Al Lougher's THE DOLLMAKER is a terrifying Faustian short film about the horror of parental grief.
Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury give us another terrifying vision of horror, this time in a dark fantasy like some forgotten fairy tale.
A Late Thaw. 2015. Directed & Written by Kim Barr.
Starring Michelle Boback, Lucas Chartier-Dessert, Kathleen Fee, Helena Marie, & Ivan Peric.
Over at ChicArt Productions they’re consistently putting out interesting little short independent films. Some are great subversions of genre, others are merely great examples of the genres in which the films exist. In the past six months or more, I’ve received a lot of fun screeners from them. I’m only now just getting around to seeing each film and reviewing them. No matter how big or small a production, it’s always a major honour for me to be asked by filmmakers and their publicity teams to take a look at their work. Getting a screener is like Christmas for me!
But it’s even better when these shorts are actually solid pieces of cinema. Usually, I receive requests for horror movies, seeing as how my website is (for the most part) fairly horror-based. All the same, I find many genres wind up in my inbox.
Director-writer Kim Barr’s most recent short, A Late Thaw, is less a horror – though it contains the essence of creepiness most of the time – and more a drama-fantasy. Better yet it reminds me of contemporary Gothic Literature, honestly. You could almost say it’s one long hallucination with bits of reality peppered in. No matter how you define it – perhaps dark fantasy might work best – Barr executes an innovative little screenplay to make 14-minute film into something magical, otherworldly, and excruciatingly personal. More than that, this short examines grief, how people deal with it, when they do, and how that grief can reach out from a person’s past to either strangle or give way to their future.
The cinematography is beautiful, at times quite surreal. Very much dig the fantasy elements, as they’re woven around the story fairly well. When Tara (Helena Marie) walks through the house and the snow is falling, frost is on the doorknob, you feel in an entirely other reality. The snow-covered stairs, the hallway shrouded with foggy, blowing snow; each moment is like something out of a dream. And then soon comes the paranoia, which includes great little sound design thrown on top of everything else. The score sits perfectly beneath all the camerawork. It pulls the viewer in with an ambient sound, swelling, fading, and helps to put us in a nostalgic frame of mind while we continue to watch on, wondering what will come next: dreams, or reality. These elements come together to create a strange atmosphere; strange in a good way. Barr’s directorial choices work well alongside the cinematography to create a space that feels like one step in a different direction through this house will take you to a whole other world. Short films by nature only have a limited window to take you inside their universe. A Late Thaw immerses us into this story so easily, so quickly, that it’s a seamless transition. One minute you’re here, the next you find yourself walking through this dreamy, cloudy house, snow falling, the air thick. A remarkable aesthetic overall, which is something I’m big on. Although the story is excellent, it could’ve been only half decent an the technical work on this film would still make it highly enjoyable.
When it comes to the titular thaw, we find out Tara has been trying to move on from a previous tragedy. Only now, with the new house and all its happiness, her old grief is thawing and working its way up to, and out of, the surface. The film’s imagery with the snow and all the frostiness is so dark without needing horror. This personal drama about a woman is moving in that it explores very touchy, tragic memories. Certainly the snow and all that are partly representative of the old lover and their apparent death on a mountain, climbing somewhere; it’s as if that atmosphere has moved itself into her house, mentally and visually we see it literally. At the same time, the snow buries, it covers up and conceals. So the further things progress in the film, the more snow covered and cloudy things become, until even Tara finds her own face and eyes covered. In a way, the snow is also grief.
Further than that those memories are evoked with interesting images and writing. For instance, at first you’ll believe the wall climbing scene is something out of place. I did, and found myself questioning what exactly was the purpose – other than to look neat – to have this woman and her friend at a rockwall climbing spot. Then as the short moves by and gets closer to the end you begin understanding why Barr decided to include this moment, as it becomes totally relevant to Tara’s plot. Even better, there’s a terribly creepy scene which sees Tara sort of falling further and further into the hole of memory, calling back the climbing. This is one of my favourite moments, it is so unique that I felt the scene stick with me long after the film finished. Again, there’s no outright horror here, yet Barr lets the psychological terror seep through the drama at the center of this story to make everything edgy, uneasy, hard to predict. The imagery is so damn powerful, I had to go back and watch this a couple times after my first viewing.
