision. Given the history of nonsense persecution for witchcraft, it’s deeply satisfying to imagine the mischief witches would get up to if they really did have dark magic. And, honestly, it just looks cool to see people get turned into dust onscreen every now and then.

Our film this month doesn’t necessarily fit well into the non-award-winning theme, but it did have decidedly mixed audience reactions upon release. Plus…witches.

The Film:

Hellbender

Directors:

John Adams, Zelda Adams, & Toby Poser

The Premise:

A mother and daughter who live alone in the woods have a family secret (spoiler: it’s witchcraft).

The Ramble:

Back in the day, a woman is solemnly hanged by a group of women and children in the woods. She seems to die initially, but it’s not long before her feet are twitching again, and she’s immune to even multiple gunshots to the head. When she flies into the air in a flaming burst, it seems like a worrying sign. More on that later.

In the present, a punk band mother/daughter duo live in alone in the woods. Izzy, who has an autoimmune disorder, is never allowed in town or around other people. This includes a random hiker walking through the woods who asks Izzy a question…unknowingly related to her own mother’s witchcraft! When her mother (unnamed in the film) discovers this scene, it doesn’t bode well for the hiker, who discovers how fatal the woman’s magic can be. Rather than relishing her power to destroy, Izzy’s mother seems deeply troubled.

As there isn’t much else to do, Izzy frequently wanders around the woods. Eventually, she stumbles across a young woman her own age, Amber. Happy to have a new friend, Izzy begins to break the rules, hanging around other people, using a neighbor’s pool without permission, and abandoning her strict vegetarian diet. It’s after eating a worm that Izzy suddenly falls into a trance-like state, choking Amber and wigging her the fuck out.

Noticing a marked change in her daughter, Izzy’s mom reveals that there is no autoimmune disorder but a very different family trait passed down across generations: witchcraft! The band’s name, Hellbender, also describes the family’s dark magic, some combination of witch, demon, and apex predator. Women in this lineage have self-reproduced for generations, drawing power from the fear of whatever creatures they kill. Izzy’s mother has been working for years to temper the destructive witchy tendencies within. As it turns out, Izzy has not been kept from society because she is ill, but because she may be a danger to others.

Izzy essentially begins witch training, demonstrating perhaps a little over-eagerness to consume animals and test the limits of her power. After time passes and people begin to ask questions about that hiker from earlier and his disappearance. When Izzy and her mother find an increasing number of picked clean deer skeletons in the woods, it feels like a red flag, but her mother simply comments that there’s no moral judgment; whatever happened is in the creature’s nature.

After facing rejection when attempting to make amends with Amber, will Izzy choose to embrace the darkness?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

This isn’t a high budget film–in fact, it’s more or less a family’s passion project as John Adams (Hiker), Lulu Adams (Amber), Zelda Adams (Izzy), & Toby Poser (Mother) are all related. The filmmakers really do their best to make use of limited resources, allowing the creatively shot landscapes to work effectively in creating atmosphere. There are a number of what I presume are drone shots that are stunning, along with scenes where the camera is peeking out from behind trees, waterfalls, foxgloves. I adore how this film looks.

Additionally, the effects aren’t big budget either, but they work well and were genuinely striking and/or creepy quite often.

I appreciated our rather dark ending, though I think a few things being left too vague did prevent me from giving this a full 4 stars. I don’t really understand why Izzy’s mother wasn’t honest with her from the beginning and train her from an early age to manage her witch powers? Some of this would ruin the metaphorical coming of age story here I suppose. However, given that the two lived apart from society anyway, why should Izzy not have known from birth about her powers? I don’t think we got enough of an understanding of Izzy’s mother’s mind to get how & why she made this decision, leaving a pretty large plot hole in my opinion.

Despite this, I was never bored and really enjoyed watching Izzy’s…growth? I’ll be looking forward to the family’s next feature, particularly if there are more witches.

Would my blog wife drink tequila shots with this one or pick it clean like a deer carcass? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Stylist, or: I’m Hair for You

Naturally, a fairly broad film category this month has us veering into horror territory. And while it’s true some prestige horror has gotten critical recognition in the past few years, don’t worry: all titles currently featured on the Collab were not and never will be award contenders.

The Film:

The Stylist

Director:

Jill Gevargizian

The Premise:

A lonely hairstylist befriends a client who is oblivious to her secret life…murdering people with hair scissors.

The Ramble:

Claire is the kind of hairstylist who gets you a glass of wine as she touches up your roots. Clearly I was not been going to the right hairdressers when that was a thing I did. Then again, Claire is the kind of stylist who may or may not scalp you, and I’ve done well from that perspective. I have a 0 tally for number of times scalped by a hairdresser.

