Kicking the Tweets

Demon House (2018)

'Thunk' in the Night

There’s an ongoing argument in my house about the validity of paranormal-investigation shows. My wife and I have both experienced unexplained phenomena that we chock up to neither heavenly nor hellish—simply weird and rather creepy. Though we’re both believers in something beyond the realm of current human understanding, I’m not inclined to take others' claims of supernatural insight seriously—especially if they make those claims on television.

Enter Zak Bagans, one of the “Ghost Hunters” on Travel Channel’s wildly popular, 12-season docu-series. In 2015, he purchased a run-down home in Gary, Indiana, after seeing news reports that its residents had fled following a demonic possession. Bagans and crew moved in, and began interviewing locals who knew the cursed family--as well as the decades of rumors surrounding the “Demon House”.

Demon House is Bagans’ three-years-in-the-making account of his time in Gary. The director’s experience didn’t last nearly that long, but it took quite a lot of writing, casting, editing, and effects work to flesh out the movie, which, if you remove the dramatic re-creations of twelve-foot-tall goat monsters; children walking backwards up walls; and dramatic slow-mo, amounts to maybe thirty minutes of documentary footage wherein dubious interview subjects talk over several glorified open-house walk-throughs.

As propaganda for the supernaturally inclined, Demon House is likely very effective entertainment. My wife partially heeded the warning that opens the film, and left about twenty minutes in. I stuck it out and, despite Bagans’ claim that the movie itself is cursed, I came away with only a mild case of the heebie-jeebies and a profound appreciation for the filmmaker's deft sleights-of-hand.

Even being hyper aware of Bagans’ bag of tricks, I couldn’t help but wonder how he’d convinced so many ostensibly reputable Gary professionals—from police officials, to a social worker, to home inspectors—to talk about their encounters with evil on camera. Surely, there must be something to their stories—unless they were being paid so handsomely by the production as to make up for behavior that could, at best, ding their credibility and, at worst, jeopardize their careers.

Could the “Demon House” really be (as those who’d been inside have claimed) a portal to Hell?

Hold your Apocalyptic horses.

After laying out his case in haunted-hay-ride fashion, Bagans takes us on a revelatory detour, spending a good ten minutes debunking just about everyone and everything from the previous half-hour. The home’s landlord says he’s never heard of any suspicious activity in three decades of owning the property; extended family members of the people whose abrupt exit prompted Bagans to investigate refute their relatives' version of events; undercover video shows one of the first townspeople we meet (a real proponent of the house’s otherworldly qualities) attempting to extort the crew for money in exchange for more outrageous stories. The last straw is a conversation with, if I recall correctly, a structural engineer who talks about the gases, mold, and chemicals bleeding out into the residence—which could very easily cause disorientation and hallucinations with prolonged exposure.

Bagans himself seems convinced that he's in the midst of some kind of small-town shakedown—until, as he says, “Shit got real.”

Yes, after a sanity pit stop, we hop right back on the expressway to Ghostville, with even more wild stories, conjecture, and surveillance footage of visitors and crew members walking the grounds and acting weird. The climax sees Bagans boarding himself up in the house overnight to confront whatever malevolent forces have apparently caused everything from organ failure to car accidents to death in the lives of those whom he has encountered since settling in Gary. The only thing remotely interesting stretch of this alleged horrific experience involves Bagans crouched on a bed, yelling at something we cannot see—and then throwing his car keys at it.

There’s no saving Demon House, but Bagans might have fared better by hiring a narrator to play him. I realize this would make things terribly confusing for the viewer, but the current first-person voice-over conveys the same flat, Dude-Bro affect as that cop in Idiocracy who kept referring to people as “particular individuals”. Bagans looks and acts like the lead singer of a Papa Roach cover band—not good when attempting to convey high-wattage cosmic understanding (or, at the very least, sincerity).

That’s unfair. It doesn’t matter what someone looks like, as long as they’ve got the goods. Unfortunately, our intrepid host’s over-reliance on dramatizations and horror-movie techniques makes the entire operation seem fraudulent—like he’s over-compensating for a lack of evidence that might, on its face, convince audiences that there really was (is?) a sinister force lurking beneath Gary’s blighted soil. We may never know Bagans’ motives (if any, beyond money and fame) for presenting Demon House in this most problematic way. This mystery, to me, is more chilling than a hundred haunted basements.