Personally, this is one of my favourite short films I’ve ever seen. There are a handful or two of shorts that are just near perfect in my mind; this is one of those movies. Kim Barr is definitely talented, and it may be her work in other areas before coming into her own as director which helped shape some of her style. I’d dig a full-length feature from Barr because if this is any indication of her talent, any studio would be glad to have someone with the writing skills she possesses, along with the fact she has a knowledgeable grasp on her role as director. Keep an eye out – if you get the chance to see A Late Thaw, do it. You will not regret these 14 minutes. And maybe, like it did me, the film just might leave a mark, too.
The Craft. 1996. Directed by Andrew Fleming. Screenplay by Peter Filardi & Fleming.
Starring Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich, Christine Taylor, Breckin Meyer, Nathaniel Marston, Cliff De Young, Assumpta Serna, Helen Shaver, Jeanine Jackson, & Brenda Strong. Columbia Pictures Corporation.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
The 1990s were an underrated time for horror. Certainly not the best decade, but most certainly not appreciated enough. An era that gave us Scream, Braindead, Hardware, It, Nightbreed, The Blair Witch Project and other lesser loved bits of horror cinema such as Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, among many other titles. Particularly with Craven’s Scream there was a new renewal in the studios’ interests to cater towards the youth market. Not that they ever stopped. Yet The Craft is a coming-of-age tale, wrapped up in the fantasy of witchcraft and packaged in a neatly bowed horror romp. And while this definitely comes off as a movie marketed towards teenagers, looking back on it 20 years later it’s more than just a teen horror flick. Inside the story of four witches who come together during high school there are themes of good, evil, innocence, guilt, and plenty of other interesting subjects. With a solid cast in the four main women this horror goes further than being relegated to being a horror ‘chick flick’ or a movie better left back in adolescence. Director Andrew Fleming’s first film was the trippy 1988 horror Bad Dreams, but after The Craft he really abandoned horror for comedy and television mostly. Too bad. Because between those two horrors he has a talent for the macabre. This story of four young witches is better than a casual movie to give you a little creep, it has lots of terror to offer, making high school appear even more violent, volatile and nerve wracking than it has been since Carrie.
Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) and her family move to a new city. She’s had plenty of tragedy in life, as her mother is dead and her father tries his best to raise a teenage girl. Things get intense once Sarah meets three girls rumoured to be witches – Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True), and their fiesty little leader Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk). Slowly, the young women come together in a quartet and finally realize all their collective powers, summoned from the deep darkness.
What follows begins as a group of friends exploring their natural talents, an antiquated power in a modern world.
However, soon enough the ugly head of competition appears, and Nancy doesn’t like that Sarah’s powers are stronger than the other girls. And this sets off a deadly series of events which Sarah must either stop, or be swept up in. Is her power truly the strongest? Or does Nancy hold the full power of the occult and Hell at her fingertips?
The theme of outsiders is clearly central here. And it’s all amped up even more. First, you’ve got a group of teenage girls; from boys to interpersonal relationships to the general race of high school to win popularity and acceptance. Then they’re also witches, sitting on the fringe of society, both as a whole and in the microcosm of grade school. Plus, there’s periods, and mean boys, and mean girls. Added to all of that, each of the main girls has their own issue. Nancy (Balk) is poor, dealing with a stepfather whose interests lie a little too close to his wife’s daughter. Rochelle (True) is black and has to face the ignorant racism of a lily white girl that says she doesn’t “like negroids.” Bonnie (Campbell) has scar tissue all over her body, it makes her self-conscious and the treatments to try curing her are extremely painful. Finally, Sarah (Tunney) laments the death of her mother, and it’s obvious she’s filled with dark, sometimes suicidal thoughts. So part of why The Craft touched me deeply, as a drama mixed with horror, is because we’re essentially watching four young women who want to escape from their dreary reality. They want something better, something bigger, and they get it. How many of us didn’t want to make the bullies at school pay? Well here we live vicariously through Rochelle, whose spell makes the popular blonde girl’s hair start falling out, and through Sarah who puts a heavy love spell on a guy that spread dirty rumours about her, and so on. Each of their experiences brings to light the experience of many as young people, as students, as growing men and women in the world. I saw this movie when I was about 11 and it spoke to me because I was a weird kid, one that stood as part of a group that didn’t play hockey or weren’t the cool kids, so seeing these four witches go through their own experiences, it simultaneously spoke to my own feelings as a loser or an outcast. This is a major reason why The Craft‘s fans are hardcore, loving ones, because this isn’t only a fantastical horror flick about young witches, it has a heart and like many awesome horror movies there is more than meets the eye.
