Tag Archives: Southern Gothic

The Unwanted

The Unwanted
The Unwanted

Format: Blu-ray + DVD (R1/A)

Release date: 14 July 2015

Distributor: Kino Lorber (US and Canada only)

Director: Bret Wood

Writer: Bret Wood

Based on the Gothic novella ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu

Cast: Hannah Fierman, Christin Orr, William Katt, Kylie Brown

USA 2014

95 mins

***½ out of *****

When movies are rooted in a sense of place that pulsates from their opening frames, deepening to a point where the story is inextricably linked to a regional atmosphere, thus becoming as much a character as the picture’s on-screen personages, then you know that you’re in a world of total immersion. When said films feel like they’re coming from a place that feels familiar and lived-in from the perspective of the filmmaker, the work takes on an added transcendence that can only come from the heart, as well as a good eye for detail and local colour.

In genre films, some of the strongest examples of this can be found in all of George A. Romero‘s early Pittsburgh films (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Martin); Alfred Sole’s astonishing New Jersey-rooted Alice, Sweet Alice; Paul Maslansky’s Houston-based voodoo thriller Sugar Hill; and amongst many others, the latest foray into regional horror, Bret Wood’s The Unwanted.

From the beginning, writer-director Wood plunges us into a contemporary milieu, a kind of antebellum-ish New Millennium Gothic, as a mysterious young woman (Christin Orr), attired in fashionable grunge duds and bearing a countenance of toughness and determination, gets off a Greyhound bus in an alternately seedy and retro-cool South Carolina burgh.

She makes her way on foot to a leafy post-war neighbourhood to the house she’s targeted. Here she inquires into the whereabouts of one Millarca Karnstein (Kylie Brown). The door is answered by the handsome, but alternately seedy-looking owner Troy (William Katt of Carrie fame, here adorned in a grubby ball-cap with long curly locks of head-banger-hockey-hair), and Laura (Hannah Fierman, ‘Lily’ in the ‘Amateur Night’ segment in V/H/S), his insanely gorgeous wide-eyed daughter who hovers silently behind him.

He claims not to know whom she’s looking for. The woman is insistent, though: he must know, since Troy’s house was the exotically named Millarca’s last-known address. Troy amusedly points out that he’d have heard of someone in the town with a name like Millarca Karnstein, never mind someone of that monicker residing in his home.

By this point, ‘Karnstein’ is ringing a bell with us (at least those of the geek persuasion). For horror aficionados, the mere mention of the name Karnstein immediately signals that we’re about to plunge into an adaptation of ‘Carmilla’, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s immortal 1871 classic novella of vampirism, which predates even Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), making it one of the earliest major works in the (relatively) modern genre of vampire fiction.

Some of the best movies adapted from the Le Fanu include Vampyr (1932), Carl Dreyer’s liberal cinematic borrowing from the material, as well as several faithful renderings including Roger Vadim’s 1960 Blood and Roses , with its highly charged erotic qualities; Camilo Mastrocinque’s creepy 1964 Terror in the Crypt, starring Christopher Lee and Adriana Ambesi; the exceptional 1974 Roy Ward Baker-directed Hammer Horror version The Vampire Lovers, with Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing in the first film of Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy; and now, of course, The Unwanted, one of the most effectively oddball attempts to wrestle with Le Fanu’s work.

When our heroine (bearing the name, Carmilla Karnstein, of course) leaves Troy’s home dejectedly, but also with skepticism, she inquires at the local cop-shop for information about the missing Karnstein, and is told the report she’s requested will take two full business days.

Damn! She’s now going to be in this low-down Hicksville conurbation longer than anticipated. Carmilla sallies over to the local greasy spoon for some coffee where her waitress is none other than Laura, Troy’s daughter, the drool-inspiring beauty with the jet-black hair and come-hither saucer-like dark eyes.

Laura reveals to Carmilla that Daddy Troy didn’t tell the truth. Millarca Karnstein did indeed use their home as a mailing address, living in the family trailer on the outskirts of town near Daddy’s hunting grounds. Carmilla, in turn, reveals that Millarca was her mother, and even though Laura’s mommy Karen (Lynn Talley) died when she was a tyke, she has vague recollections of both women.

And now we plunge into the Le Fanu tale proper, the two women eventually embarking upon a passionate lesbian relationship with the added touch of bloodsucking.