Porto (2016)

The King of Wistful Thinking

Years ago, the South Park kids dismissed all art-house movies as being about “gay cowboys eating pudding”. Though Porto contains exactly zero horses and/or desserts, this artsy, meandering puzzlement embodies the pretentiousness that Cartman and the gang so astutely observed.

Set in the titular Portuguese city, co-writer/director Gabe Klinger’s drama stars Anton Yelchin as Jake, an American expatriate who meets French student Mati (Lucie Lucas) on an archaeological dig site. They connect during a night of extreme passion, disconnect in the harsh light of day (thanks, in part, to Mati’s professor/ boyfriend, played by Paulo Calatré), and spend the next decade living in the past.

Klinger and co-writer Larry Gross rely heavily on narrative trickery, bouncing around Jake and Lucie’s timelines and perspectives in an effort to flesh out a love story that’s too weak (and, ultimately, too creepy) to be palatable on its own. Worse yet, Klinger twists Yelchin’s inherent sensitivity as a performer into the alluring mask of an abrasive man-child who decent moviegoers won’t actually want to see succeed. The filmmakers similarly short-change Lucas by giving her character a “crazy” past that is neglected in both the screenplay and the actress’s performance—and which feels designed to make Jake’s character less predatory by contrast.

It doesn’t work.

At seventy-six minutes, Porto might as well be six hours long. No amount of lush, urban European photography or attractive actors engaged in tantric sex* can make up for the gaping story void. Ultimately, Porto may only be remembered as a sad novelty: it contains one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, and one of his least memorable roles.

*A casualty of Klinger and co-editor Géraldine Mangenot’s sensibilities is that we lose all sense of time and place, especially in the third act. On the plus side, you may just get a belly laugh when realizing that the half-dozen scenes of mind-blowing coitus did not, in fact, take place over multiple evenings. It’s no wonder Jake looks so gaunt, pale, and devoid of fluid ten years on.


The Sect (1991)

And 'Italian Horror' was its Name--Oh!

I came up with a party game while watching The Sect. Forgive my ignorance if this already exists, but it’s time to put Italian Horror Bingo front and center in the popular consciousness. Let’s break it down:

B=“Basement” Michael Soavi’s film, which he co-wrote with Giaovanni Romoli and genre icon Dario Argento, centers on kindergarten teacher Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis*) who discovers a terrible secret brewing in the bowels of her modest German home. Like The House by the Cemetary, Opera, and The Beyond, this discovery takes just long enough for dark forces to harm people close to our heroine—without giving her enough time to actually stop said dark forces.

I="Identity" What’s the nature of the big bad thing in the basement, you ask? It’s connected to Miriam’s past somehow, and over the course of a tedious first act (not counting the grisly flashback that opens the film), we learn that she’s been a lightning rod for malevolence all her life. Are the cut-aways to gruesome, seemingly unrelated murders a coincidence? If City of the Living Dead taught us anything, the answer is, “Probably not”.

N="Nasty" In my limited but ever-expanding experience, Italian horror flicks are not designed as groundbreaking narrative achievements or acting showcases.** Fans show up for the gore, and while The Sect is somewhat restrained in the frequency of its murder set pieces, Soavi and company really make their squeamish moments count. From an innocuous mega-close-up of an eyeball absorbing an iodine drop; to a truly bizarre moment in which a character takes a hypodermic needle to the point of her nose; to the pièce de résistance involving hooks, a face, and an idea that should have made Clive Barker reconsider his day job, The Sect boasts downright artistic in-camera and practical effects that will make you stop peeking, pause the film, and study the frames.

G="Guardian" The “thing in the basement” must be protected at all costs by forces both supernatural and all-too-tragically human. As the title suggests, The Sect is about a cult of demon-worshiping hippies (and possible global power elites?) whose designs on poor Miriam may just involve an unborn child.

Best friends and would-be boyfriends are no match for the creepy old man (Herbert Lom) who befriends Miriam following a car accident; the possessed shroud whose favorite hobby is face-hugging meddlers; or the preternaturally intelligent bunny rabbit who pops up to occasionally chew on pipes, change channels on the television, and prevent Miriam’s doctor friend (Michel Adatte) from escaping the basement. Guardians aren’t exclusive to Italian horror movies, of course (one of the best examples can be found in the mainstream progenitor of this film, Rosemary’s Baby), but they’re always fun to spot, and to root for as they turn on whatever hapless fool tries to interfere with their plans.