As the stylist learns more about her client who travels for work, is having an affair, and seems dissatisfied with her life, Claire’s composure starts to slip. Ultimately, she makes a wig of her client’s hair by legitimately scalping her after she’s passed out from drugged wine. Claire seems eager to try on someone else’s life by wearing the wig yet is disturbed and conflicted about what she’s done. Her creepy basement reveals that Claire has a rather robust collection of scalp wigs.

Though Claire has her regular clients and routine visits to a local coffee shop where the barista knows her by name, it’s apparent quite early that she leads an extremely lonely life with no one really knowing her. Claire seems extremely repressed yet fixated on the marital statuses of those around her. She never does hair for weddings, but ultimately agrees to help Olivia, a regular client in need of a stylist for the big day.

As the wedding day rapidly approaches, Claire becomes closer with Olivia, even considering her a friend. However, as Claire doesn’t seem to know what a healthy friendship entails, she becomes obsessed with Olivia, in almost equal parts falling in love with her client and falling in love with her life.

Though in some ways Claire wants to give up her murderous tendencies, it doesn’t take much to revive her urge to kill. When she hits a rough patch with her new bff, what will Claire do to make sure the wedding is perfect?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

It seems the question this film asks is whether your social anxiety would ever drive you to kill…and the answer is a resounding yes. The film does a great job in depicting the depths of Claire’s loneliness, though as a result she seems almost more pitiable than terrifying. We don’t know much about her besides how alone she is as a person, and that doesn’t give us enough of a glimpse into her mind to understand her behavior. I appreciate the ways Claire wants to literally try on someone else’s life…but not enough that it makes murder seem like the logical next step.

The film does well in establishing the relationship between Claire and Olivia, leading up to the absolutely excellent final scene. And I’ll give this credit for being visually beautiful–not always what I’d expect from horror. However, the slow burn just becomes slow at times, and it’s not always clear where the film is going. There aren’t quite enough of the blanks filled in to make this as effective a horror as it could be.

Would my blog wife happily take care of this one’s split ends or give it much more of a trim than expected? Read her review to find out!

Film Reviews

Fresh, or: Reasons to Go Vegan

*Spoilers follow*

Unsurprisingly, a lot of our loosely structured themes on the Collab end up veering into horror territory. However, I think the unintentional cannibalism subtheme of the past couple of weeks is a first, even for us. This week’s pick has been getting a lot of buzz for its disturbing scenes in the vein of Sweeney Todd, though I can’t help wondering if some of the more upset stomachs have ever been around for a Julia Ducournau film.

The Film:

Fresh

Director:

Mimi Cave

The Premise:

A young woman who has all but given up on the world of dating is thrilled to meet a man who seems to good to be true…and definitely is.

The Ramble:

Noa has been on too many dating apps to count, and all she’s got to show for it are men who overshare details of their indigestion and share unsolicited dick pics. After a rather depressing evening, Noa discovers she has absolutely nothing in the fridge and must venture into the world for sustenance.

While in the produce section, Noa encounters surprisingly charming and extremely good-looking Steve, who more or less feeds her grapes?! It’s a more interesting trip to the store than I’ve had in a long time anyway. Desperate for the rom-com style meet-cute promised by any number of ’90s films, Noa gives Steve her number. Encouraged by bff Mollie, Noa decides to embrace the whirlwind romance that ensues.

Shortly after a single dream date where Noa feels really connected to Steve, she agrees to an impulsive weekend away. While Mollie gets rather sketchy vibes from this whole setup, she decides to be happy for her friend as long as she gets updates over the course of the weekend.

Of course, as soon as the couple arrives at their destination, it’s revealed that Steve’s isolated house in the country has no internet or cell service. Following their very first night in the house, Noa wakes up in a darkened room with Steve…who reveals he has drugged her and chained her to the floor. And it’s all in the name of cannibalism. Obviously.

To her horror, Noa learns she’s not alone in her prison, and is one victim among many in a massive underground bunker built expressly for the purpose of keeping women alive as Steve slowly carves them up. Not only does Steve enjoy human flesh himself, but he’s become a legend as the personal human butcher to the 1% of the 1%, who will pay excessive amounts of money for a taste.

With only the voice of Penny, the woman in the next room, to keep her relatively sane, Noa plans her escape. She quickly realizes a charm offensive is the way to go, though will Noa be able to stomach that any better than the prospect of pâté made from human liver…at least until Mollie can find her?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

This one has such a twisted heart, and I love it for that. It has many of the same instincts of Promising Young Woman, or perhaps the feel of a horror written by Margaret Atwood. Thank god this is a comedy, as the truly disturbing themes and events (and the ways they stand in for sexual violence, psychological abuse, and human trafficking) throughout would be even more nauseating without the film’s sharp humor. I applaud the well-timed comic use of soundtrack in particular.

