Something In The Dirt

The cult of Benson and Moorhead deepens with their latest feature which manages to explore fascinating phenomena through a rather more intimate, restricted setting.

Synopsis: When neighbors John and Levi witness supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, they realize documenting the paranormal could inject some fame and fortune into their wasted lives. An ever-deeper, darker rabbit hole, their friendship frays as they uncover the dangers of the phenomena, the city and each other.

Across their previous work, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have established a knack for bringing engaging characters to the screen, foregrounding those relationships as an anchor for their explorations of sci-fi concepts. Something In The Dirt continues that preoccupation with intense male friendships while also adding a detailed, sinister, and, at times, playful, exploration of conspiracy thinking.

A meeting between divorcé John (Aaron Moorhead) and drifting barman Levi (Justin Benson) soon transforms into a folie à deux relationship of mutual manipulation and a desperate search for meaning after the discovery of strange phenomena in Levi’s new apartment. Moorhead and Benson are no strangers to acting opposite one another, allowing them to centre that chemistry, bringing a likeability to both characters even when playing with evolving audience perceptions of them. While films like Resolution, The Endless and Synchronic all focus on long-term relationships and the baggage that comes with them, Something In The Dirt finds tension in the new, unpredictable partnership they find themselves in.

The production design is excellent, bringing to life the apartment where the pair spend the bulk of their time. Much is made of the escalating heat within the space, with the walls seeming to sweat and buckle under it. There is an initial simplicity to the phenomena that aids the development too – too much too soon and the believability of the scenario is lost so the initial visual hook proves essential for providing that first spark. This attention to detail delivers further when the pair venture outside in search of further clues with symbols, shapes, and even references to their previous work (most specifically The Endless) appearing. The entire design places the viewer in the same space as Levi and John, challenging them to find the same clues (or even different ones) to the two men. Despite being a pandemic project, there is very little mention of those circumstances, with Levi and John isolated not by any outside restrictions but by their own directions in life. Both are defined, to some degree, by their loss of connection to those around them.

Los Angeles also plays a crucial role in the film in terms of how it can be demonised or romanticised as ‘LA Magic’. Levi’s video of a coyote wandering near the apartment operates as a moment of quiet beauty and danger simultaneously. Recent conspiracy thriller The Scary of Sixty-First used New York to the same effect, making the city an integral part of the mood and tone of the film in their contrasts between festive advertising and buildings adorned with gargoyles. The relative anonymity of a big city makes the connection between two people who appear to share the same vision a rather more seductive one and that sense of being lost to the conspiracy as an escape from an otherwise disappointing reality is one that is impossible to ignore. However you choose to interpret the film’s reality of ‘what actually happened’ that thread remains. From the outset, the seemingly constant noisy hum, heat and movement of LA is foregrounded with wildfires, earthquakes and low-flying planes all a quietly accepted part of life.

In terms of the references to their other work, it feels important to note that previous knowledge is not essential and elements like a photograph, film poster, or beer advertisement will strike a chord with fans without disrupting the experience for unfamiliar viewers. More rewarding for fans of their previous work is that this feels like a culmination of the pair’s aesthetic and thematic interests. The addition of ‘meta’ elements like the documentary footage wraparound, clips of their own home movies and dramatically elevated reconstructions make Something In The Dirt a film constantly on the move and constantly challenging the viewer to keep up with the thought processes of the central duo. The performances are excellent, with Benson’s rather more sensitive portrayal of Levi pitched against Moorhead’s more intense John to frequently disquieting effect. The talking heads in the documentary portions are convincing too, perfectly adopting the accepted tone of the documentary being pulled together.

Matryoshka dolls that feature as part of a wind chime outside the apartment appear at distinct moments throughout the film as it explores its layers. This is rarely a linear film, especially with the segues to different formats but it somehow finds cohesion in this scattering. Like John and Levi, the viewer becomes free to start imprinting their own meanings and conclusions onto the film, taking up only the threads that resonate.

An entirely magnetic and absorbing work that invites and rewards repeat viewings, Something In The Dirt is a film content to go at its own pace and truly indulges in the strangeness and human nature it wishes to explore.