The strangest guardian I can think of is The Sect’s reservoir of blue water. It’s full of spindly veins that creep through the house, winding their way up from an underground cistern—which, of course, is an…

O= "Opening to Hell" If you believe a random sampling of Italian horror movies, subterranean portals to perdition are as common in real estate as attached garages. Sometimes they act as infectious turnstiles, transforming those who venture inside into flesh-eating zombies; sometimes they are merely doorways that, once opened, unleash hordes of demons upon the idyllic European community of the week.

Soavi, Romoli, and Argento do things a little differently, using a combination of the blue water, human sacrifice, and Miriam’s fertile womb to bring forth a bouncing baby Beelzebub. In this case, the Devil (or whatever Satanic agent has been granted surrogate fatherhood) is alternately depicted as a crane, a resurrected dead guy covered in bright blue feathers, and a shadow on the basement wall whose erection we get to see in real-time (if you know where to look).

No matter which movie you choose to put on when playing Italian Horror Bingo, chances are you’ll win. Sure, many of these movies lend themselves to crossing tropes off a scorecard, but there’s often a creative zeal and a desire to disgust (or at least unsettle) that gives this sub-genre the edge over, say, off-brand slasher movies, torture porn, or franchise reboots.

The Sect, for all its aping of Polanski (and, yes, Argento), has a lot to offer—especially in its deliciously dark and ambiguous resolution, whose meaning you may just puzzle out for days.

Don’t agonize over it too much. There are parties to plan, after all.

*The resemblance to sister Jamie Lee is striking.

**In fairness, the latter is often hard to gauge, thanks to often comical English dubbing.


From Hollywood to Rose (2016)

Bridal Fare

Like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, From Hollywood to Rose is unstuck in time. Though set in modern-day Los Angeles, writer Matt Jacobs' screenplay sounds like one of those talky, pop-savvy reactions to the Kevin Smith phenomenon that littered late-nineties art houses--and its dreamlike interludes with after-hours oddballs wouldn't be out of place in 2001's  Waking Life. As co-directed by Liz Graham, the movie comes across as a mid-period John Waters joint, complete with over-the-top quirks and costumes, and acting that might most generously be described as "iffy".

Eve Annenberg plays Woman in Wedding Dress,* a middle-aged bride-not-to-be whom we meet shortly after she leaves her fiance at the altar. Wherever she's headed, she needs a bus to get there, and the film follows her for several hours as she collects people and experiences, and takes stock of her sad, twisted life. Among the late-night commuters are a violent criminal with an affinity for sewing (Krzysztof Soszynski), a mail-order bride (Chia Chen), and Woman's almost-sister-in-law (Isadora O'Boto), who isn't thrilled about the afternoon's events.

She also meets a pair of tubby slacker dudes who gladly press "pause" on their aimless evening to include Woman in their profane and deeply obsessive discussions about comic books, Star Wars, and Bruce Lee. For a fleeting moment, it seems as if Jacobs and Graham will abandon the people-watching motif in favor of a bizarre relationship comedy, as the more sensible but utterly directionless of the two guys (the "Dante", if you will, played by Bradley J. Herman) becomes infatuated with Woman. This detour doesn't last long, and the filmmakers wisely balance the rest of Woman's journey with a parallel look at the encounter's impact on the rest of the guys' evening.

Taken at face value, From Hollywood to Rose is a spaghetti-on-the-wall assortment of alternately funny, frightening, and flat run-ins that are meant to, I guess, elicit nods of recognition from anyone who's ever had to traverse the wasteland of broken dreams that is Hollywood, California. But if the filmmakers treat their characters as a collective freak show, it's at least one that Tod Browning would have been proud of. Jacobs and Graham show real affection for and grant dignity to even the most cartoonishly rendered, throw-away parts (I'm looking at you, Melt Down Bus Driver). And even though half the performances left me wondering about the low caliber of actors who didn't make the cut, I couldn't help but get swept up in the heart that emerged from Jacobs' words.