Here Wood takes us into strange territory involving dreams, nightmares, flashbacks and lingering questions all needing answers. While there are vampire-like qualities to the eroticism, Wood sublimates the supernatural elements in favour of a compelling mutual lust amongst the two women for both flesh and blood.

Troy, creepy from frame one, slowly edges into complete psychopathic bunyip territory, especially as the film reveals one new horrific revelation after another. With his clearly incestuous desires for his own daughter (and the possibility that he’s acted upon them), he’s as much a danger to the women as they are to each other.

What’s delightfully perverse is the identical lesbian vampire relationship twixt the mothers of Laura and Carmilla. For genre fans, it’s like getting dreamy, healthy dollops of ‘double-double’. Karen and Millarca slurp, suck and wildly caress away in dreams and flashbacks while their daughters in the present are also engaged in identical gymnastics.

The movie has a few strange pacing problems, due on one hand to the screenplay being a touch ambitious for its own good, and, once we take time to peruse a number of cut and/or alternate takes in the Kino Lorber Blu-ray extras, we discover why there are a few lapses in logic, motivation and tone, most of which inspire us to think, ‘Uh, why the hell were these sequences cut and/or not worked into the overall narrative?’ There might have been concerns, rightly so, about pacing, but I suspect the film feels longer and a bit more disjointed than it needed to be, because these scenes fell to the cutting room floor.

Another irksome touch that affects pacing and tone is one of the most jarringly annoying song-scores I’ve heard, which wends its way through the picture. The opening song is terrific and well utilized, as are the orchestral elements of the score proper, but a lot of the others seem shoehorned into the proceedings.

Happily, the aforementioned fumbles don’t detract from the overall visual dexterity, which the picture has in spades, as well as the performances by all four leading and supporting ladies engaged in vampiristic Sapphic pleasure.

The revelation here is William Katt. It’s almost impossible to separate him from his post-Carrie work as the sweet, handsome young lad who finally takes Sissy Spacek to the prom in Brian De Palma’s masterpiece, but in The Unwanted, we drop all notions of that much earlier role from our minds and marvel at his initially subtle and eventually mounting, crazed viciousness.

It’s such a great performance that one feels a certain degree of regret that such mainstream industry awards as the Oscars all but ignore low-budget independent horror, since the work Katt does here is Academy Award-worthy, at least in terms of even a nomination in the Supporting Actor category.

Also, pacing problems aside, the final third of the film is utterly chilling and plunges us into one terrific jolt after another. The movie features, hands down, the best on-screen use of a hunting arrow and where/how it plunges since Burt Reynolds’s fine aim delighted us in John Boorman’s Deliverance.

Bret Wood’s previous feature-length work has been in documentaries. He’s highly regarded as one of the finest producers of added-feature extras in the world of home-entertainment for the Kino Lorber company. His recent commentary track for the Blu-ray release of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page is phenomenal. Incidentally, the extras on The Unwanted include Wood’s first-rate short dramatic effort The Other Half, a grimly funny, scary and perverse bite-sized treat involving a double amputee, his wife and a prostitute.

Wood’s first feature film was the funny, revelatory and, frankly, vomit-inducing Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films and his sophomore feature effort, Psychopathia Sexualis (2006), was a dream come true for me personally, as it focused upon the classic encyclopaedia of sexual deviance by Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing (known more popularly as simply Krafft-Ebing, though I’m a big fan of his full name).

As a seemingly unrelated aside, the Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis was a favourite tome amongst director Guy Maddin, screenwriter George Toles and myself as young gents in the early flowering stages of our lives, a book that we’d read aloud to each other round campfires in Gimli, Manitoba throughout the 80s, along with our coterie of similarly enchanted colleagues.

The feature film Archangel (which I produced, Guy directed and George wrote) includes a Krafft-Ebing phrase for our favourite sexual delight, one which means very little to anyone not acquainted with arcane terms in Psychopathia Sexualis, but never fails to give us insider-chuckles to this very day. I refuse to tell you what it is. You must acquaint yourself with Krafft-Ebing and then see Archangel again. It will put Maddin’s entire film in a whole new context for you (if you hadn’t sensed it already, that is).