I appreciate that the film establishes Noa’s perspective initially, specifically where Steve is concerned. Steve doesn’t have horror movie music playing in the background when we meet him as, through Noa’s eyes, he’s a charming and good-looking man who is miles apart from anyone on the dating apps. Though there are hints that all is not well with Steve, the film is careful about not making Noa’s failure to see his real intentions at all her fault in any kind of victim-blaming way.

Daisy Edgar-Jones does great work here, but it’s Sebastian Stan who has the flashier role, and I already feel like I’ve been haunted for years by his character. He’s honestly fun to watch as he’s such a nightmarish figure, flipping so easily from sweet to seething. The way Steve is willing to believe Noa could genuinely care about him while keeping the threat of physical violence in his back pocket (even throwing around the vomit-inducing take on “you’re not like other girls”) feels like a chillingly accurate reflection.

I’m here for Mollie and her brilliant use of reverse Google image search–the best on film, in my opinion. I got a laugh out of one of the characters starting to investigate some of the disappearances and then bailing…especially since it allowed female solidarity to shine.

Word of advice: don’t try to watch this one while eating dinner.

Would my blog wife serve up some home cooking for this one or send it right to the chopping block? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal, or: Art Is Pain

No regrets about our recent picks on the Collab, but my brain could certainly use a change of pace. The old comfort of B-movie madness seems to be the only part of the world that consistently makes sense, and the joy of picking apart the major leaps in logic in a film is my drug of choice. While we anticipate a different & extremely buzzy cannibal movie (looking at you, Fresh), here’s one to tide us over.

The Film:

Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal

Director:

Boris Rodriguez

The Premise:

When an artist discovers he finds inspiration in bloody violence, he’s hesitant to stop the sleepwalking acts of cannibalism he witnesses.

The Ramble:

While driving along snowy country roads to start a new job teaching in a rural school, serious artist Lars hits a deer with his car. As it’s dying in agony, Lars makes the decision to end the deer’s suffering…by repeatedly bashing its head with a rock. In the midst of this unsettling spectacle, the local sheriff happens to walk by, cautioning a guilty-looking Lars not to leave the deer in the middle of the road. This does not bode well.

Years ago, Lars was a rising star in the contemporary painting scene, though he no longer paints, much to the dismay of the school principal, who had hoped to drum up some money based on their pseudo-famous hire’s career. Guaranteeing funds becomes especially important when the institution’s wealthy benefactor dies, leaving a fortune to the school, as long as care for her nephew Eddie is provided (IDK what kind of lawyers would sign off on this, but ok).

When he is assigned to care for Eddie (seriously, the logic never makes a lot of sense on this), a silent man with a cognitive disability, Lars learns that Eddie has a secret quirk: at night, he sleepwalks and unknowingly preys upon small animals. Eddie regularly returns home covered in animal blood…until the night he’s covered in human blood.

Lars would probably be more disturbed by this in normal circumstances; however, he finds the blood and guts stir up long-dormant artistic inspiration. Once again painting masterpieces, Lars is reluctant to intervene and, in fact, covers up Eddie’s acts of cannibalism. Predictably, this opens up the door to an ethical downward spiral as Lars shifts from accomplice to vindictive God figure, pointing Eddie towards anyone who is a bit of an asshole.

While Lars begins a romance with a fellow teacher he’s been crushing on and revels in his artistic acclaim, the sheriff becomes suspicious of the number of disappearances in their quaint small town. It’s all going to come down to the classic Hollywood dilemma: romance or cannibalism?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Okay, there are a lot of plot points that don’t make sense, but I have a lot of appreciation for this one’s incredibly dark humor and interest in exploring themes related to the creative mind. Our film has a lot to say about human nature and the lengths we will go to when justifying bad behavior. I never get tired of a film that underlines the hypocrisy of the mythology surrounding a tortured genius, and I enjoy how director Boris Rodriguez approaches things here.

Lars is an interesting if not particularly likeable character, ultimately becoming a sort of Dr. Frankenstein figure who is more monstrous than his creation. Eddie’s existence is a stark contrast, and he’s incredibly sweet. He’s got more than a bit of a Fido zombie quality to him, and I’m guessing the zombie mythology wasn’t embraced largely because “sleepwalking cannibal” makes for a catchier B-movie title.