Let’s face it – the cast would’ve never been so iconic and exciting if these four ladies weren’t in the film. As an antagonist, Balk’s Nancy Downs is perfect. She is beautiful and weird, then also terrifying at the same time. She can switch on a dime from being sort of cute in an oddball way to becoming overwhelmingly horrific. Part of why her charater works is because Balk has a unique look. So with all her charisma and energy, she brings a wildness to the cast. In addition, Balk is an actual Wiccan, so she provided insight during the filming when possible. Our protagonist is equally wonderful. Tunney’s Sarah is a calm, quiet type, and after she becomes involved with the other girls develops a more outgoing personality. Tunney provides a relateable personality to which we can anchor ourselves going forward, and she allows us a type of center. We latch onto her because of her problems. Then once the witchcraft stuff spirals out of control at the hands of Nancy, there’s a very good v. evil vibe because of Sarah portraying the near polar opposite character. With these two actresses at the helm, alongside Campbell and True as sidekicks, as well as 90s staple Skeet Ulrich in a decent little supporting role that adds fire to the plot, The Craft is a step above many of the other youth-marketed movies during the decade because of its stellar acting.
The finale of the film is perhaps my favourite. Because everything devolves so quickly, then a real horrorshow takes place. Like a fever dream filled to the brim by witchcraft and jealousy and youthful rage.
With a nice finish, and plenty of eeriness along the way, The Craft is most definitely, in my books, a 4-star flick. It has dark fantasy, moody teen issues, heavy themes, a knockout cast, and ends with an unsettling ride. In a decade that has many underappreciated works of horror cinema, the 1990s provided us with one of the better movies on witchcraft out there. Too many will try and discredit the film, saying it’s a ‘safe’ teen horror. There’s nothing safe about this one, though. Tackling everything from suicide to race to rape to teen angst, The Craft stands its ground as a contemporary piece of horror with a razor sharp set of teeth.
Peau Blanche a.k.a White Skin. 2004. Directed by Daniel Roby. Screenplay by Daniel Roby; based on the novel by Joël Champetier.
Starring Marc Paquet, Marianne Farley, Frédéric Pierre, Jessica Harris, Julie LeBreton, Lise Roy, Joujou Turenne, Raymond Cloutier, Marcel Sabourin, and Jude-Antoine Jarda.
Rated 14A. 89 minutes.
I’ve been a longtime user of the Internet Movie Database, though not a fan of the message boards; mostly I dig trying to level out the ratings even in the slightest sense as one man, as well as doing shorter reviews for a few choice films here and there. As someone who’s seen 4,100 films and counting, I find it hard to just ask people “Hey can you suggest a movie for me?” because honestly – not trying to be grand here like a know-it-all, not trying to impress – but after that many movies it is damn near impossible for most people I know, who aren’t film buffs, to come up with something I’ve not seen. So, I end up turning to a lot of lists; other than a good friend of mine, a filmmaker by the name of Ben Noah, not many people in my circle(s) of friends are actually huge into movie watching.
Many lists, horror and otherwise darkly toned, end up suggesting La peau blanche (English title – which I’ll use from here on out: White Skin). The cover art alone always stuck with me, very literal with the white skin yet intriguing nonetheless. The guy on the front is white but a little less so, his eyes extremely blue. All contrast against the woman, her gingery near blonde hair flowing, then her face and neck almost disappearing into one as a wave of white skin, reddish lips around the middle. I’m often reeled in by interesting artwork for movies, some times this doesn’t work at all. But there’s something about a cool looking poster that can get me interested immediately. Not only that, when I hear words like cannibalism, vampire, succubus – these sorts of things – I tend to perk up even more. Add to all this the fact White Skin is a Canadian film, you’ve got yourself an interesting bit of work.
Thierry (Marc Paquet) and Henri (Frédéric Pierre) end up in a hotel with a couple hookers one night. During their encounter, one of the women attacks Henri, leaving his neck bloody and wounded. While Henri’s family is out for justice, neither he nor Thierry obviously wants to pursue things any further due to the fact of what they’d actually been up to.
A little while later, Thierry ends up seeing a woman in the subway playing the flute. Strangely enough he finds himself attracted to her, even though he earlier admitted to one of the prostitutes that redheads make him sick, all due to their incredibly white skin; he says seeing the veins under the skin turns him off. Yet somehow this woman, Claire Lefrançois (Marianne Farley), turns out to lure him. One night he sneaks in to watch her play piano at a recital. Further and further he’s drawn to Claire, until they start to see one another regularly. Despite the fact she insists they ought not see each other any longer. Thierry falls harder by the minute, almost to the point of physical deterioration. Mentally he begins to slip, from school to everyday life. He discovers Claire has cancer. Of course he stays right by her side.