That a contemporary filmmaker has created a documentary portrait of Krafft-Ebing seems an extra-special treat for those who partake of The Unwanted, Wood’s first fictional feature: one which features so many delightful dollops of bloodsucking, lesbo action, incest, chilling suspense and glorious bits of mad violence.

At the end of the night, what’s not to like?

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:

Buttercup Bill

Buttercup Bill
Buttercup Bill

Format: Cinema

Release date: 4 September 2015

Distributor: Trinity Film

Directors: Émilie Richard-Froozan, Rémy Bennett

Writers: Émilie Richard-Froozan, Rémy Bennett

Cast: émy Bennett, Evan Louison

USA 2014

96 mins

A young girl in a white dress runs out from the woods into a field. Children play games in a hallway, chasing each other, laughing. A girl is spun around in a field, her eyes covered with a yellow strip of fabric. A boy in a cowboy hat stands, smiling, on a wooded path. The meaning of these images is only gradually revealed, but they create an air of tense mystery that persists throughout the striking, compelling Buttercup Bill. Dream-like, elliptical, ambiguous, the debut feature by co-writers and directors Émilie Richard-Froozan and Rémy Bennett is a sun-drenched, erotically charged, Southern Gothic romance about two childhood friends, Patrick and Pernilla, and their cruel, sadistic, yet loving mutual obsession. It’s a film about desperately craving something that you can – and should – never have.

Buttercup Bill starts with the death of a woman named Flora. Pernilla – her friend, her sister, it’s never quite clear – is distraught. Her first act is to leave ‘Patrick’ a phone message, begging for him to come to her. She delivers a poem at the funeral, before descending into a spiral of drugs, alcohol, sex. She wanders drunkenly through neon-lit streets. She leaves more messages. She finds Patrick, finally, in Louisiana, where they’re reunited, their murky past soon inserting itself into the present.

The husky-voiced Rémy Bennett (Pernilla) and Evan Louison terrifically capture the damaged pair, who are like brother and sister, husband and wife, the sexual tension, and jealousy, always palpable. Louison portrays the softly spoken Patrick with a wide-eyed, innocent charm, a good Southern boy. But the problem is that he isn’t good. Or at least not, so he believes, when he’s with Pernilla. Their relationship is intimate, affectionate, yet they continually (especially in one memorable scene) inflict physical and emotional pain on each other, and others. And, as the identity of Buttercup Bill is revealed, and snatched glimpses of the boy and girl become ever darker, it’s clear that their sadistic streak has haunted Patrick and Pernilla since childhood.

In exploring this twisted romance, Richard-Froozan and Bennet have also, refreshingly, if darkly, created an honest, never gratuitous glimpse into female desire. Pernilla is in control of her own urges, an active participant in the games that they play with the people in Patrick’s life – his best friend, a possible girlfriend. A scene in a strip club is seen from the female gaze, Pernilla as fascinated by the dancers as Patrick, Patrick as turned on by Pernilla’s desire as his own. It’s a reminder of just how rare it is to see a film that was not only written and directed, but also produced, by women (Sadie Frost and Emma Comley, and their Blonde to Black production company).

Like the relationship it lays bare, Buttercup Bill is tender, playful, moving and deeply disturbing. It’s beautifully shot, Lynchian in feel, with a vibrant palate imbued with the colours of the south, while the heat of the sun, the moisture in the air, are almost palpable. Although there are definitely moments that feel too staged, too self-aware, the overall originality of the filmmaking, the quality of Will Bates’s atmospheric score, and the sheer forces of nature that are Patrick and Pernilla, make Buttercup Bill a stand-out of the independent scene.

Sarah Cronin

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The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury
The Sound and the Fury

Director: James Franco

Writer: Matt Rager

Based on the novel by: William Faulkner

Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Joey King, Scott Haze

USA 2014

101 mins

**** out of *****

Last year, James Franco plunged his lead actor Scott Haze into the unenviable position of having to go ‘full retard’ as a psychotic half-wit in Child of God, the genuinely great film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s shocking book. The real detriment of going ‘full retard’, however, was not scoring an Oscar, but the fact that Haze played a character who takes a crap on screen, wipes his poopy-butt with a stick, watches young lovers get it on in the back seat of their car whilst he jerks off, murders a host of honey-pies, has sex with corpses and then dons their clothing when he goes on a mad transvestite-like killing rampage against a whole passel of lawmen.