I will say the characters don’t make a lot of sense here, as their opinions of Lars swing wildly from distrust to complete trust, condescending art prick to pure-hearted golden child. Lars himself makes really odd choices, like agreeing to take care of Eddie and taking the teaching job to begin with, neither of which we really get much of an explanation for. Teacher crush Lesley is just annoyingly written, not a fully formed character in many ways.

Considering the title, I believe we could have gotten a much wilder story to rival our favorite B movies from the Collab. Lesson learned: no cannibal film will ever beat Ravenous, though I did have fun with this.

Would my blog wife pair this one with a nice Chianti or leave its limbs scattered in the woods? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Night House, or: We Believe in Nothing

*Spoilers follow*

Is it possible for a month on the Blog Collab to focus on new adventures…and somehow not feature a single film contending with a demonic presence or other supernatural being?

Spoiler alert: no. And this week’s pick has the added bonus of serving us back-to-back Rebecca Hall content, switching roles from director to actor this time around.

The Film:

The Night House

Director:

David Bruckner

The Premise:

After her husband dies by suicide, teacher Beth is increasingly disturbed by the secrets she uncovers about him and the house they shared.

The Ramble:

Following her husband’s death by suicide, Beth is left on her own in a beautiful but creepy house by a lake. To make matters worse, rather eerie & unexplained happenings are all around, starting with footprints emerging from the lake and sounds of shots sending flocks of birds off in a panic.

After returning to work as a teacher a bit too soon, Beth is alarmed to realize she’s having trouble distinguishing between dream and reality. Unable to continue living in the house that her husband Owen built for her, Beth has her eye on new properties…only to drift off and realize she’s been browsing handgun listings the whole time. Considering her husband’s suicide occurred when he rowed out to the middle of the lake and shot himself, it’s a disturbing development to say the least.

Things start to escalate quite quickly in the creep department as Beth finds strange architectural designs of her husband’s of a literally flipped house, she experiences music playing unprompted, and she sees and hears Owen wandering around naked, seemingly calling & texting from beyond the grave. Most upsetting of all to Beth are the pictures of women on his phone…women who look so similar to Beth that it’s difficult to tell the difference.

As Beth processes her grief, she reveals a tremendous amount of guilt related to his death. Frequently struggling with depression and dark thoughts, Beth fears she somehow infected Owen with her mental illness and caused his suicide. In the rather cryptic note he left behind, Owen revealed that Beth was right–there is nothing. His note is a response to an ongoing argument about the afterlife: a teenage Beth was legally dead for 4 minutes and concluded from the experience that there is nothing.

After piecing some of the clues together, Beth manages to track down one of the women who looks disturbingly like her. But was Owen having a series of affairs…or could he have been hiding an even darker secret?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I had fun with this one. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and Rebecca Hall is delivering all of the panic and paranoia simmering under the surface. I enjoy that many of the horror elements are related to disturbing things people have done, but there’s a supernatural element that makes things extra unsettling. Though it’s largely a slow unraveling, the brief, disorienting flashes are extremely effective in creating the sense of dread that will ultimately reach a tipping point. I think it’s impossible to give Rebecca Hall enough credit here…or period, to be honest. We’re firm fans here on the Collab.

As a parallel with depression and other forms of mental illness, the film works well. It’s sometimes a bit frustrating that Beth doesn’t have as much agency as a character as I’d like; she’s sort of left to constantly react to things others have done, whether husband or demonic presence. This fits in with the way Beth experiences depression and grief, though it makes for a bit of an underwhelming finale. The “twist” is maybe not as clever as it thinks it is but still creepy enough to be unsettling.

Would my blog wife cherish the house built by this one or burn it to the ground without hesitation? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Silent Night, or: Mistakes Were Made

*Spoilers follow*

You can basically blame capitalism for our detour from the cheery Christmas path we’d planned for December. That, or the even more powerful forces behind the Hallmark Channel’s vice-like grip on its new seasonal content. With limited options streaming for the week, we’ve retreated to the familiar territory of holiday horror…though this route is still leading us through some unexpected twists.

The Film:

Silent Night

The Premise:

As a group of friends gather for Christmas, a secret threatens to cut the festivities–and even their lives–short.

The Ramble:

Things are looking festive all-round as Nell and Simon host their annual Christmas dinner for a group of childhood friends. Enjoying the holidays surrounded by the comforts of a large country estate certainly can’t hurt. However, as posh people who have known each other for a long time, it seems like a safe bet that secrets will surface and drama will erupt.

The characters of Nell, Sandra, and Bella, three women dressed in formal clothing, stand next to each other as they lean against a kitchen counter. Their expressions are intense as they eavesdrop.