Which brings us back to Woman in Wedding Dress. I attribute much of the success of Eve Annenberg's performance to her incongruously wide, expressive eyes and slack, unimpressed mouth. Her character experiences every interaction on two levels: the first in the here-and-now, taking in with great interest the assortment of disillusioned, heartbroken, or dangerously naive passengers and passersby; the second in the glimpses we see of her past and the mental picture we're invited to paint of the hours leading up to her first steps onto the bus. Annenberg registers a constant state of shock more authentically than any performer I can recall right now, and it's impossible not to want to see a split-screen of the real-time and and imaginary information flooding her mind's eye throughout the film.

Woman's trance shatters briefly toward the end when, after a dawn beach swim, she has the penultimate conversation of her eight-hour odyssey--in which she talks more than during the preceding sixty-plus minutes/ The liberation of Annenberg's thoughts from her mouth signify Woman's breaking (or at least cracking) of the spiritual chains that have shackled her for years. I won't give away the person with whom she speaks or the outcome of their chat, but I will say that this moment sealed the deal for me.

From Hollywood to Rose may have no idea when its time was or who its audience is. It may lack the conviction of its actors in rendering characters as either wholly believable or utterly farcical. It may even push the boundaries of how "inside L.A." is too "inside L.A.". But in its rocky, weird, and colorful struggle to present the human condition as universal in its freakishness, the film reminds us that we've all been a Woman in a Wedding Dress at some point or other, looking for something we can't quite describe and (hopefully) finding it in our fellow travelers.

*Most of the film's characters are listed only as costumes or character traits.


The Misguided (2018)


The Misguided refuses to be categorized. In the squabbling, knotted-up relationship of twenty-something hustlers/brothers Wendel (Steven J. Mihaljevich) and Levi (Caleb Galati), you’ll find a familiar tragedy in which one criminal sibling pulls the nobler of the two down to his level. When college-bound innocent Sanja (Jasmine Nibali) breaks up with scumbag Wendel and dives into bed with wounded puppy dog (she thinks) Levi, no one would blame you for expecting an alternately sappy and tense love-triangle movie. And as writer/director Shannon Alexander’s camera follows Sanja and Levi on smoky, late-night walks and joy-rides around Perth, there’s no harm in thinking of The Misguided as a kind of Down Under take on Kogonada’s Columbus.

There’s also a “B” plot involving Sanja’s nosy little sister (Katherine Langford) and psychotically protective dad (Athan Bellos), plus a “C” plot about Wendel’s constant struggle between his half-fucked-up self and his fully fucked-up self (sex, drugs, and schemes are his oxygen). I’d like to say the three-pronged drama I described earlier is balanced out by the humor of the mirror-sibling side stories, but even the jokes are off-kilter—ranging from cutesy daddy-daughter dynamics to the can’t-look-away reality-show trainwreck of Wendel’s all-consuming ego.

This may sound like a mess (a hack might call it, “misguided”), but Alexander’s underworld-adjacent ride-along drops us in on a world where the poles of “Have” and “Have Not” fold in on themselves—in which drug deals are mundane, thirty-thousand dollars is a casually replaceable commodity, and love manifests in a barely readable continuum muffled by deceit, abuse, and betrayal. The film isn’t concerned with plot, but it is concerned with making these characters believable—even if contemplating the possibility that there are real Wendels, Levis, and Sanjas walking around might make your head hurt.

Speaking of which, in a climactic scene, Wendel and Levi square off in a playground, roughing each other up to enhance a lie about a drug deal gone bad. As Levi takes blow after blow after blow to the face, Alexander cuts between Wendel’s descending fist and a set of nearby metal rocking horses. In a flash, we see evil overlaid on innocence and wonder what could have caused these boys to become men who became monsters. The humor drains out of the setup, giving way to a profound sadness (and, frankly, squeamishness).

Alexander’s tinkering with our expectations extends to the manner in which he presents his feature debut: The Misguided glitches with pixel banding and split-second stops. Occasionally the camera drifts as if to imply a missed edit; one scene cuts out too soon, for what could be construed as either intentional or unintentional comedic effect. The result is a film that harkens back to the mid-aughts found-footage glut, though Alexander’s aims seem to be much loftier than simply trying to resurrect a trend that began its decline ten years ago.

There’s an audio cue at the very end suggesting this may not be a “movie” at all—rather a corrupted mental hard drive of memory fragments cobbled together by someone addicted to technology, narcotics, and vanity. In that moment, Wendel becomes the rocking horse and we become Wendel: voyeuristic captives to a chaotic past whose best bet is to pick a direction and stick to it.