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars

Lightbulb Film Distribution release Something in the Dirt in select cinemas on November 4th. Find the list of cinemas here.

North Bend Film Fest 2022: Swallowed

A tense, harrowing and deeply character-driven study that plays out like a nightmare.

Synopsis: Follows two best friends on their final night together, with a nightmare of drugs, bugs, and horrific intimacy.

Friends Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) are enjoying one last night together before Benjamin leaves to start his porn career in Los Angeles. In an attempt to secure some last-minute funding Dom agrees to a one-off drug deal that he hopes will set Benjamin on the right course in his new life. However, when the terms of the deal are revealed it soon transpires that the pair are at far more risk than they ever imagined.

Despite the tension that Swallowed maintains throughout, whether that comes from the ticking clock of the drug cargo or the behaviour of characters, it still retains a deeply emotional thread, never allowing you to separate the characters from their situation. The narrative calls for graphic content at times, but this doesn’t feel gratuitous, even without shying away from intimate details. What is shown is arguably not as powerful as the descriptions given in dialogue, delivering on details and effects that would be almost impossible to show, yet add so much to the horror.

This is an openly queer story, with the central relationship evolving throughout the film in a way that feels organic and earned. Both Koch and Colon have an immense charm that carries those interactions smoothly, anchoring their care for one another. An encounter in a public bathroom in which a slur is levelled at them prompts one of the film’s most open reckonings with their experiences. Benjamin’s idealised view of a totally accepting LA in which he is free from prejudice is ruptured by Dom’s reply that “guys like that live everywhere”. That Benjamin’s escape may not be the escape he is seeking is understandably placed under the microscope by his ordeal and it is through the course of the film that his ability to face up to ugly realities is repeatedly challenged.

With the leads producing two excellent performances it would be easy for the supporting cast to be overshadowed. However, Jena Malone is pitch perfect as Alice with her ability to switch between hyper-focused and intense while also allowing slips of humanity. Mark Patton bursts into the film as Rich, leaving a mark almost instantly. The extremes of his performance are genuinely difficult to watch at times, with rage seemingly constantly at risk of boiling over. The ebb and flow of intensity never gives way entirely, leaving the whole film with a deep sense of unease that holds the viewer in its grip.

Outside of this, that connection to the characters continues to pay off and it is to the film’s credit that it is able to keep the unpleasantness as well as providing distinctly beautiful, affecting moments. As a result, the pacing is near-perfect, never allowing a moment to relax while still providing space for the characters and scenario to take on wider meaning and explore those themes. Writer-director Carter Smith has precise control at all times and that results in the narrative becoming all the more impactful.

Swallowed is a powerful and uneasy film with an incredible energy that does not let up throughout the run time.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Swallowed played as part of the North Bend Film Fest 2022.

Quiet Hours

A spirited short that pays homage to teen Summer slashers with energy and heart.

Synopsis: A group of friends just want to have a fun night, but someone knows what they did last summer.

The legacy of the 90s/early 2000s teen slasher and numerous franchise opportunities is writ large across the horror genre. It is no surprise then that their ‘whodunnit’ format has continued to inspire new horror filmmakers. Quiet Hours feels indebted to the genre and despite limited means manages to effectively evoke many of the elements that appeal to those fans.

Named for the ‘quiet hours’ of a holiday rental that the friends attend, the film focuses on a dangerous secret between a small friendship group after a night of fun turns into something far more sinister.

From the film’s opening inciting incident that debt to that era of slasher is evident, mixing the kind of upbeat, peppy soundtrack with location-establishing drone shots as the friends return to the house. Given the budgetary constraints, the film does an excellent job at investing in the unique, confined situation, skilfully utilising montage sequences to add a sense of scale and passage of time within the sub-30 minute run time.

The length of the work does hinder some elements, mainly around the development of characters. The need for more of a connection to and understanding of them would likely add more emotional weight to proceedings. The need to capture the history and connection of characters does end up requiring a considerable amount of exposition that does slow the pace. Still, it manages to hit many appropriate dramatic notes and well-tuned horror moments to hint at a lot of promise.

