In the Basement of the Doll Hospital: Short movie reviews, mostly women in horror

In the Basement of the Doll Hospital: Short movie reviews, mostly women in horror November 10, 2015

I continue to believe that since November is the month when Catholics especially remember our dead, I get to watch lots of horror flicks. DON’T JUDGE MY SPIRITUALITY.

Also, I couldn’t help but notice that the first four of these movies include a scene with a woman peeing. They’re all doing slightly different things with it, but is Ladies Pee Too the signature of ’10s indie horror? If so, can we get a different signature?

Contracted: A new-fledged lesbian with a history of drug addiction and self-harm goes to a party without her girlfriend. A dude hits on her… another dude spikes her drink… and then she’s in a car having sex that ends in terror. She comes to with something much worse than a hangover.

A ton of intriguing ideas here, weakened by a shaky script. An epidemic spreads especially quickly when its victims fill a socially-stigmatized and mistrusted role; the woman becomes nightmarishly sick very quickly whereas the man just walks around like everything’s great, because laughter is the second-best medicine, after privilege. The main character’s miserable relationship is very relatable and also helps push the plot forward. Actually all of her relationships (mom, boss, doctor) involve her being talked down to and mistrusted, and that’s part of why her illness proceeds the way it does. And the mistrust is always based on some social category she falls into: addict, low-wage worker, promiscuous woman. The body horror is quite gruesome.

Unfortunately her girlfriend is a grating caricature who can’t go two sentences without reminding us that she is Extremely Gay! I think that’s intentional, actually, the girlfriend is playing up her Gold Star Lesbian of the Year thing as a way of maintaining power over the main character, but the girlfriend just has no redeeming qualities or non-stereotypical moments. The anti-gay Christian mom gets some real emotion and depth, so why not also this terrible lesbian?

Why We Watched Her Pee: Body horror. PLEASE if you ever get an std in a horror movie, don’t look in your toilet!

Worth Watching If: You are interested in horror with everyday lesbians rather than gothic vampire lesbians; you like flicks with subtle acknowledgments of social inequality, without any preachiness; you are okay with seriously undermotivated actions, especially toward the end; you like sudden genre swerves.

Housebound: Horror with a comedic streak, from New Zealand. Great premise: A woman gets caught breaking an ATM to feed her drug addiction. She’s sentenced to house arrest, trapped with her mom and stepfather in her childhood home. At first she’s furious and unwilling to give any credence to her mom’s rambling notions that the house is haunted. But then things start to go bump in the night….

I really liked these characters, and the twisty plot doesn’t start to feel overcomplicated until the very end. This is an unpredictable if slight film. My main complaint is that the movie sets up a fascinating rule–Kylie (a very fun Morgana O’Reilly) can’t leave her house without risking prison–and then just jettisons it so she can go traipsing all over creation. You had such a great rule! Don’t break your awesome rule! It’s especially galling because there must’ve been twenty different ways to play out this plotline while keeping the rule that’s IN THE TITLE.

Why We Watched Her Pee: Comedy. It works!

Worth Watching If: You like mother-daughter and “weirdos band together” stories.

The Pact: Really good-looking film with great music (and great horror wallpaper!). A Christmas tale of two sisters from an abusive home. When their mother dies they return for her funeral, but something evil waits for them in their childhood home.

I wish I’d known more about this movie going in, I think, because it ended up feeling like a bait-and-switch in a few different ways. We start off in the pov of one sister, a recovering addict and single mom who argues that the other sister needs to forgive their mother. It’s done subtly but obviously I related a lot to her character, someone whose own failures and struggles have made her more willing to forgive the awful things done to her–and who struggles to empathize with her less-humiliated and less-forgiving sister. She’s judgmental toward her sister because she’s forgiving toward her mom, and that’s a tangle of emotions and spiritual attitudes that I’ve rarely seen portrayed in fiction. But we quickly cut away to the other sister’s pov, and the rest of the movie is all about the unforgiving sister.

Moreover, there’s a ton of Catholic imagery (this is the first horror movie I’ve seen with pictures of Padre Pio!) but no hints of actual religious practice, whether abusive or gentle, no prayer or penitence. There are hints of guilt but to be honest, this is a movie weirdly unconcerned with motivations. It’s framed as a movie about the legacy of abuse but I don’t think it really is. I expected an out-of-the-past movie but got a sort of witchy procedural.

All that said, the climax is incredibly tense, and like I said, this is a lovely movie to look at.

Why We Watched Her Pee: To show her at a vulnerable moment, and also because when you’re peeing you are kind of trapped.