The children aren’t an exception, and Nell and Simon’s boys are less than thrilled to reunite with Kitty, spoiled only child of couple Sandra and Tony. Very much a daddy’s girl used to getting her own way, Kitty has a rather strained relationship with her mother.

Also in attendance are Bella and her sober girlfriend Alex, as well as oncologist James and his significantly younger (and pregnant) girlfriend, Sophie. Sandra, now married to kind but boring Tony, is transparently in love with James and resents the hell out of Sophie.

As the day goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that something terrible lurks beneath the pasted-on grins of the attendees. Over-emphasizing the evening’s importance for love and forgiveness, Nell maintains a smile even when serving one single potato to each guest.

The hosts and guests in attendance for the evening's Christmas dinner gather around a large table lit by candlelight. All of the 11 faces are turned towards the camera, facing the offscreen character of Sophie.

Sophie earns no favors when she lets the cat out of the bag in front of the children, revealing that the main event that night will not be Christmas itself, but a mass suicide. After years of destroying the Earth’s atmosphere, humans have inadvertently created a massive cloud of poison gas that is set to roll through the English countryside…right about now. The UK government’s solution? Provide as many of its citizens as possible with suicide pills to avoid the agony of a slow, painful death.

As the evening wears on, Nell and Simon’s eldest son Art becomes more and more determined to avoid taking the pill, as he believes there may still be hope. Similarly, Sophie cannot accept that her baby won’t even have a chance to live, and expresses her own reluctance to voluntarily end her life.

Will anyone in the house (or the world) manage to make it past Christmas?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Oooof, I haven’t been this emotionally devastated by a film ostensibly about Christmas since the WWI-set Joyeux Noel. I suppose there’s no reason to avoid the topic of climate change in Christmas horror…but does it have to be so bleak?

And I am willing to personally fight any and all members of the marketing team for this movie. We were promised a darkly funny Christmas murder fest, and there was no joy whatsoever to be found in the film we got.

There’s a bit of humor to be found in the abysmal (and quite accurate) global response to climate change (and having a fucking app for a mass suicide plan), as well as the adults’ emphasis on the whole situation not being their fault. But mostly all of this is far too real to do anything but further spiral down the rabbit hole of climate anxiety.

I’ll credit the cast here, as well as the festive Christmas ambience…that exists largely as a stark contrast to the horror outside. Overall, though, I couldn’t particularly enjoy this one, and I’d much rather a serial killer dressed as Santa any day of the week.

Would my blog wife take the red pill or…wait, wrong Christmas release? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Noroi: The Curse, or: Dam Demons

In a month all about expanding our film horizons on the Collab, we watched…a bunch of horror. We did at least focus on watching horror from Japan & Korea, countries well-versed in making chilling classics in the genre. This week’s pick is a horrifying true story…of made-up events. That REALLY happened.

The Film:

Noroi: The Curse

The Premise:

While making a documentary about his latest investigation, a paranormal researcher vanishes under suspicious circumstances.

The Ramble:

Be cautioned, all who decide to watch this film: it has been deemed too disturbing for the general public to view. So we are warned, anyway. Our film really commits to its setup as a found footage documentary, never once dropping the pretense.

Kobayashi, a middle-aged Japanese man, faces the camera as he stands on an empty neighborhood street. He holds a hand-drawn map and wears a frustrated expression as he says "This isn't it."

We follow Kobayashi, a researcher who has been investigating paranormal activity for decades through the medium of documentary film-making. His (presumably) last project has ended on a rather dark note; ultimately, his wife died in a mysterious fire in the family home, and Kobayashi himself has been missing since. Not to worry–this is all relatively low spoiler-y, as all of this knowledge drops within the first 10 minutes or so of our film.

Before things all went horribly wrong, Kobayashi was busy being a one-man X-Files stop shop, investigating a woman’s report that she and her young son hear the sounds of crying babies haunting their home. Genuinely awful. Soon after, the neighbor and her daughter die in a suspicious car accident.

Meanwhile, Kobayashi is intrigued by the disappearance of Kana, a girl with psychic abilities, which he observes on…some sort of psychic reality competition? I didn’t 100% understand what was happening in this section honestly, and not because psychic powers were needed to digest it. Probably.

Two of the makers of a television show stand over the desk of a young student, Kana. She is seated, looking hesitant as a microphone is held to her face.

Before her disappearance, tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist Hori visited Kana. Naturally, he has a theory about her absence: she was taken by ectoplasmic worms. The need to straightfacedly respond to statements like this has cut my budding career as a documentary filmmaker tragically short.