Managing specific references that will land with and entertain fans of the genre while also representing its own brand of queer-lensed, DIY aesthetic horror, Quiet Hours will be making festival appearances from August 2022. The first screenings have been announced:

8/21 – 1 pm @ The Guild Cinema – Albuquerque, NM

8/26-27 – 6 & 8 pm @ Cinemaestudios – El Paso, TX

8/28 – 5 pm @ The Fountain Theatre – Mesilla, NM

Sideworld: Haunted Forests of England

This horror documentary succeeds with a carefully considered selection and handling of the material.

Synopsis: Director George Popov presents a journey through three of England’s most haunted forests, exploring a trove of frightening tales, myths and folklore.

A good documentary should, in theory, teach you something new, or at least introduce you to characters or events that are worth knowing about and offer one view of them. Many documentaries (and I would argue some narrative fiction too) struggle with either having too little material or so much that it becomes impossible to cover it in any meaningful way. Sideworld happily swerves both of these issues, choosing three locations and keeping the amount of content manageable.

As you would hope from a documentary exploring these often liminal spaces of dark forests the photography is excellent and really situates the viewer within the locations. This adds considerably to the atmosphere of the entire film, as well as becoming evocative of its wider themes. Director George Popov’s narration is stabilising and consistent, befitting a spooky, fireside telling of ghost stories without tipping over into caricature or being insincere. This has the effect of enhancing the stories being told, often accompanied by illustrations. The sound design is inspired, taking initial cues from the setting and seamlessly blending it into the music in early sections.

While I would certainly consider myself a sceptic, this is still compelling work with well-researched stories surfacing with punchlines in place. The eyewitness testimony (presented via voiceover by actors) does slightly less for me, but nonetheless adds further texture to the film. What is perhaps more interesting from my perspective are the ponderings about what continues to prompt the feelings of unease in these areas, touching on reported tragedies. The idea of these areas becoming self-fulfilling prophecies offers something more to those who are not as interested in hauntings as much as the reality of the spaces.

In taking on Dartmoor, Cannock Chase and Epping Forest, the film is able to explore the similarities and differences between the kind of hauntings that they inspire. Adding to the film’s overall concept that these spaces have stories that are based on folklore, cautionary tales specific to the area as well as the more concrete realities of the area, each section offers something different while the overall style of the documentary retains cohesion. The use of voiceover, illustration and long shots of forests makes this feel economical, not needing to engage in anything more elaborate due to the strength of the content.

Importantly, the film comes in at around 70 minutes, offering more than adequate space for the stories to come to life while also acknowledging that any longer would likely be a test of the format. That sense of restraint and self-awareness is a real strength of the film.

A gripping documentary that is a must-see for those interested in the kind of ‘haunted geography’ of English forests and one that certainly has something to offer non-believers too.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Sideworld is now available to rent or buy on Prime Video

Grimmfest Easter 2022: The Cellar

A strong, spooky idea that can’t quite make the leap to feature-length.

Synopsis: Keira Woods’ daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house. She soon discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.

Writer-director Brendan Muldowney returns to the idea behind his excellent short film The Ten Steps to expand the story, to limited success. Viewers of the original (and brilliantly executed) short will be familiar with the concept – some busy parents head out to a work dinner, leaving their children at home. When the lights go out their teenage daughter has to go into the cellar to fix the issue, guided over the phone to walk the ten steps. The short packs a powerfully creepy punch, so a continuation of that idea may make sense, although the feature-length production highlights that the short’s power lies in both its brevity and lack of explanation.

Focused around the Woods family, The Cellar‘s opening moments play out in much the same way as the short, with sullen teenager Ellie (Abby Fitz) at odds with her parents, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) as well as younger brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) as they move into their new, suspiciously cheap house. On the first night of the move, Brian and Keira are at a meeting, leaving Ellie to look after Steven. Creepy goings-on in the house ensue and soon Ellie is having to make the scary trip into the cellar, resulting in a disappearance that Keira has to take exceptional measures to resolve.

