The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre – Chapter 2

Read chapter 1 here.

Land of the Free, Home of the Weird

thumbnail_originalSergeant Abraham Richards, Alpha Company, 1-107th Infantry, New York Army National Guard, walked down the armory steps into the cool October afternoon, his rucksack weighing heavily on his shoulders, his duffel bag to his side and straining his arm.

“Let me take that, son.” His father took the duffel and hefted it over his good shoulder.

“Careful, Dad.”

“You can’t tell your father to be careful, you know that,” Mom said, grimacing and rolling her eyes. She said it as a joke, but she was afraid it sounded like a nag. Everything was tense. Happy, sure, but tense. No one wanted to say the wrong thing, but silence didn’t seem right, either. But maybe saying nothing at all was the best thing for it. Continue reading “The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre – Chapter 2”

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Marriage Changes Things: A Review of Honeymoon (2014)

Directed by Leigh Janiak; Starring Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway

Netflix is full of hidden treasures from the horror genre, whether overlooked-but-quality efforts from the past, or from more contemporary independent offerings that flew under the radar upon release.

It’s also full of crap. I end up quitting more movies than I finish, but every now and then, I find a diamond in the rough.

Honeymoon (2014) is a competent, paranoid, suspenseful little horror movie that knows its limitations and does a good job of telling us a simple yet disturbing tale of early marriage.

Bea and Paul (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) tell us, through their recently-shot wedding video, the story behind their relationship. It’s full of cutesy/gross anecdotes about their first date, and populated with semi-sweet (or saccharine, depending on your level of cynicism or expectations of the script) narratives about their coming together in holy matrimony.

Whoops
Whoops

Having characters talk directly to a camera within a camera is a lazy conceit, and had me worried this would be another found footage clunker. Luckily, the film abandons this narrative model almost immediately, and we find the couple taking their honeymoon at an old cabin on a lake (once frequented by Bea’s family when she was young).

Leslie and Treadaway do a good job building up the couple’s dynamic, and they both have several opportunities to shine as actors. The film starts off more as a hopeful drama than a science fiction-horror movie. I can see why the scores and reviews of the film are generally mixed—there’s not a lot here for hardcore horror fans—at least, not at first. And that’s okay.

The weirdness within the woods soon encroaches, however. We see a strange light shining in through the cabin’s windows while they sleep. Soon after, Bea runs into a childhood friend who seems to be having anger issues, paranoia, and committing domestic violence against his frightened shell of a wife.

Then Bea wanders off in the middle of the night—losing her clothes in the process—and her husband begins to suspect that all might not be well in Marriedville.

That’s most of the plot, in a nutshell. Rather than ratcheting up the tension with a series of increasingly weird events—although there are a few of those—the focus of the film is trained firmly on the dynamics of the newlywed’s suddenly-fraying relationship. Memory, meaning, sexuality within marriage, and the core of who a person is and sometimes becomes are the real stars of the show. This is a drama trapped within the mythos of some high strange events, and the script’s tension with itself and the limitations of budget (few locations, lots of close ups and medium shots) can sometimes bog down the drive of the film.

Yes, this is a film that I would categorize as high strange. There’s some spooky stuff happening in the woods, and most audiences will likely chalk it up to a certain memetic pattern prevalent in our culture, (“I’m not saying it’s aliens … but it’s aliens”) but the paranormal elements are actually more in line with authentic high strange events than those of Hollywood. They don’t have clear-cut explanations, and nothing is quite as it seems.

I don’t want to fault a horror film for attempting to emphasize pathos and characterization over scares, but some scenes—one of the dozen or so interplays between Bea and Paul—tend to drag. There’s a fine line between focusing on character and focusing on plot, and Honeymoon doesn’t always quite thread the needle, if I’m allowed to mix metaphors. Leslie and Treadaway turn in good performances considering the film’s limited scope and resources, but the “Talk to me!” / “No …” dynamic wears thin very quickly.

I didn’t enjoy The Babadook for the same reason. That was a film with perpendicular themes of family paranoia. At some point we get it, and it’s time to move on. Another four or five scenes emphasizing the same message isn’t dramatic; it’s indulgent. Give me more spooks and scares to balance out the messaging.

And what message are we to get from Honeymoon? Marriage changes a relationship, especially when those married suffer from emotional damage, doubt, and their past. Paul gradually distrusts Bea as he learns more and more about what happened that night she went sleepwalking, and the lies she tells to cover up the truth are meant to keep their marriage normal and without conflict—an impossible task, considering what has happened to her within the woods. White lies meant to protect the relationship ultimately harm the relationship. There is a lesson from all of this, for sure, and the film should be commended for trying to say something beyond the scares and gore.

Yes, there are scares—but they are of the more subtle variety, rather than jump scares. The filmmakers wisely decided to show us only shadows, light, and implication. I was fearful that What Crept In The Darkness would be revealed in some awful, CGI-laden final scene—but this was not so. The film does imply a particular explanation, but never really spoon feeds it to us, which is refreshing and far more effective. By putting the creepy-crawlies in the background, the emphasis is on the drama. As I’ve said, this balance doesn’t always work, but it’s better than the inverse, certainly.

The special make up effects are simple but disturbing. “Vaginal horror” is a term thrown around a lot in science fiction-horror, and this film definitely takes that angle. But it’s never gratuitous or lazy, although there are a couple of straight-up “gross out” moments toward the end of the film.

Watch the trailer here
Watch the trailer here

Ultimately, this is a story about marriage, relationships, and the alienation that can occur therein. I really appreciated the filmmakers’ dedication to these themes, but couldn’t help wanting to see more of the high strange events surrounding that lonely cabin in the woods. That, I suppose, is a compliment, and a testament to the filmmaker’s restraint in deploying fictional spookies to tell us some hard truths.