To add yet another red thread to the already convoluted investigation board, actress Marika begins behaving oddly after visiting a supposedly haunted shrine and having a minor (major) freakout. Concerned that she’s exhibiting strange behavior at night, Marika agrees to Kobayashi setting up a camera to film her activities. This leads to a major clue when Marika is recorded saying the word “Kagutaba,” which turns out to be a demon imprisoned beneath a village. Every year, the villagers would perform a ritual to appease the demon…that is, until the village was destroyed to make way for the construction of a dam. All of this thrilling to the local historian who only ever gets asked to scan obituaries so people can do their boring genealogy research.

Kobayashi talks to a local historian, an older man with white hair and glasses. They are looking at old documents, and the historian says "They developed a type of sorcery called 'Shimokage's Way.'"

This comes full circle when Kobayashi suspects one of the people he’s already encountered is none other than the daughter of the priest who performed the last appeasement ritual, seemingly becoming possessed by the demon. And yes–things get even more convoluted from here on out, with the bonus of creepy children, fetus embryos, and some seriously shaky camera work. But, you know, intentionally shaky camera work.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Supposedly people either think this is the scariest film ever made or boring AF. Guess which camp I fall into. Maybe because we’re watching this after found footage becoming such a trope in horror films, or because I’m tired and my uncultured American eyes didn’t feel like reading subtitles. Whatever the reason, I didn’t get the feeling of dread the film is clearly creating as it builds to events that unfold only in the last 30 minutes or so. I found some of the found footage techniques to be a bit silly and melodramatic, to be honest.

What I do find interesting about this one is that it does capture the research and investigation process in a way that feels organic. At first, the pieces don’t seem to fit together at all as Kobayashi follows whatever leads he can–and it’s not until it’s too late that he understands what’s happening. There are some genuinely chilling scenes and revelations, brought to life by the cast and the jarring film techniques.

When the film works, it’s largely because I enjoy the characters of Marika and Hori so much. Marika is a caring person determined to find out the truth of what’s happening to her; it’s impossible not to hope she will succeed, although the tone of the film suggests otherwise. Hori, our tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist, is a character who would annoy me in reality (as conspiracy theorists frequently do) but who is fun onscreen, giving us just a dash of quirkiness needed to liven things up.

I can appreciate the approach, but I wasn’t particularly feeling this one.

Would my blog wife steal creepy fetus embryos for this one or burn it all down? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Tale of Two Sisters, or: I Saw Something Nasty in the Wardrobe

We could pretend this month is about exploring a lot of different film genres…and it still could be. However, since there are so many excellent Korean horror films (and television) in the world, it seems a shame not to highlight one or two on the Collab. As with so many other months of this year, horror seems to be the only thing that makes sense at the moment.

The Film:

A Tale of Two Sisters

The Premise:

Though happily reunited, sisters returning to their family home must contend with their stepmother’s schemes and the feeling that something supernatural is roaming the halls at night…

The Ramble:

After a stay in a psychiatric hospital for murky reasons, young Su-mi is happy to be reunited with her sister Su-yeon in the family’s beautiful but extremely Gothic estate in the country. Even if the cost of the girls’ return home is time spent with their stepmother, the icy Eun-joo.

Su-mi, a teenager in a dress and bucket hat, lies on the edge of a short pier in a pond, feet dangling in the water. Her sister Su-yeon sits on the edge of the pier, looking up towards the sun.

Though Su-yeon is transparently terrified of their stepmother, Su-mi is watching out for her timid sister, calling out all kinds of problematic gaslight behavior. Eun-joo herself seems rather troubled as she is constantly taking medication and feeling like an outsider in the home she shares with the girls’ father Moo-hyeon.

The sisters aren’t home for long at all before creepy happenings begin to unfold. Su-yeon is terrified when she notices a presence in her room at night that could be her stepmother or a ghostly figure. While Su-mi comforts her and promises to look out for her little sister, both siblings are fairly on edge.

Su-mi lies in her bed with arms wrapped around Su-yeon, comforting her little sister.

A major source of tension in the household is Eun-joo’s role as caretaker for the girls’ mother when she was terminally ill; during her time with the family, Eun-joo began having an affair with Moo-hyeon. Seeing their stepmother’s face everywhere in old photos, the girls tear her image away and blot out her face with ink.

A seated Eun-joo, a woman wearing a high-collared shirt and a neat bob, looks tensely across the table, holding a teapot mid-pour. She is making eye contact with Su-mi, who stands looking down angrily at the woman.

