Horror movies were a primarily US form for many years, as the genre was variably considered too juvenile, preposterous, violent, grotesque and/or tasteless in some nations. Government censors blocked their release where such material was considered inappropriate for public consumption; in certain other locations, the public simply wasn’t interested, whether the films in question were imported or homegrown.
Today, however, such cultural differences are largely gone. For myriad reasons, particularly the exported ubiquity of certain franchises online and in home formats, horror has become the most international of genres—as well as the one that (due to its commerciality and usually low budget demands) many young filmmakers choose to start their careers with. So it’s not that unusual that this week brings new entries in the form from not just the US, but Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, and Iranian expats.
A Nightmare Wakes
The fabled circumstances under which Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein have been dramatized many times before, notably in two very different, rival late 1980s treatments, Ken Russell’s Gothic and Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer. This lower-budgeted try lands sort of midway between those two, marrying elements of hallucinogenic horror to costume-drama elegance.
When Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello) visits his fellow poet Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen) in the 1816 Swiss countryside, bringing along future wife Mary Godwin (Alix Wilton Regan), their host challenges the guests to invent frightening stories. The most enduring fruit by far to spring from all these Romantic mindsets is Mary’s tale, which here is depicted as hewing from her ambivalent feelings about pregnancy, motherhood, and a problematic relationship with Shelley.
For no reason beyond providing some genre thrills, this retelling (playing just as loose with the known facts as its predecessors) has her slipping in and out of reality, envisioning various bloody and ghostly sights, of course eventually including a “monster.” Writer-director Nora Unkel’s debut feature (which launches on streaming service Shudder Fri/5) lacks the truly distinctive stylistic or narrative angle to be the definitive take on this much-examined historical episode. It’s a respectable effort nonetheless, albeit one not quite transporting enough to fully pull off a somewhat muddled conceptual agenda.
A different kind of quasi-historical period piece is this Chilean feature by Jorge Olguin. In 1986 Santiago, when the military dictatorship was imposing nightly curfews, youngish police officer Arriagada (Gabriel Canas) gets dispatched to an abandoned mansion to investigate reported disturbances there. Little does he know the century-old house (one inspired by an actual supposedly-haunted location) has long been dogged by rumors of a “curse,” as well as nefarious and/or supernatural activity.
He soon grasps that gist, however, as a naked bloody woman is seen and interior screaming heard even before he enters the place. Inside, he quickly falls down a rabbit’s hole of frights seemingly materializing from the building’s dark past, including glimpses of suicide, homicide, infanticide, attacks by a creature that looks like somebody invited Marilyn Manson to the party, and more. They may “just” be spirits, but they nonetheless waste little time in wounding our protagonist, leaving him fighting for his life. Complicating things further is the suggestion that Arriagada may deserve whatever he gets, as a guilt-addled perpetuator of violence representing an oppressive regime.
One of last year’s more interesting genre films was Jayro Bustamente’s Guatemalan La Llorona, which likewise used a vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave fantasy hook to address grievous Latin American political crimes of the last half-century. La Casa hardly has that film’s comparatively high-end production resources, but nonetheless it suffers by comparison more than necessary.
Though just 72 minutes long, it feels padded and amateurish, a little too much like someone’s DIY Blair Witch using a camera phone to film an actor mugging his terrified progress though a haunted-house attraction. There’s a good core idea here, but the effortful results ultimately trivialize that theme for the sake of rather tedious and (very) cheap thrills. La Casa is available On Demand from Epic Pictures on most popular platforms (see a list here).
Another place where bad things happen to bad people is the hotel where Babak (Shahab Hosseini), Neda (Niousha Jafarian) and their infant daughter wind up spending a most unpleasant night in Kourosh Ahari’s Los Angeles-shot film. They’ve just enjoyed an evening with two other Iranian-expatriate couples. But driving home, they somehow get lost, ending up in a shady ‘hood where they check into elegant but sinister old Hotel Normandie, which has an apparent staff of one (George Maguire).
Comparisons to The Shining are apt as the quarrelsome new arrivals begin seeing things that aren’t really there—including, at times, each other. Once they’re in enough of a panic to flee, they discover this place will not let them go easily. Eventually we glean that both parties in this marital duo have guilty secrets that they may be getting punished for, though why here and why now is anyone’s guess.
The Night is polished and has some visual atmospherics, but its fantasy logic isn’t very well worked out, while its scares are pretty tepid. Despite the novel lure of a US movie primarily in Farsi (with a mostly Iranian-immigrant cast and crew), the plot doesn’t really utilize its characters’ background or cultural outsider status in any pointed way; besides, they are such a discordant couple from the start, we have a hard time fearing for their safety. The film’s few, familiar ideas would have more punch if not stretched out over 105 attenuated minutes. IFC Midnight released it to On Demand platforms last Friday.