But once there are even wilder, more dramatic revelations, Thierry discovers an entirely different world existing right below the one he used to know.
“We could discuss what’s eating you”
The U.S. title for this movie is awfully on-the-nose. Too much. Part of the enjoyment here is the slow build. You know there’s something not quite right. Very clearly once Claire starts telling Thierry he should forget her, it’s apparent. But getting there, the journey is what’s important. Cheesy, and true. Not only is there an excellent plot development happening over the course of the film, the weird love story itself is pretty good. I’ve seen complaints in reviews online that this was an area where the screenplay lacked. Now I’ve never read the original novel this is based on, so perhaps that’s got something to do with it in comparison. However, I find the movie has a few amazing scenes where the love story comes out. You might say the entire thing is a love story. It’s more of a mystery, filled with drama and horror. Definitely a dark fantasy sort of feel at times, like a modern day fairy tale. So to each their own. White Skin definitely has an interesting story at its core, as well as it surprised me at times when I had no idea where things were headed.
Even more than all that, the relationships are solid. Particularly I loved Thierry and his friend Henri. They have such a complex dynamic, not usual in a lot of films; something Canadian movies are always doing, the unusual in such a perfect way. There are numerous tense moments between Thierry and Henri, though, they feel like actual friends, as opposed to two characters written into a forced relationship. There are both sides of the coin – good times, bad times. So I think in a short time this friendship comes across well, the actors and the screenplay together make for proper character development between the two.
When all the horror aspects come flooding out, the movie gets fairly tense. Consistently I was never sure what might happen next. And man – did the ending ever catch me by surprise! It’s an odd finish to the film, yet at the same time it was fitting. Completely. It’s as if everything tangles into a big mix near the middle, then the last 15-20 minutes becomes pretty wild in moments, as well as some blood/gore sneaks in. All in all, I found the good relationships + the entire screenplay built up excellent tension. Afterwards, all the mysterious horror which breaks through only serves to be the cherry on top, so to speak. In the end, that big jumble of themes and character/plot development unravels into a nice finale.
I’m giving this a 4 out of 5 star rating. White Skin is a film all Canadians should see, simply to support homegrown cinema. Furthermore, it does a great job with all the elements from drama to mystery to horror. The movie is low budget compared to Hollywood, clocking in with one million dollars. At the same time, I don’t feel there are many instances where the budget shows in a bad sense. Most of the film is shot wonderfully, the actors are pretty much all competent at the very least, so anyone who says this is “too low budget” is only being foolish. Check this one out if you’re into semi-cannibalistic/vampiric stories, dark fantasy, or even if you just love a nice little mystery. Give it a chance. I was very happy with the DVD purchase – rare film, so I found it on eBay. Soon I’ll do a good DVD review, as there are a few quality special features included.
Pan’s Labyrinth. 2006. Directed & Written by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea, and Roger Casamajor. Estudios Picasso/Tequila Gang/Esperanto Filmoj/Sententia Entertainment/Telecinco/OMM. Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Guillermo del Toro has one of the most consistently fascinating minds in film today. Ever since I saw his feature film debut Cronos – a unique take on vampire mythology – I knew he’d go on to do a lot more great work. Even the 1997 Mimic was fun, though marred by studio interference and the fact del Toro’s father was kidnapped during that time. He went on to do another fascinatingly original type of ghost story with The Devil’s Backbone in 2001, which really came back to his exciting from the first feature. Afterwards, he added a good entry to the Blade franchise with its second installment and then did a funny, engaging adaptation of the Hellboy comic in 2004.
Pan’s Labyrinth is most certainly one of del Toro’s best works to date. It is highly original, while at the same time having its roots in old folklore, fairy tales and fantastical stories such as Alice in Wonderland. Even further, there is a darkness which is present in other fantasy storytelling but becomes pronounced through del Toro as a writer and as director. Perhaps the best part of this film is how he so elegantly weaves dark fantasy through the real life drama at the heart of the story, creating a perfect hybrid between the main character’s reality and her dreamworld.
During 1944, the post-Spanish Civil War phase has begun. Although there are rebel troops still fighting in the mountainside against the Falangist army troops. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) orders his wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) brought to live in a country mill within the forest. At first, Ofelia finds it hard to deal with her new life as the daughter of Vidal, whose fascist tendencies do not stop at his soldiers; rather his family is just as much a part of his rule as anything or anyone else.
