Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Witches: The Witch

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/07/2016 – Witches: The Witch (2015)
Directed by Robert Eggers

After such a wide topic as comedy-horror, let’s get real specific again with one of the oldest subgenres. Granted, it’s also a genre loaded with uncomfortable subtext since witches have historically been a scapegoat for religious types to kill innocent women. Like exorcism films, films with witches basically seek to justify religious fanaticism and puritanical beliefs. Still, that’s no fun getting bogged down with depressing shit or of all the people murdered and the discrimination against and imprisonment of people who dress differently than you (another reason the 80s were a garbage decade though it’s not like that crap stopped then), so you can have a lighthearted film about a boy flying around on a broom (stay tuned for the 2150 film about how Hitler was actually just trying to combat the spread of evil gypsies during the Holocaust, sorry for going all Godwin).

Let’s keep things focused on the films themselves and well… there isn’t a lot of great witch films. The earliest film of which Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, is both an early documentary and early depiction of recreation of scenes that “happened” (66 years before The Thin Blue Line). For once though, the film is actually pretty respectful of its subject (especially considering when it was made) and actually criticizing witch-hunting as a misguided attack on the mentally ill even if it’s opinion on how to treat them is only slightly better. At some point the reality of Häxan gave way to the comedy of films like I Married a Witch before becoming a stock horror type in the 60’s with City of the Dead/Horror Hotel and Black Sunday (which we will get to later in the month), Night of the Eagle and The Witches (which aren’t very good), Witchfinder General (it’s alright), and to an extent the classic Rosemary’s Baby. The 70’s gave us a couple of classics in The Wicker Manand Suspiria with the former being easily the best portrayal, the paganism at the center forming the basis for an attack on fanaticism as a whole. Since then, at least as far as horror goes however, we’ve gotten a couple of poorly aged films in The Craft (stemming from the fear of goths) and The Blair Witch Project, Willow from the awesome Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the uneven but still very enjoyable horror comedy Witching and Bitching, the mediocre Lords of Salem, and The Conjuring a great if morally repugnant film. While not a horror film, I will give credit to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for it’s fantastic haunted forest scene.

I will admit I went in knowing two things; this movie was equally acclaimed and criticized for its ending. I didn’t need to know the ending to know what was going to happen based on this single bit of information. What I was most surprised about is that the people who were criticizing it for coming out of nowhere are the same idiots who said that about The Sixth Sense. SPOILER From scene bloody one, it’s made obvious witches are real and behind all this which the movie frequently reinforces. It’s very well handled and told but that does bring me to the question of both the relative morality (see my blathering above) and whether it fits the narrative the story is trying to tell which is the reason I am talking about the ending first since it largely shapes the film and how we approach it. END OF SPOILER

The film is all very lovely in that it looks great, with a subtle creepy atmosphere, and subdued action and acting. I loved the scene of parents arguing while it instead focuses on the children’s faces as they overhear the argument in a muffled tone. The film creates quite an effective and subjective feel that gets you into the heads of every character. SPOILER Having a witch who looks awful lot like little red riding hood seducing a child is unsettling on so many levels and even a frightening concept if you consider it in a siren-like context (how about we make sirens a horror mainstay instead?). Even the final scenes manage to make a goat speaking and witches floating naked in the woods haunting and effective. END OF SPOILER Combine that with the basic plot of the accused witches merely being children who seem to be accused out of a lack of modern understanding, the understandable grief (and religious fervor) of a mother, and the unwillingness of a father to admit he is a failure to his wife and we have all the makings for a near perfect horror film and long overdue deconstruction of the genre.

SPOILER It’s just that the film is too schizophrenic with its story, trying to make two mutually exclusive types of films. The film weaves both together well so if you turn your brain off and let it seep in your hardly notice, but this is an art film with a narrative focus so you can’t just turn your brain off. It wants to make big statements on the paranoia that causes all of this even discounting the religious elements which are kept surprisingly muted but it also wants to have a traditional spooky horror story where witches are real and the paranoia is justified, just misdirected. And that shit is dangerous. I know I’m putting a lot on a film expecting a big statement from it, but the film asked for it. I can forgive something like Witching & Bitching for its use of witches (not for its gender politics which are as stupid as the film frequently is) but not a film that tries to condemn the very notion and then exploit it. END OF SPOILER Religion in movies always makes me uncomfortable, but as proven by my love of many vampire and exorcism movies (the latter having their own uncomfortable real life elements that hopefully we will get around to later this month) it doesn’t destroy your movie. It’s when you play them up too much that things start to get extremely questionable morally and far too preachy. I can’t say they blew it with the ending since it was a part of the story from the beginning but the story just reeks of missed opportunity; both of them.