While Muldowney very clearly has a great sense of what makes something scary and a good grasp on how to bring that to the screen this cannot overcome the fact that this is an 80 minute film built around an idea that makes for a very strong short film punchline. Outside of that punchline, the film is forced into recreating the usual ‘haunted house’ tropes. Internet symbolism research and expositional historians make appearances almost like clockwork. The addition of a mathematically-focused expert does add something not seen as often, but the delivery is just as undynamic and stalls momentum. The Woods parents’ social media company meeting is full of vague references to previous campaigns and ‘going viral’ but fails to establish sufficiently high stakes for them leaving the children alone in a new, unknown house.

The use of light and shadow is very impressive, providing some standout moments of tension and horror. Even as the film often lurches into scenes you have seen previously, they are, undoubtedly well-realised. However, as the film needs to expand further toward its conclusion there is some straining at the seams as the images can’t quite live up to the film’s ambitions, resulting in the mood and atmosphere from all those well-earned scares sadly escaping at the conclusion. This leads to the film ending on a whimper, rather than the bang of the original short.

Elisha Cuthbert’s performance provides the main focus here, solidly selling the concept of a worried, yet determined mother trying to come to terms with her loss and the desire to keep searching into an entirely unknown world. The film affords a few starring segments for Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady’s Steven, under threat from the house perhaps more than anyone. Eoin Macken is just as solid, although he appears more sparingly, allowing Cuthbert to take centre stage as the driving force. This does lead to the family feeling rather more fractured as the film moves on, fitting, given the strain placed upon them.

Some pleasing horror moments and the undeniable shudder that the film’s borrowed set piece brings can’t quite elevate this to the heights of the short it is based on.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Cellar plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 4pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets. The Cellar will also begin streaming on Shudder from April 15th.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Kratt

This review of Kratt is a guest post from Keri of Warped Perspective. You can check out more of her excellent work by visiting the Warped Perspective webpage.

A gentle kind of mayhem reigns in Kratt (2020), a film blending traditional Estonian folklore with a generation gap comedy. Its brand of humour varies from oblique to very direct and, shall we say, universal, but you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. It would be a lie to say all of this makes complete sense, but in any case, it is charming more often than it’s not.

After a brief piece of historical contextualisation – we see way back in 1895 a disgruntled Count, his ruined manor house and an impish figure demanding ‘work’ – we’re brought back up to date, meeting our key characters. Two screen-obsessed kids, Mia (Nora Merivoo) and younger brother Kevin (Harri Merivoo) are being left out in the sticks with Grandma (Mari Lill) whilst their parents head off on a retreat; their phones are being confiscated, too. The expected protestations take place and both children struggle with the new rules, but they take more of an interest in Grandma when she tells them a certain bedtime story.

She describes how to build a ‘kratt’ – a creature assembled out of whatever household parts you can muster, which will obey its makers in return for a few drops of blood and a soul. This story links the family back to the historical mayhem we’ve already seen; when Mia and Kevin hear about the mystery of a grimoire which contains the specific instructions for how to make this mythical creature, they know they have something to do which is more interesting than content creation (although they do wish they could use Google Translate to help). It’s hopefully not a spoiler to discuss the fact that yes, they find the grimoire, and no, things don’t go quite to plan.

Meanwhile, there’s a concurrent plot line which takes in local politics, environmental concerns and conservation issues: people in the local area have been mobilising to try and protect a supposedly sacred grove of trees which has been selected for timber. The logger, whose livelihood depends on getting this job done, complains to the local governor, who espies an opportunity to shore up his own career by getting involved with the whole situation. His involvement does, by the by, bring him into contact with the kratt, leading to some of the film’s most overtly funny scenes.

For the most part however, Kratt is a fairly gentle family comedy, very eccentric and not a little meandering. It could probably stand to lose ten or fifteen minutes of runtime, and in some respects, it gets a little muddled – though this could be as a result of being a total outsider to the folklore. In some respects, Kratt has similarities to a lot of the coming-of-age, Stand By Me -style films, with kids working together, getting up to mischief and into peril, but Kratt is far more whimsical than the best-known of these overall. The kind of humour (and the addition of some gory scenes) creates quite a jarring change come the last half an hour or so, too, which may feel like too much of a lurch for some.