If you enjoyed films like Xtro or Almost Human but are in the mood for something a bit more character-focused and restrained, make the trip into the woods and enjoy Honeymoon.

4/5 Cabins In the Woods

Film Review: Banshee Chapter

Directed by Blair Erickson; starring Katia Winter, Ted Levine

Winners don’t use drugs. And people who don’t want their skin to be worn like a ratty old t-shirt by monsters from beyond should definitely stay away from secret government hallucinogens.

We all learned this in Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes, though, right? Well, the characters in Blair Erickson’s intriguing and unique Banshee Chapter seemed to have skipped those lessons, because there’s no shortage of people willing to take DMT-19, a special chemical compound that has extremely unpleasant effects on all those who ingest it—and everyone around them.

Banshee Chapter is very much about drugs—and CIA mind control experiments, extradimensional reality, counter culture, number stations, missing persons, the NSA, and so much more. Long story short, this is a movie I loved—it hits a diverse array of subjects, cloaking a not-so-subtle allegory of government malfeasance and existential threat in the wool of a fun horror movie. Watch it, and be scared and entertained. Or, watch it, be scared and entertained, and learn a thing or two.

If I’ve done a poor job of summarizing what this film is about, that’s only a reflection of the film’s diverse and schizophrenic (literally) nature. This is anything but a criticism—Banshee Chapter is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.

The film is inspired in part by the MK Ultra mind control experiments of the mid-twentieth century, wherein the CIA experimented on American citizens, using a combination of drugs and psychological conditioning techniques that crossed into unethical territory. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, is perhaps the program’s most notable graduate, although conspiracy theorists are still considering the program’s legacy to this day. Laugh all you want at this line of thinking—but then go look up how many mass shooters have been on SSRIs or other mind-altering drugs.

tax dollars at work

Your tax dollars at work

In an abortive found-footage opening (one of my few criticisms of the film is its inconsistent narrative style), we see James (Michael McMillan) taking a rare form of DMT (a real, naturally-occurring hallucinogen that often produces transcendent experiences in its users) sent from his “Friends in Colorado”. Soon the radio starts playing a number station broadcast, and something comes to visit.

With James missing, Anne Roland (Katia Winter), a reporter and James’ best friend from college, decides to search for him. She picks up the bread crumb trail of his recent work—a research project on MK Ultra and a sinister government conspiracy involving DMT-19, pirate radio signals, a mysterious desert compound, and a gonzo counter-culture writer.

Does this sound like a lot to keep up with? It is. The film is not afraid to dive off the deep end. Twisted monsters, a monologue on H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, Ted Levine playing a Hunter S. Thompson-type author and paranoid drug user (“Buy the ticket, take the ride!”), creepy real-world conspiracy implications, and a healthy mix of slow-burn tension and well-executed jump scares keep the movie interesting. Its limitations in budget and the occasionally-flat dialogue are forgiven because the movie is so diverse and interesting; each scene adds something new to the film’s mythos or carries us along a tense and disturbing plot arc. We jump across multiple narrative threads, learning more about the history of MK Ultra, number stations, and possibly-supernatural evil, while dealing with the paranoid anxiety of Anne’s present circumstances.

To describe the story much further would spoil the fun. The narrative unfolds piece by piece, with liberal scares, atmosphere, and plenty of humor to keep the audience off guard and interested. This was my second viewing of the film, and I enjoyed it more than the first. It rewards repeat viewings with little clues and Easter eggs for diligent viewers. While the ending leaves something to be desired—and is about as clear as mud in its implications—the film is, overall, a strong, unique, and refreshing little horror film.

If any of the subjects mentioned above—counter culture, conspiracies, mind control, number stations, Lovecraftian horror—interest you, you’ll have a great time with this movie. Banshee Chapter is the rare direct-to-video horror movie that, despite its limitations, manages to be smart, scary, funny, and socially relevant in its commentary, themes, and technical execution. Fans of high strange events, conspiracy theories, and well-executed horror will find all that and more.

5/5 Intelligence Agency Swine

Red Eyes in the Dark: A Review of The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel

The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel (2002 edition)

If you are interested in high strange phenomena, this is a good place to start. The work is a solid look at ufology from a well-known researcher, whose influence is still felt in the ufology field.

I enjoyed the Richard Gere film of the same name – it was a solid exercise in creepy, under-explained menace and atmosphere. It was great to get an inside look at the “real story.” This book is cleanly-written, with a lot of anecdotes and connections made in and beyond Point Pleasant, WV during the Mothman/UFO flap of the 1960s.

Keel posits some really wild ideas about who and what these visitors are and what they represent. Basically he argues that all paranormal phenomena has a common origin, and it’s not extraterrestrial. This force has always been with us, and is at once very influential over and totally baffling to us.

He makes a compelling argument, and the wild stories about Mothman (who is not really the focus of the book at all) and company are really weird, creepy, and engaging. There’s plenty of weird little details and straight-up terrifying stories here that will keep you up at night.

However, the book does become repetitive and, once he establishes his hypothesis, the book doesn’t have much else to say except more of the same: more encounters, more weird stuff, more UFOs, more witness testimony, more tapped phones, more false memories…

The book’s final third is largely focused on Keel’s perception of being targeted by non-human entities: suddenly, every other person’s contact experience is about HIM. At some point the book crosses over from being an enjoyable read by a likable researcher to feeling like Keel is suffering a mental breakdown akin to mania, schizophrenia, and paranoia. However, I suspect Keel would offer a knowing smile at my statement: getting personally involved in ufology has a toxic effect on your personal life and state of mind.

These criticisms aside, this is clearly a classic of high strange literature. You don’t have to be familiar with the field to enjoy this book.

4/5 Giant Terror Birds