And Gothic Is the Summer: Four quick horror(ish) reviews

And Gothic Is the Summer: Four quick horror(ish) reviews August 4, 2023

For your pleasure.

I Like Bats (1987)

Polish vampire film, streaming via Shudder, about a woman who tries inpatient treatment to cure her vampirism and falls for her therapist. Some comedy, often courtesy of her aunt, an extremely auntly vampire; some batty pleasures, including a fantastic bat-winged teacup, for my money the best thing in this film; some graphic sex, because the Poles are the Swedes of the Church. The story is played for romance with a touch of horror-comedy. I found it very hard to connect with the blank heroine or her generic blond doctor. To me, at least, this was mostly of interest because I do want to know what kinds of vampire films got made in the Warsaw Pact nations.

Dark Waters (1993)

Speaking of the Warsaw Pact… this is “perhaps the first Western film to be shot in Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union,” per Wikipedia. A young woman travels to a remote women’s monastery to discover the terrible truth about her origins. Quick, elliptical cuts; rich use of candlelight; spooky, synth-heavy score. Do not ever bother asking why characters do what they do. The answer is always “vibes” and you just have to roll with it.

I would like this movie better if it leaned way less on nunslaughter and way, way, way more on having a single thought in its pretty little head. Atmospheric, but a bit empty. The Deadly Doll has a more positive take, and I do agree with this bit: “Typically, describing a movie filmed in 1993 as looking like it was found in a dusty Italian vault sealed in 1972 wouldn’t be a compliment, but I mean that in the best possible way. Dark Waters has such a striking, timeless look about it, and its sparse dialogue and overwhelming ocean soundtrack feeds into that mystery with so much mood.”

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Okay, calling this spooky kids’ flick about resurrected Salem-type witches a “horror” film is a real stretch, but I was pleased to discover that its intense Halloweenery could charm me even though I’d never seen it before and therefore harbored no nostalgia for it. Kathy Najimy (sure), Bette Midler (yes), and Sarah Jessica Parker (YES!!!!!) are the witches, on a mission to kidnap kids and… make them into a potion? Steal their youth? Do bad things, is the point. Out to thwart their evil plan are a boy and his sister (Thora Birch!) and a talking cat, one of the witches’ original victims.

Hocus Pocus walks a fine line, where we get to enjoy witchy glee but also feel real emotions about their victims (especially Binx the cat and his dad). It overexplains, and there are some just painfully predictable quips and beats–this movie doesn’t respect its child audience as much as it could. Fortunately, every time the film shrugs and offers up some bland “comedy” that’s all it thinks kids are asking for, Sarah Jessica Parker wanders through and says something weird and hilarious. Both her character and her acting really elevate the movie. She’s a delight, and there are several other moments when the dialogue is weirder and smarter than it had to be (the bullies singing “Row, row, row your boat”; “Who’s for the jacuzzi?”). Production design is fabulous, the whole movie looks like the world a jack-o’-lantern would build if it had absolute power.

Candyman (1992)

Oh, this movie is so good. The overhead shots scored to Philip Glass give you the urban-planning angle, the awe and horror of cities shaped by power and inequality. Virginia Madsen is just luminous as grad student Helen, who ventures into the notoriously violent Cabrini-Green projects seeking information about the urban legend of Candyman (Tony Todd and his voluptuous voice). There’s a lot of painterly color and composition in this story about art as the refuge of memory. Even the trashed-out Cabrini-Green production design is a reeking dreamscape. Candyman’s seduction of Helen is pure monstrous sexiness, the hook going up her skirt as you suddenly remember that this film began life as a Clive Barker story.

Candyman is perfectly shot, and its central characters are iconic; and yet watching it now, after the 2021 sequel/reboot with the same title, it does seem like it’s screaming out for the kind of reimagining the later movie offered. The black characters other than Candyman feel pretty cardboard, existing solely to fulfill their roles in Helen’s (and Candyman’s, but mostly Helen’s) story. Helen is an amazing character–she’s brave and smart, but she can drastically miscalculate; she’s tough and vulnerable, open to Candyman in ways sexual, intellectual, political, and supernatural. But she’s also the white POV character we always used to get in these stories: stories about black people and communities, but not rooted in those communities. I liked the reboot anyway, but on rewatching the original, I really think they work so well together as a pair. You can feel how much the reboot loves the original, and also reimagines it in the most poignant ways possible.

What I always forget about this Candyman is the ending, and I forget it because it sucks. WHY tell me WHY does this movie not end at the funeral scene, or even the courtyard pyre? The dumb coda resolves Helen’s plotline in a blandly conventional horror-flick way, and also isolates her plotline from Cabrini-Green’s, when ending it earlier would make her life inextricably intertwined with the damaged place she came to love, resolving both her plot and the projects’ plot in tandem. That would be an actual image of racial reconciliation through surrender of power, and resurrection through sacrifice. Instead the last scene brings us back to a familiar story of power and revenge.

“Lit jack-o’-lantern glowing menacingly” by huk_flickr, via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license. Here is Prayers’ “Gothic Summer,” with a truly great video.

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