The real star of this film, and the character who really holds things together, is Grandma, as played by Mari Lilli. Not only does she capture the exasperation of the older generation when faced with children versed in social media and not a lot else, but her horror-comic turn later in the film is very funny and very memorable; the fact that she plays it completely straight is all to the better. On the other side of the coin, the governor’s shift from cool, calm and collected to a total shambles is bittersweet, giving the film some of its most obvious, or at least universal jokes.

Kratt is ambitious, perhaps a little too much so, and as such its run time is crammed with lots of different plot elements to keep track of, but as a strange, offbeat occult horror comedy, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. You certainly won’t see anything quite like it, and if it’s any indicator of the Estonian sense of humour then it’s fascinating on those terms alone.

Kratt screens as part of Fantasia Festival. The film is available on demand. Ticket information is available on the webpage.

Son

A finely tuned atmosphere struggles to overcome thin characterisation and subdued pacing.

Synopsis: When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past.

Laura (Andi Matichak) and her son David (Luke David Blumm) appear to have an idyllic relationship with both parties doting on one another in a happy domestic setting. However, one night Laura opens David’s door to find his bed surrounded by a crowd of sinister people. This understandably fractures their comfortable lives and Laura’s paranoia about the group and a mysterious condition that David has developed only furthers this. As doctors find themselves at a loss and tell her to prepare for the worst, Laura is forced to take drastic action.

The pacing of this is perhaps best described as unrushed. While films that allow their scenes breathing space often feel more rewarding, some scenes here show their hand too early and this diffuses much of the tension. One notable scene, featuring a static camera is probably one of the few that utilises this slower burn ethos to really dial up the dread effectively. The slower pace and tendency to punctuate this with very short bursts of action leave the film feeling uneven and there is the sense that there is a shorter, more impactful film within it. Those lurches in action are accompanied by impressive effects and stylistic choices that inject energy into proceedings. The moments that work in Son *really* work, which makes the parts that don’t feel more frustrating.

Compounding these issues are the fact that the film really only concerns itself with the relationship between Laura and David, reducing almost everyone else to thinly written, near-bit parts intended to fulfil a functional role as opposed to any flair or complexity. Emile Hirsch features sparingly as Paul, a detective who is clearly far too linked to Laura from the outset but this conflict is not given very much time or energy by other characters or the plotting. The pursuit of Laura feels directionless at times and while the film undoubtedly finds creepy details wherever it can the time spent away from the central mother and son feels clumsy in its exposition. Scenes that should feel like disruptive, rug-pull moments come over far more flatly due to this lack of connection.

Those who have taken even a surface look at the Satanic Panic will find many threads to pull here, but perhaps the most potent is the book Michelle Remembers. Memories (especially those impacted by trauma) are a particularly vital part of Son, from David’s inability to remember the people in his room to Laura’s muddled past. The narrative is at its strongest when indulging in these introspective elements and the idea that reality can be painful to confront. A highlight in this sense is Blaine Maye who appears as Jimmy in a short but impactful sequence as a tragic figure from Laura’s past.

Writer and director Ivan Kavanagh brings the scare factor that fans of his earlier work The Canal will undoubtedly recognise and connect with, but a lack of fully fleshed supporting characters leaves this one feeling rather more shallow.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Son is now available on Shudder US, CA, UK and ANZ.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

While not strictly part of the franchise, Spiral faces the same challenges and reaps the same rewards as the films that set the stage for it.

Synopsis: Working in the shadow of his father, an esteemed police veteran (Samuel L. Jackson), brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. Unwittingly entrapped in a deepening mystery, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game.

It is only fair that I start this review with full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of the Saw franchise. The first film left me cold enough that I never really felt the need to pursue the others. However, recent Twitter threads about some of the more unusual stylistic flair employed in later instalments (particularly IV) prompted me to visit some of the entries so I do have some context for how the series works. Director of Saw IV, Darren Lynn Bousman returns to helm Spiral, along with Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger. The blend of familiarity and divergence from it makes Spiral a curiosity that I believe time may be kinder to than some immediate reviews.

