Witchfinder General; or This Really is What East Anglia is Like

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Hello and Hallo-welcome to another edition of Witchy Wednesdays, where the brews are bubbling and the spells are casting! You join your reviewers, Andy and Lilly, as they argue about which one should be searched for the Devil’s mark first–joking, Andy’s a gentleman, it’s ladies first!

Today’s film offering: Witchfinder General (also known as The Conqueror Worm)

Lilly: What’s a series of witch films without one that mentions Matthew Hopkins? Self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, he went around England during the civil war, taking his show of ‘Witch or No Witch?’ on the road. A slimy individual, he was responsible for the deaths of 300 women in the span of two years, and that’s…terrifying.

Andy: Yeah, he’s one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals in English history, up there with contemporary puritan bastard Oliver Cromwell. And they’re both from my neck of the woods. Lovely!

Lilly: And then they up and cast Vincent Price as him in the film! As if he needed help being creepy!

Witchfinder General is the tale of a young soldier and his lady love who happen to get tangled up in the mess that is Hopkins’ reign of terror across England. It involves all the tried and true methods of finding witches (save the old ‘compare their weight to a duck’ trick), from pricking to see if moles are the Devil’s mark to the whole drown-and-you-are-innocent, float-and-you-get-back-here-and-hang-you-witch trial and terror.

Andy: As for the movie, we slot it into a sub-genre of ‘pastoral horror’, along with critical darling The Wicker Man, and Hallowfest favourite Blood on Satan’s Claw. Seriously, I think it might be our favourite joint movie. The former brings a wonderful, cultish weirdness and the latter brings forth the kind of feelings in us that are usually in bad love songs, what does this one bring to the table?

Well, for starters it is one of the most relentlessly unpleasant and nasty films we’ve reviewed. Somehow managing to get a commercial release in 1968, it features torture, mostly of women, truly despicable villains, and a sinking sense that even the most optimistic ending after a certain point is always going to be pretty bleak. Anyone who saw Vincent Price in his earlier AIP films is in for a hell of a shock.

Lilly: Not to mention those of us who were introduced to Vincent via The Muppet Show!

We actually managed to watch a Director’s Cut of this film, featuring scenes cut out at the time the film was released in cinemas. It had the incredibly troubling and scary introductory text of:

At the time of its original release the BBFC decided that certain scenes should be trimmed to comply with rules on the depiction of violence. In these more enlightened times we have been able to reinstigate these scenes to recreate the original director’s cut.

It goes on to warn us that the quality of the cut scenes would vary from the kept, and so whenever the film went bad, it went bad. But how insane is that second sentence? ‘In these more enlightened times’? What, in these times where we can take seeing a woman with her face beat in, or her back pricked deeply with a needle? What! How is that enlightened! I think the word you’re looking for, weird opening title card, is ‘desensitized’.

Andy: Yeah, this is definitely one that we’re not exactly going to decry, but aren’t going to recommend, either.

Lilly: I mean. Some films you get through, you know? You make it to the end and feel relief. So, saying ‘go, watch, enjoy!’ seems like it would be almost sarcastic. You aren’t going to enjoy this film, per se. It’s nasty.

Andy: Even Hostel wasn’t this needlessly vindictive.

Lilly: No, seriously, see our reviews of Hostel & Hostel 2–they were messy, but not cruel. Especially due to the fact that they weren’t set in actual historical events. This one, however…Well, let it speak for itself. Go, watch, and….well. Try and sleep at night after?

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Blair Witch; Or Getting Lost in the Woods. Again.

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Hello and Hallo-welcome to another edition of Witchy Wednesdays! You join your reviewers, Andy and Lilly, as they check their filming equipment to be sure it won’t cut out at the moment of highest tensio–

Today’s film offering: Blair Witch

Andy: We reviewed The Blair Witch Project for last year’s Hallowfest, and on reflection, I may have been a little harsh on it. Sure, it had lost a lot of its impact away from its marketing campaign, sure, the things that it did seemed unoriginal in the light of the found footage bohnanza it began, and sure, other films eventually did the same thing better, but it was a trailblazer, and for that it deserves some credit.

Blair Witch has no such excuse.

