Buckle up and secure your hands over your peepers, folks. We ended up screening a horror-themed collection of films this week, perfectly on time with… fuck, Halloween was like three weeks ago, wasn’t it? Alright, fine, we just watched a bunch of horror movies because we like horror movies. Watching a bunch of idiots stumble around and get sequentially liquified has become our comfort food in times of trouble, as we high-five their harbingers and make wagers on survivors and applaud the brutality of their kills. The violence is so abstracted it becomes almost freeing; while many of the best horror films draw on the anxieties that populate our own world, they refract those horrors into a universe where courage and a sturdy axe just might see you through. And even if a horror film does genuinely unsettle me – good! I like being scared! When I get back to writing fiction, I expect to begin by cataloging a few of my own nightmares – until then, let’s see what beasties await in the Week in Review!
We began this festival in the most appropriate manner, by screening a creature feature we already knew would be terrible. The Devil Below boasts not one single positive-leaning review on RottenTomatoes, and it certainly earns that designation. Aside from some sparse appearances by character acting veterans like Will Patton, there is no professional acting to be found in this film; none of the leads can execute a compelling line read, and heroine Alicia Sanz might actually be the least convincing among them.
Our greatest point of investment with this film’s cast was the one guy who looked kinda like Danny Pudi, purely for that reason; it was a great blow to our investment when not-Pudi was blown up with a grenade. The direction and cinematography are similarly amateurish, but fortunately, the film’s subterranean monsters boast some solid designs, meaning at least the kills are kinda satisfying. On the whole, if you are looking for a creature feature, The Devil Below is certainly that. If your request comes with any qualifiers regarding film quality, you can probably toss it aside.
After happily plowing through such an unremarkable horror film, I already had a sinking suspicion that this was going to be some kind of horror-themed week. As a result, I suggested a rewatch of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, as my general viewing partner Neil (long-time viewers may recognize him as The Quiet One from our short-lived game channel days) missed our first viewing. Behind the Mask was just as compelling on a second watch, and feels like essential viewing for any horror buffs who enjoy picking at the conventions and assumptions of our maligned genre.
A great deal of Behind the Mask is self-aware candy for slasher fans, as would-be serial killer Leslie runs through all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the performances of someone like Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger. Sequences like him complaining about the massive cardio work that goes into “chasing after kids while looking like you’re walking” are their own reward, while others combine the humor of acknowledged convention with implications of something greater, a sort of “courtship dance” that requires specific give and take from both the killer and the Final Girl. The film readily acknowledges the misogyny inherent in traditional slasher conventions, but Leslie himself is such a genial presence that it’s easy to get caught up in his faith, until the killings actually start.
Behind the Mask is an unqualified success as a comedic commentary on slashers, and fits neatly alongside other successful horror-comedies like One Cut of the Dead, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, or Cabin in the Woods. But on second viewing, I found myself most preoccupied with the film’s thoughts on a “mythology of evil,” and of the discomforting parallels between seduction and a horror killer’s approach. I know part of the point is that people like Leslie Vernon are just convincing themselves there is something important in what they do, and that the rituals they’re performing are conservative self-satisfaction dressed up as religion, with no greater moral purpose than “damn those kids and their freewheeling ways.” But there is something to that alternative, something fascinating in Leslie’s mixture of reverence and pragmatism, and his ultimate desire to be “destroyed” as a vehicle for feminine liberation, in spite of also embodying the threat to feminine liberation in the first place. It’s provoked in me a mental discussion with no clear conclusion, and I’d say that’s the sign of a successful movie.
After that, we jumped back from the self-aware to gleefully sincere side of the slasher spectrum, checking out the recent Polish feature Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight. Nobody Sleeps is clear about its intentions from the start; we are immediately introduced to a set of archetype-friendly teenagers, who must all relinquish their cellphones as part of a luddite-sponsored camping expedition. Of course, losing their phones leaves them completely at the mercy of the forest’s mutant cannibal hillbillies, with predictably squelchy results.
Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight is a traditional slasher pitch, fired straight over the plate, and knocked squarely into left field. The film won’t surprise you, but it has no need to – in all the ways that matter, it either nails or overachieves on the fundamentals of its genre. Its young actors offer solid performances, its cinematography and set design evoke a consistent mood of dread, and its monsters are dressed up in wonderfully inhuman costumes. With a convincingly scrappy Final Girl and some truly gruesome kills, Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight offers a familiar yet lovingly executed slasher experience. And with its strengths all based in fundamentals rather than gimmicks, I’m already eager to check out the sequel.
Our next film was one I’ve been meaning to see for quite some time, Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You. Tjahjanto’s profile has been ascending at lightning speed over the last several years, with 2018 also featuring the release of his brutal action film The Night Comes For Us, prompting significant international exposure. He’s also responsible for two of the very best V/H/S shorts: V/H/S 2’s franchise-best Safe Haven, as well as ‘94’s excellent The Subject. Having loved both those shorts, I was eager to see him take on a full-length horror drama, and May the Devil Take You didn’t disappoint.
May the Devil Take You is most fundamentally a possession film, following the biological daughter Alfie and second family of a once-successful property developer, who sold his soul to the devil some time ago. As Alfie and her stepfamily explore the ruins of her father’s villa, they come across the lingering remains of his rituals, and soon learn his debts still demand collection.
I frankly wasn’t sure how a possession story would offer Tjahjanto an appropriately bombastic venue for his larger-than-life action-horror. Well, I shouldn’t have worried; May the Devil Take You is as inventive in its horror imagery as it is gruesome in its execution, drawing gleefully from influences like Evil Dead to offer an all-terrors-included buffet of fear and violence. From ceiling-crawling stepmothers to ominous voodoo dolls to occult rituals, May the Devil Take You is an immensely generous production, and a frankly unnecessary affirmation that Tjahjanto is an essential contributor to our current horror renaissance. I eagerly await his next production!
Our final selection was another unfortunate stinker, Daniel Isn’t Real. You can probably guess the structure of this one purely by its title: Luke (Miles Robbins) has an invisible childhood friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who is forcibly locked away after almost tricking Luke into killing his mother. Years later, the Worst Psychologist In The World suggests that Luke reconnect with his invisible friend, leading to plentiful chaos as the cruel Daniel makes his mark on the world.
Daniel Isn’t Real seems determined to straddle the line between thriller and horror, to the detriment of both. In spite of the title, there’s never any question as to whether Daniel is real: he provides Luke with information he couldn’t personally possess all the time, and the film quickly seeds his quasi-demonic origins. But though there’s no mystery, there’s also no meaningful horror; Daniel’s goals are too obvious to seem ominous, and neither the sound design nor direction are capable of evoking a genuinely threatening atmosphere. Aside from a few fun moments of the leads playing “me and my invisible friend Patrick Bateman,” this is mostly just an overlong and underwhelming slog, too threadbare in its characterization and execution to justify its lack of conventional scares.