Chris Rock (a long-time Saw fan also credited as executive producer and story writer on the project) plays Detective Zeke Banks. We soon learn that Zeke is in conflict with his department due to his lack of tolerance for suspected corruption. Perhaps contrary to this, Zeke also fulfils numerous ‘maverick cop’ tropes that allow Rock to inject some comic lines and zest into his performance rather than playing things too straight. As no one else is keen to work with him, promising rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella) is assigned to investigate a series of events that could be linked to the infamous Jigaw murders. Rock makes for a compelling leading man, obviously ably handling the quick-fire dialogue that punctuates his relationship with his father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson – also on decent form here), but also manages the weightier dramatic pieces. Minghella’s performance as Schenk is credible, given that the ‘excellent rookie’ and ‘grizzled veteran’ pairing presents restrictions. Their chemistry works to sustain interest in this uneasy partnership, where it could easily otherwise be lost.

Much of the problem with Saw, in my experience, was the focus on pulling the rug from under the viewer and how difficult that is to balance – don’t seed enough through the plot and you can be accused of introducing too much new information late on, but seed too much and you risk giving the game away too early and becoming too predictable. The plot developments here rely heavily (much like the rest of the series) on a willing suspension of disbelief, but that the film operates as almost two distinct films within one may alienate audiences. If you’re on board with the film for its procedural elements, police tensions and patriarchal relationship drama then some of the sillier elements here might not be for you. As an aside, there was a moment within this that I have a feeling I was not meant to laugh at, but that struck me as such a ludicrous detail I couldn’t help it. That is not intended as criticism, as it did not detract from my enjoyment of it in any case. Similarly, if you are looking for a hyper focus on traps and gore, you might not find what you need here as the film is content to introduce an unpleasant set piece and then abruptly cut away to return later. Your mileage may vary on whether this functions as successful teasing or ultimately frustrating – I’m in the first camp, especially as when it needs to indulge in gore, it commits.

As already mentioned, the editing here can be disruptive and lends the film a very different rhythm to that of the other franchise entries. Moody shots of the cityscape set the tone, but this being Bousman, there are numerous opportunities for flair that soon make an appearance. Dramatic close ups, complete with vigorous camera shaking make the dramatic plot points feel internalised. As a series, the films lend themselves to turning outwards and while the close-up undoubtedly plays a vital role in reactions to traps and injury elsewhere, there’s a distinctly different tone to the use of it here. Some may find the pacing and play with chronology a little slow as the plot and relationships develop, but there is no doubt that the film does dial up the volume and provide the outlandish spectacle that rewards that extra patience.

Whether we can expect further entries from The Book of Saw is unclear, although it does present an opportunity for a world in which the spectre of the Jigsaw murders hangs over characters and institutions that could lead to a more diverse set of stories and more experimental takes on what would occur within that world. Spiral offers a strange mid-zone in terms of a film that doesn’t quite sit within its original franchise, but also couldn’t exist without it. An entertaining, if flawed outing.

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars

Spiral is out now in cinemas.

Lake Mungo

The terrifying and heartbreaking sleeper hit gets the loving treatment it deserves in the latest Second Sight release.

Synopsis: Strange things start happening after a girl is found drowned in a lake.

The hype that surrounds a film like Lake Mungo can be a hindrance, as often as it can boost the appeal. The fact that the film has not had a wider distribution for some time (at least in the UK) seems a further threat to its reception, with limited access meaning the film takes on an almost mythical status as an incredible scary example of ‘found footage’ done right. The Second Sight set has been my first exposure to the film and for me, it undoubtedly lives up to the hype and even surpasses it as an utterly compelling presentation of grief, secrecy and spirits.

As this was a first watch for me, I wrote this review before exploring the special features, so as not to be influenced further, although a very quick passage on those extras are included later in this post. While I’d heard a great deal about the scares involved in Lake Mungo, I was underprepared for how deeply moving and melancholic the film is, as well as how much DNA it shares with Twin Peaks (far beyond the surname of the central young girl and small town secrets). The naturalism of the faux-documentary format and the dream-like, wandering camera fall into harmony, one enhancing the other as the story unfolds.