Worth Watching If: You like seance tales and don’t care much about why people sin.

Just realized this is three recovery horror films in a row. Can this be our signature? Addiction history >>>>>>> on-camera peeing.

Starry Eyes: An aspiring actress/actual Hooters-knockoff waitress (the phenomenal Alex Essoe) thinks she bombed her audition with the prestigious Astraeus Pictures. They humiliated her and exposed one of her secret shames. But then they call her back and offer her what she’s always dreamed of. She just has to make a few moral compromises.

There are a million movies about the horrors of Hollywood–Maps to the Stars is the most recent one I’ve seen–but Starry Eyes stands out. The acting is excellent throughout. (Maria Olsen deserves mention here as the creepy Casting Director.) Essoe is just extraordinary, as we see her character go through several different kinds of severe transformation. And the movie points out that there is an alternative to stardom. You can go the indie route, do the Kickstarter thing, make a movie that a few hundred people will see and maybe they’ll love it.

A few hundred, maybe a thousand. When you wanted to be a star.

As somebody who has just self-published (buy my book, be one of the select few!) I can easily see why that would feel not like a triumph but a humiliation. This movie inspired Final Girl to talk about her own creative endeavors and I think it will make a lot of people have pretty intense emotions about making art, and about the creative life they’ve settled for–the Etsy store, the Kindle single, the Patreon account. You can love what you’ve accomplished and be grateful for it, and still have that rankling, festering conviction, I coulda been a contender!

Toward the end this film pushed past my fairly high limit for gore. There’s also body horror–in fact, the third quarter is a lot like Contracted–but the gore is just extreme. And I don’t know that I loved the very end. But this is a solid and deeply-felt movie.

Why We Watched Her Pee: Kind of the vulnerability thing again, but really, I have no idea.

Worth Watching If: You are a fan of indie horror. This is the easiest one to recommend in this post.

Bunny Lake Is Missing: Otto Preminger directs a “post-noir” (sure, why not) about a woman who swears she left her child at a chaotic and very ’60s kindergarten, but the child has vanished. Her brother (Keir Dullea) hastens to protect her and advocate for her, but there’s something strange about his manner–in fact, you know, isn’t there something strange about both of them? And about the way nobody can be found who has actually seen the little girl?

Lots of great set-piece scenes–the doll hospital, the basement of the (people) hospital–and an ending that aims at bats-crazy in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? mode but seems still too captive to ’50s/’60s psychoanalytic tropes. There’s a lot of humor, and it is extremely weirdly-placed. It’s almost Roald Dahl, the way people keep cracking jokes around this (possibly) terrified mother. Whether you love that or find it jarring (or both) is probably a matter of temperament. Anna Massey as a kooky teacher is feline and terrific. Bunny’s mother (Carol Lynley) didn’t really start to work for me until she really got desperate and started escaping from places and hiding from people. Until then she seemed a bit too mannered and actressily fragile.

Worth Watching If: The phrase “credits by Saul Bass” makes you smile; you like stuff that could be camp, but isn’t quite.

13 Sins: US remake of a Thai film; a man with a pregnant fiancee, a mentally-disabled brother, an aging father, and a mountain of debt gets fired for refusing to pressure people to buy things they don’t need. He’s desperate and terrified, with no idea how he’ll face the future. And then he gets a mysterious phone call offering to make him a millionaire if he completes 13 increasingly-difficult challenges.

One thing I liked about this film was the reminder that real people face these same extreme pile-ups of circumstance. Nothing in Elliot’s situation was impossible or even especially unrealistic. I was reminded of the family I met at the pregnancy center. The husband lost his job after he refused to persuade a homeless man to open a bank account he didn’t need (and which I assume would cost him money in low-balance fees). The husband worked for Wells Fargo, I’m sure you’re shocked. Consider credit unions!

I also really liked the main character and actor (Mark Webber). Just the right balance of sad sack; genuinely good man pushed to his limits; and beaten-down guy who is ready to blow the world away once he gets a taste of power. The challenges also escalate in awfulness really well. You’re kept on your toes.

Lots of things about the ending don’t quite work or make sense, but I am a sucker for “happy endings” which are really incredibly bleak if you imagine what must happen after the credits roll.

Also, the dirty limerick that opens the movie is a) a phenomenal opening scene and b) a summary of its basic message. The bears do what they can; the rabbits suffer what they must.

Worth Watching If: You like artificial structure (the 13 challenges, I love this kind of thing) and financial terror.

All of these movies except Bunny Lake are available on Netflix streaming in America, in case that’s useful information to you.

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