The plot, such as it is, involves a younger brother of one of the original film’s trio marching into the Maryland woods to try and discover the fate of his sister. A friend (girlfriend?) decides filming the whole thing for a class project is a brilliant idea (clearly never saw the original) and another couple who come along because the movie needs more people to vaguely threaten. Filling out the roster are a couple of local hicks – a guy who found some footage that may be relevant out near the woods, but may also be full of shit, and his waifish girlfriend.

Lilly: I know poking holes early on in a film is sort of a waste of time, but how about that age gap on the kid and his sister? She would have been in university, so let’s say 19, and he was 4. Was he a surprise? Was she? What is this. Why do I have so many questions not witch related already? How can his friend remember going out to look for the sister in the woods when she went missing? Is he older? How much older? How were they friends as kids if he was an appropriate age to go out searching? How old should your child be before you take them along to search for a possible corpse? Ten? Get a sitter! Or send your apologies because WHY ARE YOU TAKING YOUR KID TO SEARCH FOR A MISSING TEEN?

Sorry. You were summing up the plot. Continue.

Andy: So off they go on their camping trip, and exactly the same things that happened in the original film happen to them. Which tends towards the predictable, as you can imagine. For a film as startlingly different as the first was, to have the second follow the formula so closely that it essentially retreads it is not a point in its favour.

Lilly: It did sort of have a ‘Greatest Hits’ feeling to it, but then again, maybe the Blair Witch is a tired old hag that only has a few gags. A one trick pony of ghouls, if you will. Twig-people, rock piles, scary tree noises, etc.. That said, there were a few new additions, but in a sort of ‘bonus track’ way you get on some albums, you know, that the artist isn’t sure is all that great so they throw out some odd things like body horror and weird boney apparitions.

Andy: The other major problem of the film is that the found footage genre has evolved since The Blair Witch Project. The conceit that people are actually, physically carrying around cameras and filming stuff on the fly has become a lot more fluid since then – basically ever since most people’s reaction to Cloverfield was less horror and more motion sickness – and to go back to the land of shaky-cam, “is-this-thing-on-God-turn-it-off”, oh-no-something-bad-happened-and-now-there’s-static, is a little jarring to say the least.

I mean, in a more original film maybe this wouldn’t be such a problem, and would even be compelling in a back to basics kind of way, but here it’s nothing if not annoyingly persistent. The same scares come about in the same way with the same audio-visual range. Hmm.

Lilly: I definitely had issues with how many cuts there were. Whoever edited the footage found was clearly easily bored, because the focus kept moving from camera to camera, to the ear cams, to the camcorder, to the stationary cam and back again. If this was the film the film student girl put in for her project, I would hope she would fail it due to a lack of real visual fluidity. It was like watching a youtuber with all the sudden cuts. Why the cuts? Why.

Andy: Ultimately though, my fundamental criticism for this one remains the same as for the original – for all the jumpy scares, for all the creeping dread of whatever the ‘Blair Witch’ is, not enough happens in this film to establish the nature of the threat. Jaws is scary because everyone knows what a shark looks like. We only see it in glimpses, but the alien in Alien is very clearly large, humanoid and dangerous as hell. Here, what exactly are they being threatened by? What are its capabilities? Who knows. The threat is too vague to be truly disturbing, and with 17 years worth of sheen wiped off, maybe a return trip to the woods shouldn’t have been on the cards.

Lilly: I remember very clearly being disappointed by the fact that The Blair Witch Project didn’t actually feature a witch. Well, turns out, it wasn’t the only thing that I could find disappointing about a visit to those woods. This film features much more witching yet I still don’t really know much about the witch, or what the Hell her purpose is. Does she take sacrifices? Doesn’t that imply that someone else is involved, to be sacrificing these poor teens? And what are her capabilities? I mean, if she can only use her power at night, then she isn’t all that scary. And she’s only in those woods, so. Talk about limited. At least the shark from Jaws had an entire ocean to menace about it.

I wanted to give this film a chance, but it didn’t give me a chance to either see it as a sequel or as a reboot of a franchise. If it was a sequel, it had the same things happening in the same order and not in a fun way, but rather a ‘oh, here we go’ kind of way, like hearing your dad tell the same joke for the umpteenth time.  If it was a reboot, it was too much of the same old thing to really separate itself and fly free. It got predictable, and that is never good.