Horror and technology often go hand-in-hand with the genre seeking to exploit the implications and reach of new devices and while today we are able to see fantastic films like Threshold, filmed entirely on iPhones, Lake Mungo is dealing with far less advanced methods, utilised to full, disquieting effect. The filming of a key sequence on a mobile phone feels radical to watch today, with the blurred, pixelated footage used to haunting effect. Director Joel Anderson carefully leads the audience to examine often low-resolution images and footage repeatedly, with a different focus each time, constantly unfolding ever more sad and haunting details. It is a masterclass in slow-burn, lingering horror.

Those seeking an explosive, jump-scare laden shocker should look elsewhere as the deliberate pacing, rug pulls plus meditation on grief, secrets, inevitability and even the nature of time itself take centre stage. The mood of the film is sombre, as it should be for such an intimate look at a family in the grip of grief. The cast are excellent and the authenticity of their performances makes the film all the more impactful. That this was reportedly achieved through improvisation (albeit with detailed guidance and set prompts from Anderson) is so impressive. The performances contribute greatly to the overall potency of the documentary styling, allowing the other material to indulge in the creepier, time-lapse photography that adds so much to the atmosphere and construction of liminal spaces.

The extras make the film even more impressive and while director Anderson is notably absent, enough of the cast and crew, plus a host of appreciative film-making and academic figures are present to make this feel like a celebration of the film, its influences, the filmmaking process and the film’s long journey from underappreciated (especially in Australia) to a must-see ghost story and example of the power horror has in exploring difficult themes. While some extras come with a disclaimer about their quality (an issue entirely understandable given the majority of this has been put together under pandemic conditions), the content easily shines beyond any technical limitations.

A film as deeply sad as it is horrifying, supported by a wealth of thoughtfully curated extra material makes this set a must-have in any modern horror collection.

5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars

Second Sight release Lake Mungo on a Limited Edition Blu-ray on June 7th. Visit Second Sight for pre-order information.

The Queen of Black Magic

This slick reimagining of the 1981 film trades in unpleasant scares and even more unpleasant revelations to create an atmospheric and pleasingly nasty slice of horror.

poster of woman holding skull

Synopsis: Families were terrorized at the orphanage. Someone wants them dead, apparently with black magic that is very deadly. She has a grudge and she was also born because of the sins of the orphans who formed her into the Queen of Black Magic.

The initial premise of The Queen of Black Magic is a relatively simple one: Hanif (Ario Bayu) is returning to the orphanage where he grew up for the sad task of saying a final farewell to Pak Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the man who effectively raised him. Returning with his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) and children Dina (Zara JKT48), Sandi (Ari Irham) and Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), the trip is also an opportunity to reconnect with people from his past. However, the sad reunion is further disrupted by strange happenings.

I did initially have some concerns about the number of characters featured within the film, but thankfully these were unfounded. Yes, there’s a tendency for some to feature only to up the body count or showcase a particular effect, but there’s enough depth elsewhere to overlook that and enjoy those moments for what they are. Indeed, there are a few moments where CGI creepy crawlies are not that convincing but this is supported by either fleeting glimpses or by careful work to ensure that the idea of what is happening is well solidified so you only need to see a small amount to get the full effect.

Further to that point, this is a film that really takes pleasure in putting the devil in the details. Some moments that feel otherwise played out are given a fresh energy by the addition of one or two adjustments that, when highlighted, considerably ramp up the body horror and scare factor. Even non-horror touches like a reference to the number 81 (the year of the original film) mark this as a film both concerned with paying reference to its predecessor while adding new touches.

Despite the focus on smaller, uncomfortable physical details, The Queen of Black Magic isn’t just about the gore – in fact, it is the gradual unpeeling of what is happening and more importantly, why, that leaves the longer lasting impact. Themes of regret, guilt and ignorance find a place within the discussion, but there is a nod towards the social importance of myth-making and providing palatable explanations for unpalatable truths. Evolving gradually through flashbacks, this feels like rich storytelling punctuated with gory set pieces and the early, near-chamber piece feel when the group is first gathered adds a huge amount in terms of tension without ever becoming overwhelmed by character numbers or ideas.

Deep, rich storytelling with an emphasis on myth-making, this is hard-hitting and squirm-inducing film-making that delivers on scares and images that will stick with you.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen of Black Magic hits Shudder on January 28th. You can also watch the Indonesian Horror panel from Nightstream festival here, or read my recap here.