Here we are, one year later, and Franco hands the brilliant Haze the role of Jason Compson, easily one of the most reprehensible figures in American literature. Haze is probably thanking Franco for this one, though, since Franco reserves the ‘retard’ challenge all for his lonesome, playing Jason’s ‘tetched in the head’ little brother Benjy. Replete with ludicrous buck-toothed prosthetics, plenty eyeball rolling, grunting and drooling, Franco goes further on the ‘full retard’ front than any actor in film history.

This is Franco’s second stab at William Faulkner in so many years, and it far outdoes his shot at As I Lay Dying. Faulkner – to my mind – is completely unsuitable a literary source for film adaptation. God knows many have tried and failed miserably, but Franco just keeps on giving the gift that keeps on giving.

Here’s my bias. I love James Franco as a director. He spits in the face of everything and everybody, does what he damn well pleases and makes movies like nobody else in contemporary America.

Here he tackles the meandering tale of the once-rich-and-powerful Compson family dynasty of the Deep South and infuses it with the most delectably over-the-top melodrama imaginable. He divides his film into three chapters, primarily focusing upon the Compson brothers: simpleton Benjy, scumbag Jason and the doomed Quentin (Jacob Leob). In the mix we’ve got ‘fallen’ sister Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly), her ‘bastard’ child Miss Quentin (Joey King), loyal housekeeper Dilsey (Loretta Divine) and even hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s wife, Janet Jones, as the deluded Compson matriarch. The family basically snipes at each other, loses all their land, while foul Jason steals, lies, vents, abuses and bullies his way through his pathetic life.

And what of Benjy, our ‘full retard’? Well shucks, he’s a mite jealous when his beloved sister starts a-rollin’ in the hay with eager male suitors, so he begins a-stalkin’ some local gals and does somethin’ he shouldn’t ougtha be doin’.

This is pure, delicious Southern Gothic at its most insane. It even indulges in some delightful Terence Malick Tree of Life shenanigans, which play like parody of the highest order. Some might believe Faulkner would be spinning in his grave over this one, but I doubt it. I think even he might have himself as rip-roaring a good time as I did.

Greg Klymkiw

This review is part of our TIFF 2014 coverage.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Format: Cinema

Dates: 19 October 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Writers: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly

USA 2012

93 mins

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a little black girl who lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, a small, ramshackle Louisiana riverside township of rundown rummies, long-in-the-tooth hippies and out-and-out outsiders. This is the community of the other, the one that doesn’t think of itself as a victim even as it falls off the map: hell, it doesn’t even enter into Mitt Romney’s 47%. They live on the margins in the wetlands, happy to be forgotten and left alone, but the world is changing and Hushpuppy dreams of terrifying giant hogs, old creatures that will be released by the melting ice of the Arctic and will descend on their community, destroying everything in an end-of-days stampede.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild caused a great deal of critical buzz after its premiere at Sundance followed by its entry in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and the praise was amply justified. Zeitlin’s film approaches a section of society that is often generically ghettoised in worthy social realism. His mixing of poverty with a rich strain of dark Gothic fantasy does have some problems, but the exhilaration of a film that refuses to tick the usual boxes and prefers to follow the chaotic breathless journey of its main character and narrator is well worth the ride. Hushpuppy herself is an admixture of Huck Finn, Pippi Longstocking and Dennis the Menace; she’s an ASBO Alice in Wonderland, but all that said, she’s also herself, a perfectly original angry unique little girl. She lives near her dad Wink – but crucially not with him – but Wink is ailing. Along with the awakening Lovecraftian aurochs, there’s a very real storm brewing and flood is coming, and Wink’s wrung out body is at the wrong end of a lifetime of alcohol and neglect. Hushpuppy makes sense of her own dilemma on her own; she draws her own history of the universe on the walls of her shack; tends to her animals and communicates with her long-lost mother, who she now feels she must find if everything is going to be alright. She even attends school occasionally, but, being Bathtub, it isn’t exactly a Michael Gove-approved academy. ‘You are all meat,’ the teacher tells her wards – that is, when she’s not preparing voodoo medicine.