Likewise trapped in a place that seems determined to kill him is Ciro (Peter Lanzani), a cocky young car thief in a pink soccer shirt. He breaks into an SUV parked on a quiet Buenos Aires street, ransacks it for valuables, then makes ready to leave in Mariano Cohn’s film. But the car won’t let him—it turns out to have been designed as a trap for exactly his ilk, with titanium-grade steel, shatterproof glass, and no way out even through the floorboards. When he tries to shoot his way out, the bullet ricochets into his leg. The windows are polarized and the whole vehicle soundproofed, so no passerby can detect his plight.
Its owner (Dady Brieva) soon calls to cheerfully inform our antihero that, having suffered 28 prior break-ins, he is mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. Remote control of heat, air conditioning etc. will soon make Ciro’s involuntary stay even more discomfiting. It’s a grim game of payback for all society’s ills, and when his host researches the “guest’s” lengthy criminal record, he’s even more certain he’s found the perfect, deserving target for his accumulated rage.
4×4 is not a horror movie, per se, but it uses thriller elements cleverly, and (like the films above) in service to a political thesis: In this case Argentinians’ sense of their society crumbling to corruption and criminal elements, with no recourse left them but emigration—or vigilantism. His situation does give hard-case Ciro cause for some soul-searching, with Lanzani’s excellent performance giving that evolution some potency.
The film also has intelligently mixed feelings about his tormentor, who may be a fed-up victim but is also something of a vindictive crank. I could have done without the script’s last stretch, when it abandons its claustrophobic concept and moves toward more heavy-handed, moralizing social commentary. Still, of all the people-trapped-in-car movies in recent years (yes, there have been several), this one admirably has the most on its mind. 4×4 is available on Digital and VOD platforms from Red Hound Films as of Feb. 2.
The Funeral Home
Also from Argentina is writer-director Mauro Ivan Ojeda’s debut feature, a determinedly offbeat tale that’s a bit like The Amityville Horror meets Little Miss Sunshine—in that supernatural harassment doesn’t make our protagonists homicidal, just very, very depressed. Irina (Camila Vaccarini) is the disgruntled teenage daughter of pill-popping Estela (Celeste Gerez), who after losing the girl’s ne’er-do-well father to a motorcycle accident married hangdog-faced undertaker Bernardo (Luis Machin).
No wonder they’re unhappy: Not only does their home lay just across an ill-kempt courtyard from the titular business, but its most miserable ghost “clients” seem bent on constantly annoying and/or frightening the living inhabitants. They write nasty messages on frost-covered windows; make naked, rotting bedroom appearances; and even begin interfering with the family’s pets. When these “presences” grow even more malevolent, a medium (Susana Varela) is called in.
The Funeral Home seems to start in the middle of its story—when the characters are already fully beleaguered—which results in a certain tonal monotony. It strikes an intriguingly macabre note without actually being funny, or very scary either, and finally takes itself more seriously than it’s earned. (There’s a parting stab at pathos that would play better if we actually cared about these rather tiresome people, not to mention if the performer who gets a dance-solo spotlight could actually dance.) The sum result is a bit of a misfire. Yet this enterprise has a distinctive enough flavor that you can’t help appreciating its stubborn peculiarity Uncork’d Entertainment’s release hits On Demand platforms Feb. 2.
The Queen of Black Magic
Finally there’s this bananas contraption of yet another haunted-house movie, written by Indonesian horror specialist Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves) and directed by the more action-focused Kimo Stamboel (Headshot). The orphanage master who raised him is now gravely ill, so Hanif (Ario Bayu), wife Nadya (Hanna Al Rashid), and their three children are visiting the rural institution, along with two other ex-foundlings and their own spouses. But this reunion at the rather posh-looking rural charity facility goes south fast, as some evil force seems determined to wreak gruesome vengeance on all concerned.
There is a history of Southeast Asian horror movies with gonzo, whatever-works content, maximizing thespian hysteria and running pellmell through a gamut of icky scares. In Queen, the relevant question isn’t “What happens?” but “What doesn’t?” The film throws every possible idea at the wall to see what sticks, from staple-gun harm to demonic possession to flying ghosts. Creepy crawlies enter people’s mouths and other orifices; there is cause for someone to utter the immortal line, “You’re eating caterpillars Lina! They’re poisonous!!”
Any semblance of internal plot logic gets thrown out the window as the film simply piles one crisis on top of another, undermining its own atmospherics and momentum. Like many a hot mess, however, there’s a certain charm to its madness. Clips under the closing credits suggest it’s an homage to prior local horror flicks, which would explain a lot. Queen is currently on genre streaming platform Shudder.