Bonus Episode #TV-1 – Miniseries: Mick Garris (1994)
Directed by Mick Garris

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Just a bit of a housekeeping note before we start. I don’t actually count miniseries in my movie counts so I can’t in good conscious count them (or shorts) in my overall total. The term miniseries I guess can be pretty loose since at what point does a series stop being mini? Do seasons of American Horror Story count since they tell complete stories in 10-13 episode spans? And while there aren’t any I can think of related to horror, does something that is only 2 episodes and no longer that a typical movie count as one? For the most part though it’s a bit of a “I know it when I see it thing” though less than 10 and more than one day airing is my typical seaparation between TV Movie and mini-series.

Horror miniseries’ started to pop up as the miniseries as a whole came into popularity in the late 70’s and early 80’s and to this day are defined by their Stephen King adaptations. I’ll admit to feeling out of my depth when discussing many of these since it’s not easy to catch up on these. They rarely pop up on TV anymore (aside from occasionally on Starz Encore and IFC) and in general they tend to be too long and too much of a pain to rent (since they take multiple discs) every year when these horror marathons come up (especially since I don’t count them). I can speak to hearing good things about The KingdomJekyllThe Fades, and Dead Set but I can’t actually comment on their quality. I can comment of the Rosemary’s Baby adaptation; it sucks. That’s all that needs to be said about that misguided adaptation of the classic movie. There’s a reason though that horror movies are so short and it’s because like comedy, it is hard to maintain over a long period of time and miniseries can really struggle with this.

While it is something I knew going in, researching horror miniseries really drives in just how much the genre is dominated by Stephen King. There’s been 11 miniseries alone that he’s either written or have been adapted from his works. Of the ones I’ve actually seen Salem’s Lot (which I apparently counted two years ago as a film shamefully), It (featuring a great first part and amazing Tim Curry performance), and Storm of the Century are all fine I guess but all feel dragged out. I know King writes doorstoppers but that doesn’t mean they translate great as a viewing experience, especially in the very visibly low budget miniseries format. I’d discuss them as part of a greater look at King’s career (with its great heights and shit weasel filled depths) but they are such a different animal it hardly seems fair. I’d also compare them to the TV film adaptation of Carrie and series adaptation of Under the Dome, but sewage compares favorably to them.

This series, based on 823 page brick and directed by Mick Garris who’s made a career out of making little regarded King adaptations for TV (and Critters 2 and Psycho IV). Five seconds in and it’s very visually apparent that it’s a 90’s released TV film/series. It’s got that awful, ugly look of something shot on tape. I try not to judge but with the exception of early digital filmmaking and silent films that have decayed from age, it may be the least visually pleasant way to shoot a film. It’s aged only slightly better than FMV. There’s just so much here, I don’t know where to start to start even breaking the series down. I guess the best way would to just discuss a few of the 500 characters in it. Arguably our lead is Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan) whose job it is to mostly spout folksy wisdom and handle the films Christian message about as subtly as a sledgehammer to the face. He also gets to portray the romantic lead to Molly Ringwald, a romance that seems to have forgotten everything about buildup and just skips to them being together.

This actually brings me to my next point, in that I like that the series seems to jump forward randomly in time leaving much of the big action offscreen in favor of smaller character moments but in the long run, it left the series feeling like it was missing scenes. Once the thought occurred to me was that it was a serious take on Futurama’s “Time Keeps On Slippin’” I couldn’t stop laughing. The lack of a build undercut a lot of the impact and occasionally scratching my head. I know even at six hours, the miniseries couldn’t fit everything (and having never read the book I don’t know how much or what was cut out), but rarely have I seen a film make it so obvious.

The cast is a cross between an all-star cast and just well a lot of notable names. Ed Harris (and Kathy Bates) shows up early, lends instant gravitas, then dies which is a shame but probably for the best before the film goes off the deep end (well that just spoiled another review early). Rob Lowe and his stupid hair (though to be fair, stupid hair is the only thing more widespread than the plague) plays a deaf mute who at one point teams up with a mentally challenged man as if King is trying to make a more poignant version of See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The film also knew that nothing with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (granted he was a last second replacement) in it can be all bad but I really hate how they Dee is a stereotypical Magical Negro meant to drive the religious message in even more explicitly and obnoxiously.

Parker Lewis (okay Corin Nemec) plays the dorkiest dork who ever dorked. I wanted to throw him off a bridge just seeing him, let alone when he opened his mouth. I get that his character is meant to be the annoying “nice guy” who continues to harass Molly Ringwald even as she makes it clear she has no interest in him, but some subtlety is appreciated. SPOILER He is killed off in the most hilarious way and rather anticlimactically, being launched through the air off his motorcycle (in the one time I wish the series was less subtle, was people making fun of his stupid jacket and attempts to look cool but that would require actual shading to the characters and let Gary Sinise be something other than a messianic figure) and seemingly hanging up there before being twisted cruelly (delightfully!) against some rocks to slowly die. END OF SPOILER That messianic point just reminds me how much I hated that the aforementioned disabled characters are treated as some kind of others who are just too perfect of human beings.