So is it a recommendation from us? Not really. If you liked The Blair Witch Project and want to see the tricks from it updated, then sure, why not, but if you are new to the whole world, well. Why not dig up the old one (it’s not all that old, considering, from 1999) and give it a try first? Go, watch (maybe), enjoy (possibly)!

The Witch; Or This is What We Assume Virginia is Like

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Hello and Hallo-welcome back to another Witchy Wednesday, where we review films featuring witchly behaviour! You join your hosts, Lilly and Andy, who are taking a look at a newish movie set in oldish New England!

Today’s film offering: The Witch

Andy: Is there any religion more terrifying than full-on 17th Century Puritanism? I’m not disparaging anyone’s faith here, but these were people who lived in absolute terror of a wrathful deity and for whom every misfortune was a mark of Divine Disfavour. No bad luck for these people – the universe takes a poop in your stocking, you’ve done Something Wrong. These were the same zealots who cancelled Christmas, and hanged a lot of innocent people in Salem, Massachusetts.

I feel they would not have approved of Hallowfest.

Our plot follows a family with a patriarch who is extreme even by these exacting standards. Fearing that his community is not God-fearing enough, he marches them off into the wilderness to build a homestead away from the corrupting influence of his neighbours – the precise nature of their theological disagreement is not elaborated on (probably for the best) – but his new neighbour may be a far more pernicious influence, especially on his teenage daughter and eldest son.

Here things take a very interesting turn. We are used to seeing the forces of science do battle with the supernatural, and when faith comes to the fore, it is usually an overwhelmingly positive and unquestioned force; the most obvious example is the use of crucifixes against vampires, but the noble priests doing battle for Reagan’s soul in The Exorcist spring to mind. In this though, the faith of the family seems to be, at its very best, a neutral force.

Lilly: And at worst an ineffective effort to ward off something that was already sneaking in there easily, what with the father’s zealotry being so strong the family was booted out of the colony. 

Andy: The trouble is the faith of the family is an incorporeal one – the dangers that affect their immortal souls are of a spiritual nature. The idea that there is a mad witch in the woods aiming to mash their children into a fine paste for … reasons is outside the bounds of their view of the world as ephemeral and transient.

Lilly: Meaning shit gets real, and they don’t know it. Or do they? Or is it? Let’s pray. And when the baseline of the faith set up in this film is too hardcore for the colonists and only shaped in the beliefs of the father, you know it’s not the sort of faith that actually saves you. It’s the kind that gets Dracula laughing at you as he tosses the crucifix to the side, because it only hurts him if you believe.

Andy: There are some very good performances in this, particularly from the two oldest child characters upon whom most of the story depends. In this world of exacting and pure standards, they are wonderfully flawed, and wonderfully human.

Lilly: I have high standards for children in horror films (foolish, I know), however these two met and surpassed my expectations. Harvey Scrimshaw and Anya Taylor-Joy (who is actually twenty, but that’s still a child to me, whatever), kudos to you. They felt more human than any of the other characters, and sorry, that includes the young twins who I just hated from the get go. And hate is a strong word, I know that. I’m not sure if it was meant or not–like was I supposed to dislike them? Did they want that? Mind you, who likes bratty kids? Who, I tell you!

Andy: Anyway, if there is anything this movie absolutely nails, it is atmosphere. There is a sense of omnidirectional dread in its washed out colour palette and doomy score, not to mention the fact it goes to great lengths to disguise in which direction the woods actually are from the house, so they seem like they are everywhere.

Lilly: Absolutely. Even when I wasn’t sure what I was afraid of, I had a sense of ‘oh no’ throughout the film, with certain shots lingering for just the right amount of time to tease something was going to happen, to only then ease off. You are brought to the brink of agonizing tension a few times.

Andy: However, and this is a big caveat, does it actually amount to very much? Well, kinda. It’s strange to think about everything this movie does right, and struggle to see what it does wrong, but still come away with a reaction slightly above ‘meh’. It’s worth watching, and I can definitely see someone else enjoying this more than I did, but for some reason, it doesn’t leap out as one of the best examples from horror from recent years. It lacks … something. Maybe a sense of fun.