After finding bruises on Su-yeon’s arms, Su-mi angrily confronts their stepmother. The two get into a fight, escalated by the gruesome murder of Eun-joo’s pet bird. Eun-joo goes so far as to lock Su-yeon in a wardrobe until she receives a satisfactory apology, and things get cranked up to 11 fairly quickly from there. Shocking revelation follows shocking revelation, and you know the battle of wills between Eun-joo and Su-mi can only end with a gruesome outcome.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’m never going to regret watching a film that uses the gorgeous but empty manor house as a focal point, drawing attention to literal and figurative haunted family dynamics. The beautiful vintage feel of the house is perfect for the disturbing dark fairy tale we’re told, from the wicked stepmother to mysterious doors and drawers that shouldn’t be opened. Beyond the characters themselves, the house has secrets, and they work to create an ominous tone in the film.

That being said, there are some pacing issues, and the last quarter or so of the film is incredibly confusing. In this section of the story, the filmmakers seem more concerned with creating twist after twist to make the finale extremely dramatic. I don’t love this technique, and rather than a satisfying revelation, the film’s conclusion is a bit of a letdown as there’s too much going on.

Visually, though, I love this film and its commitment to telling a dark, Gothic ghost story where the mere mortals are significantly scarier than anything else that may lurk in the darkness.

Would my blog wife take some charming family photos with this one or lock it in a wardrobe? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Pulse, or: Connection Error

CW: suicide

I’m not sure what November is for this year beyond crossing off subtitled films from the watchlist, with a special focus on Japan and Korea. Though, like most rules on the Blog Collab, this one feels destined to be broken. If, coincidentally, we happen to be extending Horror Month at the same time, so be it.

The Film:

Pulse (2001)

The Premise:

Following the discovery of a mysterious disk, a young woman in Tokyo tries to understand the strange behavior and disappearances of those around her.

The Ramble:

When she doesn’t hear from coworker Taguchi for over a week, caring Michi begins to worry. Taguchi has been working on a disk for…work reasons? You’ll appreciate my confusion as their employer is a house plant shop, though things like providing detail and making sense aren’t necessarily the top priorities of this film.

Michi, a young woman in a rooftop plant store, leans against a table as she talks to her seated coworker, another young woman.

After Michi finds Taguchi at home in his apartment, she breathes a small sight of relief, only to watch in horror as her coworker hangs himself abruptly. Apparently the disk is extremely important, as Michi, despite her trauma, makes sure coworker Yabe receives it. As they investigate the disk’s contents with their fellow plant shop employee Junco, something doesn’t seem right, and the images are downright creepy and confusing.

Meanwhile, computer science student Ryosuke is using a disk to install the internet, but encounters some unexpected errors. As part of the install experience, Ryosuke sees footage of ghostly figures who seem to watch him from the other side of the screen. Ostensibly asking for a friend, he asks grad student Harue how one would theoretically capture images on a computer that may be haunted. Armed with his newly acquired knowledge of the print screen key, Ryosuke prepares to return to the cyber world.

Ryosuke, a young man with shaggy hair, sits cross-legged on a bed. He has a desk and computer pulled up to the side of the bed, and he looks in confusion at the blank computer screen.

Around the same time, Yabe receives a call from a robotic voice asking for help, then disappears. When he returns to work, Yabe is acting all kinds of odd, insisting that he’s seen a horrible face. Michi tries to help her friend despite some dissuasion from her boss, but all she manages to do is learn that Yabe has gone into the forbidden room…an experience he does not recommend.

Harue, a young woman browsing the shelves in an academic library, stands facing away from Ryosuke, who is leaning against the shelves reading.

As Michi encounters increasingly harrowing events, Ryosuke works with Harue to investigate her theory that ghosts cross back to our realm through technology. Those who know attempt to seal off haunted portals with red tape, but these barriers can easily be overcome. It seems Michi and Ryosuke’s paths must eventually cross, but not before quite a lot of ghostly encounters, existential crises, and reflections on the futility of seeking connection. You know…your typical horror fare.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

There are a lot of elements of this film that don’t make much sense to me, but I will say it’s highly effective in terms of creep factor. Things can shift quite abruptly from an ominous feeling of dread to terrifying scenes. Credit to whoever decided blocking out sound except for an awful whisper was the way to go in a few of the film’s scenes, as these really get under my skin.

I do appreciate that the film has a message here, focusing on themes that perceptively relate to technology and isolation, as well as the haunted history of Japan in WWII. In the film, characters who become victims of the ghostly figures disappear entirely, only their shadows remaining. To me, these themes are linked, as the erasure of the past is a necessary consequence of technology taking control of the future and separating people from each other and their shared experiences.