Beyond Harris and Bates, the film also gives a number of cameos and small roles including to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (as a stereotypical harbinger of doom justified by his sendoff) a trio of horror filmmakers in Sam Raimi, John Landis, and Tom Holland (Child’s PlayFright Night), horror host Joe Bob Briggs, writer Chuck Adamson, Kelso from Scrubs (Ken Jenkins), eventual Oscar winner (The Accountant) Ray McKinnon, Sherman Howard (Bub from the underrated Day of the Dead) and Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick from SpongeBobCoach). It’s really nice to see such a varied and horror honoring cast even if they can’t all act. This of course brings me to the question of “why is Stephen King still allowed to have onscreen roles?” let alone the somewhat substantial one here. A cameo fine, not an actual role which requires him to act. How does he even have time for this with all the writing he does (especially since he wasn’t even on cocaine anymore). Matt Frewer (EurekaMax Headroom) also gets to come in and give a wonderfully bonkers performance and I quite like Rick Aviles (Ghost) as a random goon as well).

Onto the bad though. Not just bad guys but just bad in general. Laura San Giacomo (Just Shoot Me) is just terrible. I guess she is supposed to be seductive and a sort of femme fatale but her attempts are hilarious and she offers next to no appeal. Women in general get a poor treatment complete with a sex hungry woman who tries to seduce Rob Lowe and who I’m not entirely sure if she was a parody or not. But why the hell does the villain have a mullet and who’s true form looks terrible? That’s fine if you wanted to get an unknown in Jamey Sheridan as the villain, but he has the most important part and is massively unqualified. The makeup effects on him seem to be “showing off” instead of trying to actually create something visually monstrous. It’s where the TV miniseries budget limitations show since the kind of effects they tried were done far better even a decade+ earlier (such as Raiders of the Lost Arc and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure). I’d forgive the low budget but the design is such a failure, I don’t think a higher budget could have fixed things. I guess I’m just annoyed that the villain is a unrepentantly evil (like just about every villain) counterpart to the perfect good guys SPOILER (did you really have to put them on crosses?) END OF SPOILER and the fact that his defeat is handled in the dumbest way possible. SPOILER The entire fourth part (of four) was a mess with the religious stuff becoming more oppressive, but the typically bad King ending featuring Randall Flagg defeated by a giant ball of energy voiced by our Magical Negro turning him into a crow as he flies away. An event hastened of course by Matt Frewer hilariously driving an “atomic bomb” into Las Vegas, his face clearly suffering from radiation damage. It’s like they ran out of time and just had to close up shop as quick as possible. No climactic battle, no tying up of the threads, just people being understandably uncomfortable around a fücking nuke and this translating into defeating the enemy? END OF SPOILER

If you are still reading at this point, you are probably thinking I hated The Standand yet that’s not the case. It left an awful taste in my mouth, it’s aged poorly, and disappointing parts throughout, but there’s also a lot to like. I really liked the opening sequence set to “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” as the film pans over all the dead bodies and that’s an image the film likes coming back to. The film loves its dream sequences filled with dead bodies and ominous messages which are often creepy (sometimes unintentionally hilarious). The best moments came during quick dream sequence with blood coming out of various dying characters mouth and the hilarious (I think intentionally so) scene when the power starts back up of all the machines starting back up with the stray decaying corpses representing the only humans in the shot. There’s even a quick scene of early found footage during what may be the best part of the plot, the attempts by the military to contain the spread and news of the spread of the virus, a tired premise kept fresh because there’s a very visible feeling of resignation from Ed Harris and others that the war is lost but that they keep fighting anyways. They are the only villains (and they sure are villains considering they are responsible for the plague and commit heinous acts trying to fix it) who gain shading and a motivation beyond “for the evil”.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I liked The Stand. It felt endless but at the same time I like the epic feel. I really hated the soft guitar and synth score which combined with the look of the film, I keep thinking I have accidently turned on the Hallmark Channel yet the film seems to do the best it can with those limitations. The religious stuff was groanworthy as brought down the series in the end but I’m still not sure how much of that is because I was disappointed that what I had in mind from the beginning (a devastating pandemic and the attempts to rebuild) was clearly discarded for the true purpose of the series. I know for sure I would never recommend sitting through all 6 hours but I can’t say I regret the time and it certainly felt like its own thing if still recognizably a work of Stephen King and that’s something to be commended.

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