Lilly: I can talk myself in circles about this film. I like it because it parallels a teenage girl’s budding sexuality with a real physical threat, making it so her religious family has difficulties pulling apart the two threads. I dislike it because all that tension building seems to fizzle out in the last fifteen minutes, and what should be a dramatic climax just seems dozy. That said, I like that it becomes almost dreamlike. Then there is the family relations that I love, with the animosity between the mother and daughter as the girl grows into a woman and the mother’s jealousy about her husband’s attentions to their daughter shows, as well as her bitterness as she blames Thomasin for the loss of her baby (it was in the trailer, shut up, it’s not spoiling). I loved the confusing feelings Caleb has about his sister, because on one hand, she is his sister, family, on the other, she is a girl, and those are becoming more interesting in his eyes. I like how the monster of the piece prays on these little bits and pieces, those cracks each family member has, and pulls them apart, one by one. I dislike how we see the witch at all (surprise, whatever), because the family tearing itself apart without any proof of a witch outside their superstitions (and no proof for the audience, either) would be terrifying in itself. I like how little bits and pieces of witch folklore are so neatly put in the film without excuse or explanation because you are at a film called The Witch, you should know some shit about witches. And yet I don’t really want to watch it again. But maybe?

So it’s a mixed review from us. Absolutely watch it, absolutely form your own opinion, and absolutely let us know what you think!

They’re Watching; Or Only Revewiers are Best Reviewers

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Hello and Hallo-welcome to the first Witchy Wednesday, where weird sisters are the stars of the show. You join your reviewers, Andy and Lilly, who are busy attempting to get to know the locals and hopelessly trying to understand why it is no one seems to want to come with them to the house on the edge of town.

Today’s film offering: They’re Watching

Lilly: Oh hey, it’s found footage time! Someday, someone will make a comment about how we watch too much found footage, and maybe we’ll stop for a bit, but suck it, hypothetical future person, today is not that day!

Andy: *Looks at calendar* nor many days for the rest of the month!

Lilly: They’re Watching is a fun little romp into vague notions of Eastern Europe, specifically Moldova, best known to me for this gem from Eurovision 2012. Menacing! The film kicks off with a rip off of shows like Location, Location, Location, showing a young couple finding their dream home on the edge of a small town. It’s a bit of a fixer upper–see: absolute mess–but that doesn’t stop them from saying yes to the mess.

Andy: Whatever else we think of the movie, this part is very, very well done – anybody who has ever endured one of these shows will laugh in recognition. It’s not even really a parody – they’ve just so utterly nailed the banality of property programs. It’s so good that you kind of hold it against the rest of the movie when it’s over.

Lilly: Cut to six months later, and the film crew is coming back to Moldova to see just what the young couple has gotten up to, what renovations had been made to wow them. The crew includes the two original camera men, the producer, and the niece of the production company’s head honcho, so you know she’s going to get flack for that. Joining them is the real estate agent who found the little hovel to call home, Vladimir, who is by far the most engaging and interesting character the film has to offer. But I get ahead of myself.

They’re Watching is a film that plays around with the ‘Outsiders are BAD’ motif in a way that is fun and refreshing. Sometimes, films set in ‘somewhere in Eastern Europe’ can come off as a bit…well, racist, but this take on it does veer a teensy bit away from that. It embraces the ‘Americans Do it the Right Way’ stereotype more so than the silly villagers thinking turnips cure everything stereotype, and I like that.

Andy: Yeah, the horror industry hasn’t ever really been kind to Eastern Europe, all the way back to Dracula, but here at least the villagers are sympathetic in a way you wouldn’t see in, say, an Eli Roth film. It’s hard not to be on their side when the Americans do something utterly crass and the local sheriff has to smooth things over, as he is the only one who speaks English.

Lilly: As found footage goes, I liked the style of this film, even if it went a bit off track in regards to why they were filming–for example, they had chest cams at one point. For why? They are filming a real estate show knock off. Are there a lot of uses for a chest cam in those? No. But did they allow for some fun angles? Yes. So.

Andy: It’s also definitely a movie where I don’t think you’re supposed to root for the characters – it’s found footage, so the mark of death is surely upon some of them – but instead enjoy the ride.

Did you enjoy the ride, Lilly? I did.

Lilly: I definitely did. It had some surprises, some old gags (the camera needs new batteries–wait no, it’s just supernatural interference, how odd!), and some new ways of looking at those villagers who won’t stop watching you while you eat. Go, watch it, and enjoy!

Also, fun side note: it features someone from one of our favourite found footage films, The Frankenstein Theory, Canadian actor Kris Lemche. Fancy that! Go watch!