From least-good to best! Also, all of these are currently available on Shudder… I am not being paid to say this.
The House of the Devil: Intense late ’70s/early ’80s nostalgia here, not only in setting but in the languorous pacing (as Kindertrauma points out). A Final Girl Type with a fun relationship with her feisty BFF gets a gig babysitting at an isolated house… but the “baby” is not what she expected! Devilry ensues. Basically the atmosphere was fun and the suspense was great–all the scenes where the babysitter is just wandering the house were incredibly tense. And then it all just dissipates when the action starts, because this movie has nothing really to say or contribute except that feeling of suspense. The payoff is a bog-standard Satanism tale, the Bolex watch to Rosemary’s Baby‘s Rolex. Felt like I was on an endless rattling ride up the rollercoaster, filled with anticipatory fear, and then when we crested the hill it just sorta rolled away. You can read KT’s review, linked above, for a more enthusiastic take.
God Told Me To: Another film where I loved the setup and wasn’t too compelled by the payoff, but both those things are much weirder here and the emotions are rawer and more earned. This 1976 tale from Larry “The Stuff… oh hey, and Black Caesar” Cohen starts with a fantastic scene of a sniper targeting randoms from atop a water tower. When he’s approached by a police negotiator and asked why he did it, he replies… “God told me to.”
So creepy, right? And then there’s more of them, inexplicable mass killers who say only, God told me to. And then. And then! The movie really thinks through some of the ramifications: News reports spark hysteria, people use the God angle to cover up self-interested killings…. Just smart and twisty. It doesn’t hurt that the cop investigating the murders is a devout-ish Catholic (albeit also adulterous-ish, it’s the ’70s). And the Deadly Doll names the film’s two genuinely wrenching scenes: a father explaining, calmly, reasonably, why he killed his family, and an old woman remembering the worst night of her life.
Well, and then we find out what’s happening. I would have liked this to be either a theological horror film along the lines of The Rapture, or a mystery, a movie which leaves some central questions unanswered. Instead we get answers and they’re not theological. I won’t tell you what’s actually going on, and I get that for some people it might work or be thrilling or intriguing in some way, but whoof, I could not care less about the explanation we get, it’s almost calculated to repel my interest and make the whole theological aspect of the drama seem pointless.
Absentia: Mike Flanagan! Man, that guy gets around. Mike Flanagan wrote & directed Hush, which a lot of you horror mavens liked (me too, sure); Ouija: Origins of Evil, which was fairly dumb but also fairly Catholic so, you know, two points for that; but also and most importantly Oculus, a real recent gem. Oculus is a smartly-plotted evil mirror film which slowly reveals itself as a haunting portrayal of child abuse. It’s a nice light movie!
This is the film he made before Oculus. It opens when Callie, a recovering (?????) drug addict and new Christian, comes to California to help her pregnant sister Tricia get through the final days of having her vanished husband declared dead “in absentia.” From the first scenes with these two women I was on board with the movie. They’ve been through so much, they love each other so much, they feel real–all the relationships and characterization in this movie feels so lived-in. Actresses Catherine Parker and Courtney Bell are fantastic and the writing gives them everything they need–realistic dialogue with hints of tension but no overexplanations. (Also there’s a jarring, realistically unfinished discussion of the two sisters’ respective religious beliefs, Tricia’s Buddhist striving for detachment and Callie’s Catholic suggestion that “some people are ‘victim souls,'” which is tense and painful in the moment and then pays off for Callie in a big way toward the end of the film.)
As in Hush and Oculus the jump scares are way above standard. I sometimes find it hard to respect a movie heavy on jump scares; not this time, the pacing is perfect and the jumps don’t feel cheap. We know from the beginning that the plot will somehow involve the sinister tunnel under the bridge near Tricia’s house, where Callie leaves a Tupperware of charity sandwiches for someone she assumes is a mentally ill homeless person. The explanation of this tunnel and its inhabitants draws on everything from “Tam Lin” (it’s no coincidence, I think, that the time Tricia has to wait before her husband can be declared dead is seven years) to The Three Billy Goats Gruff.
I disagreed with the Deadly Doll that this film doesn’t solve its central mystery. They tell you what happened! All the pieces fit! It’s just that the explanation is something you’d expect from a much kookier or campier horror film, not this emotionally-realistic downer. The movie the Doll watched, about “the limitations of how much we can ever really know a person,” would be more to my taste than this movie, since its answers weren’t super meaningful to me. I didn’t discern a theme or insight along the lines of Oculus‘s real insights into the experience of abuse.
That said, it’s pretty clear that Flanagan makes movies I want to watch, so I went ahead and added Doctor Sleep to my Netflix queue. Tentatively considering his adaptation of Gerald’s Game also even though that is something I have intentionally avoided in both book and movie form. He’s got a forthcoming TV project called “Midnight Mass” and yeah, sure, I’ll eat it.