With regards to this job, these are the weeks I prefer. The theme is already somewhat predestined — hello, the 31st — and so I get to bask in the convenience of actually doing what I’m pretty sure it seems like I do every week: laze around watching “Sister Act” (true story) until I’m drunk enough off of Founder’s Harvest Ale and Whoopi Goldberg’s inherent sassiness that I pull some convoluted topic out of my ass.
Thankfully, this week it’s not my ass, but the ass of the American holiday machine. So, before you all go out to masked balls dressed like the Crow (fellas) and slutty witches/Bo-Peep/police officers/undersea welders (ladies, fellas again), you might want to check out these truly horrific horror films. Thank me, but only after you’ve peeled your face off the back of your head. I do hate a mess.
“The Bay” (2012)
Directed by Barry Levinson
If for no other reason, this is an intriguing film to view in the context of Levinson’s career. He’s most well-known for popcorn films with an arty twist: “The Natural,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Rain Man,” among others. He even made a film about Dustin Hoffman in drag, and it wasn’t completely a comedy.
So it was striking when it became quite apparent that Levinson is a better “found footage” filmmaker than his upstart contemporaries. “The Bay” centers around a 4th of July celebration in an idyllic seaside town on Maryland’s eastern shore, and stands apart due to its use of several different framing devices: the overall narrative is conducted post-event by ex-student reporter-cum source leak Donna Thompson, through a Skype interview with an unnamed underground news source.
A sympathetic character, still reeling and in mild shock — even months later — from her survival of the events, she gives coherence to the hodgepodge of video sources that comprise the narrative, from footage of her amateur newscasts covering the celebrations, to a guerilla eco-investigative reporter’s video of the town’s factory-style chicken farming, to the video diaries of two marine biologists studying the surrounding waters.
Though the film doesn’t hinge on a major twist, I won’t delve too much into spoilers here. There is no central antagonist, however; that much you need to know. The scourge is parasitic in nature (just Google “cymothoa exigua,” and prepare to have your sanity torn asunder), and Levinson, though he doesn’t revel in the grotesquerie, spares no opportunity to exhibit the utterly gruesome ways in which the over 600 victims die.
“The Bay” is part eco-thriller, part faux-documentary, part political statement and all horror. It is disgusting, chilling and infuriating. It demands your 84 minutes.
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Official sources describe this film as a “psychological thriller.” I describe it as what happens when someone whose favorite author is William Burroughs and whose favorite movie is “30 Days of Night” (which you should also watch, despite Josh Hartnett) wins a modest lottery. I mention Burroughs because his theory — espoused both in his real and literary worlds — that language is a virus (in that it infects, spreads and mutates) is not only put to use in “Pontypool,” but is boiled down to its core essence. As such, it is both heralded and made refreshingly colloquial.
At its heart, “Pontypool” is a zombie flick, the action of which is communicated mostly through the broadcasts of an isolated radio station in Ontario, where formerly infamous shock-jock Grant Mazzy plies his trade. Somehow, a virus has infected the English language, though only certain words. And once those words are heard, repeated and understood, according to one character, the individual becomes infected. In the words of director Bruce McDonald,
There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.
There’s plenty of blood and gore in “Pontypool,” but generally in short, voluminous bursts: one victim chews off her lower lip, vomits blood and then falls down dead because she is unable to pass the virus on to another host. The real horror stems from the loss of humanity through that vessel which we, perhaps naively, believe defines our humanity: language.
“The Call of Cthulhu” (2005)
Directed by Andrew Leman
There have been a few attempted adaptations and pseudo-adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work in the past 30 or 40 years: “Dagon” half-succeeded, in its gloriously ’80s way; “Cthulhu,” which posited the myth as an allegory for dealing with homosexuality and familial isolation, undershot its ambition by a fair margin; “Prometheus,” released last year, is a piece of garbage.
And that’s why it’s encouraging and refreshing to see an independently distributed film that cost $50,000 to make so completely succeed. Filmed to resemble a grainy 1920s featurette, the film is completely silent (save for an appropriately organ-heavy soundtrack) and runs less than 50 minutes. On a shoestring budget, the filmmakers accomplished more through miniature sets, stop-motion animation and go-for-broke performances than millions of dollars worth of CGI ever could.
Everything, from the sheer magnitude of Lovecraft’s cosmological horror to the personal tragedy of those that stumbled across it, is stylishly, unsettlingly evoked. It is feral and delicate, desperate and baroque. It is perfect.