The music, cinematography, the sense of place, and the wonderful narration Hushpuppy provides – ‘The world belongs to us. It was made for us’ – creates a bold, challenging vision and, although moving, the film never descends into mawkishness. It never asks for sympathy – ‘No tears,’ Wink shouts at Hushpuppy. However, there is a danger that in the fireworks (quite literally at times) and the yelling and whoops of celebration as well as the millennial excitement and dread, the film might remain oddly comforting. Hushpuppy’s empowerment seems a part of the fairy tale skeleton of the plot. A corrective might be Roberto Minervini’s Low Tide, which premiered at Venice this year, and which tells a very different story of a child’s resilience in the face of awful parental neglect. The two films would make for an interesting double bill.

That said, Hushpuppy’s mission is really to stand alone. And this is a film that weaves its fascinating magic and leaves all other questions for another time.

John Bleasdale

Killer Joe

Killer Joe

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 29 June 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: William Friedkin

Writer: Tracy Letts

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon

USA 2011

103 mins

‘I don’t think I’ll have to kill her. Just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat.’
– Jim Thompson dialogue from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing

At one point during William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, an unexpected roundhouse to the face turns its recipient’s visage into a pulpy, swollen, glistening, blood-caked skillet of corned beef hash. Said recipient is then forced at gunpoint to fellate a grease-drenched KFC drumstick and moan in ecstasy while family members have little choice but to witness this horrendous act of violence and humiliation.

William Friedkin, it seems, has his mojo back.

He’s found it in the muse of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. The two collaborated in 2007 on the nerve-wracking film adaptation of Bug, a paranoia-laden thriller with Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd. Set mostly within the dank, smoky confines of a sleazy motel room, both dialogue and character were scrumptiously Gothic. The story was full of unexpected beats, driving the action forward with so much mystery that we could never see what was coming. Alas, Letts lost command of his narrative in the final third, veering into predictability. In spite of this, Bug was still one of the most compelling and original works of its year.

Killer Joe is a total whack job of a movie, and delightfully so.

Set against the backdrop of Texas white trash, the picture opens with a torrential downpour that turns the mud-lot of a trailer park into the country cousin of war-torn Beirut. Amidst tire tracks turning into small lakes, apocalyptic squalor and lightning flashes revealing a nasty barking mastiff, a scruffy Chris (Emile Hirsch), drenched from head to toe, bangs on the door of a trailer. When it creaks open, a muff-dive-view of the pubic thatch belonging to his ne’er do well dad’s girlfriend Sharla (Gina Gershon) leads Chris to the bleary-eyed Ansel (Thomas Haden Church).

Chris desperately needs to clear up a gambling debt and suggests they order a hit to knock off his mom, Ansel’s ex-wife. She has a whopping life insurance policy and its sole recipient is Dottie (Juno Temple), the nubile, mentally unstable sister and daughter of Chris and Ansel respectively. Once they collect, Chris proposes they split the dough.

To secure the services of the charming Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) they need to pay his fee upfront. Father and son propose Joe take a commission on the insurance money once it pays out. This is initially not an acceptable proposal until Joe catches sight of the comely Dottie. He agrees to take the job in exchange for a ‘retainer’ - sexual ownership of Dottie.

Father and brother of said sexy teen agree to these terms, though Chris betrays some apprehension as he appears to bear an incestuous interest in his dear sister.

From here, we’re handed plenty of lascivious sexuality, double crosses, triple crosses and eventually, violence so horrendous, so sickening that even those with strong stomachs might need to reach for the Pepto Bismol.

Basically, we’re in Jim Thompson territory here. It’s nasty, sleazy and insanely, darkly hilarious.

This celluloid bucket of glorious untreated sewage is directed with Friedkin’s indelible command of the medium and shot with a terrible beauty by ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

Friedkin, the legendary director of The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising, dives face first into the slop with the exuberance of a starving hog at the trough and his cast delivers the goods with all the relish needed to guarantee a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern inbred Gothic.

This, my friends, is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.

Trust William Friedkin to bring us back so profoundly and entertainingly to those halcyon days.

Oh, and if you’ve ever desired to see a drumstick adorned with Colonel Sanders’ batter, fellated with Linda Lovelace gusto, allow me to reiterate that you’ll see it here.

It is, I believe, a first.

This review was first published on Daily Film Dose.

Greg Klymkiw