That being said, at certain points I lost the thread. The film is concerned with ideas, which makes it right at home on the Collab. However, the commitment to theme over plot detail is at times a drawback, and the last half hour or so feels a bit rushed and disjointed to me. It takes quite a long time for the two distinct story lines to merge, and this isn’t the most effective approach in my opinion. Though it’s not really the point of our story, I don’t think we get a satisfactory explanation for why any of the events unfold as they do, or how the ghostly figures are connected to the characters’ deaths. Are we meant to accept that ghosts are there to freak people out and make them think of death…because they’re ghosts?

At the end of the day, I will applaud this one for being extremely unsettling and creepy–exactly as a ghost story should be.

Would my blog wife install this one on her early 2000s computer or smash the disk into tiny pieces? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Braid (Nobody Leaves), or: Best Friends Forever

Alas, we have reached the end of horror month. But we still have one last film to enjoy on the Collab…one that may or may not be particularly easy to unpack. Beginning with the confusion of its different titles on either side of the pond; in the States, our film is called Braid, while in the UK it’s the ominous Nobody Leaves.

The Film:

Braid or Nobody Leaves

The Premise:

Childhood friends reunite to play a twisted game, with all involved harboring questionable ulterior motives.

The Ramble:

Drug dealers Petula and Tilda may not lead the most glamorous life, but they’re making it work. Unfortunately, when their apartment is raided by the police, the two lose thousands of dollars’ worth of product and narrowly dodge arrest. With only 48 hours to recoup their losses and pay back their supplier, the business partners improvise a risky plan.

Petula, a young woman dressed in black trousers and white shirt, dons gloves as she pretends to perform a medical examination on Tilda, a young woman sitting on a kitchen table. In the background, Daphne, a young woman dressed in gold, observes.

Their plan will involve revisiting a confusing and disturbing childhood shared with their friend Daphne. Having inherited the large country estate where she grew up, Daphne lives alone in almost complete isolation. With an intensity that has only become more pronounced since childhood, Petula and Tilda know that to spend time with Daphne and ultimately convince her to unlock the safe inside the house, they will have to play the game.

All of this is further complicated by a traumatic incident that divided the girls in which Daphne fell from a treehouse, which seems to be the incident that robbed her of both sanity and ability to bear a child.

In a purple-tinged scene, three young girls play outside a large country estate, an elderly woman behind them with hands on hips.

In the game, Daphne is Mom, Tilda is her child, and Petula is a doctor attending to both. They must obey all of Daphne’s orders, even and especially when these include inflicting violence and performing sexual acts.

Tilda and Petula, wearing white slips, sit back-to-back on chairs in a darkened room, surrounded by covered furniture. Both are tied and gagged with their own long braids, while Daphne sits on the floor next to them, smiling.

Fixated on cleanliness and punishment, Daphne is quick to dole out harsh penalties to Tilda. Things get weird and ominous so quickly as Petula and Tilda begin having hallucinations and questioning what is real. When the detective involved with Daphne’s childhood accident begins investigating, she begins to understand her friends’ real motivations for beginning the game again. Is it possible for anyone to win–or identify where the lines of reality are?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Honestly the only way to understand (to some degree) this film and be able to recap it is to watch it; hence the really vague plot outline above. Despite not fully understanding everything going on here, there’s a lot happening that I enjoy.

First, the unsettling tone, creepy setting, and interest in contrasting beautiful aesthetics with gruesome happenings. Psychological horror gives way to jarringly gory violence, but it doesn’t feel disjointed. There’s a feeling of a retro/Hitchcockian vibe with our somewhat Norman Bates-inspired Daphne and her crisply pressed fashions. A scene of a car being pushed into a pond as a cover-up is a strong reference to the scene in Psycho.

What I appreciate about a film like this is its interest in developing ideas over…hmmmm…plot & characterization to be frank. The literal and symbolic appearance of braids provide some clues about the interconnectedness of our lead characters and the impossibility of extricating themselves from each other without destroying their very nature. The braid seems more often a constraint than a show of strength or unity, however. It’s impossible not to consider the nature of power and privilege as it relates to Daphne’s control over the lives of her friends, and the extent to which the lifestyle she can provide allows her to gain the illusion of affection. Though it’s a very toxic and twisted friendship, all of the characters have something to gain from it and experience some degree of comfort from returning to even a dysfunctional & emotionally empty mansion. Almost everything is problematic here, giving an eerie weight to friendships that last forever.

There is a lot of detail filled in that finally brings the elements of the film together (sort of) cohesively. It does take a while as the majority of the events unfolding have no interest in allowing you to gather your bearings or anticipate where the fuck things are going. In a good way, though?

Would my blog wife braid this one’s hair or inflict some rather creative violence on it? Find out in her review!