Once a strange faun draws Ofelia into the labyrinth in the courtyard of the mill, she discovers a whole other magical world existing right under the surface of reality. When the faun tells Ofelia she is actually Princess Moanna, she is given several tasks to complete before the next full moon, which leads her into the other world adjacent to our own. However, it may not be enough for her to escape the hardships of the tragic reality in which she finds herself living with Vidal.
It’s no wonder Pan’s Labyrinth won Academy Awards – three of them. There is such an incredibly craftsmanship about the entire film. Certainly when you look at all the individual aspects, it’s hard to imagine anybody hating this film; sure, you can not be totally into it, but I’ll be damned to hell if you can’t admire this movie for all its efforts.
First, there’s the impeccable cinematography of Guillermo Navarro. Anyone who has read my blog before knows I’m a fan of Navarro. I knew him from his work with del Toro first and foremost. Though, when he directed a couple episodes of NBC’s Hannibal I was truly impressed – those episodes were titled “Coquilles“, “Trou Normand“, and “Rôti“. He captures the light and the dark in equal measures, the latter coming out beautifully in terms of shadow particularly. I think, above all, he and del Toro have very similar sensibilities, which helps in this case because though the story is awesome what I love most is the film’s look. What I imagine is that del Toro and Navarro, as director and cinematographer respectively, came together to find the visual presence of the film; effectively forming a dual director of photography. While del Toro no doubt had an entire aesthetic in mind, I can tell Navarro’s touch lands heavily on Pan’s Labyrinth because of watching his own directing on Hannibal, as well as in the two episodes of Narcos he helmed.
Almost better than the cinematography itself is the film’s intensely detailed art direction. From the look of the old mill, to the forest locations and the darkly fantastical settings inside the labyrinth with the Pale Man and Pan, there are too many different places where the art direction is on the level of a masterpiece. There’s such an effortless feel to the way del Toro and his team take us back to the mid-1940s in Spain. All the while, you know this movie took a ton of work to complete, it’s actually mind boggling at times when I think of it. Every location you see in Pan’s Labyrinth looks like it’s been pulled straight from a picture.
To make it all the more magical, the makeup in this film is just downright jaw dropping. The pinnacle, of course, has to be Vidal’s knife wound through the cheek. Absolutely raw and looks so natural! Its look is something out of a horror film and I found the makeup had a super visceral effect. I’m not normally a cringing sort – I watch a ridiculous amount of horror – however, the part when Vidal patches himself up, sewing the wound, then drinks a shot of liquor: it got me. But in the right sort of way. This part is only one amazing instance of excellent makeup work. Pan and the other creatures have such an innovative design about them, it’s some of the better makeup effects in fantasy over the past 20 years. Hands down. Without all these elements together, the fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth wouldn’t juxtapose well enough with the reality-based drama in its script. The look – in cinematography, design and direction – is perfectly dark and simultaneously vibrant. Add to that the painstakingly created makeup/effects and del Toro’s genius comes alive – although he wrote the script and obviously came up with a massive amount of stuff to throw into its story, as evidenced by the plentiful notes and sketches he creates over the course of every production, such a vision does require an entire team able/willing to go the extra mile to make this what it was meant to be.
There’s no argument on my part, Guillermo del Toro has several masterpieces under his belt and Pan’s Labyrinth is no exception: a 5 star film, from start to finish. The screenplay itself is enough to warrant a full rating. With all the different and various elements of this film coming together, working in favour of one another, del Toro’s dark fairy tale is something you might imagine coming out of the great literature from history. Honestly, I truly believe if del Toro had written this as a novel it would’ve been just as well received and perhaps could’ve gone on to rank among some of the big works of fantasy in the literary world. That being said I’m glad he chose to make this as a film. The visual qualities added to the masterful storytelling of del Toro made this into one of the great fantasy epics that will ever be in cinematic history. If I’m alive 50 years from now I’ll still be raving, and hopefully my eyesight will have lasted me until then; hell, even if I’m blind I’ll still ask someone to throw this on so I can listen to its beautiful music, all the sweet sounding Spanish words and the overall magical sound design. If you’ve not seen this one, please, do yourself a huge favour and take this in soon. It’s a pleasure of a movie even with its bits of creepiness and tragedy.
* As of writing, this title is available on Canadian Netflix.*