Along with the Gutter’s own Carol, I was privileged to receive press credentials for the Nightstream 2021 film festival this year, showcasing an amazing, week-long line-up of features, shorts, and events in a virtual format. Now as the festival draws to a close, I’m reflecting on my favorites among what I saw, including brand-new features The Greenhouse and Hellbender, alongside several Folk Horror classics chosen from Severin Films’ upcoming All These Haunts Be Ours box set and its masterful companion documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. (There are a few more mini-reviews I plan to put up at my own blog in the next couple days, so those links will be coming, too.)
WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR (USA, 2021) Directed by Kier-La Janisse
I didn’t screen Woodlands Dark until I had already watched most of the films in Nightstream’s Folk Horror collection, curated by the director of Woodlands Dark, Kier-La Janisse. At 192 minutes, the length was a commitment, but after watching, I would be happy if it were twice that length. Make it a series. 52 episodes of Folk Horror, drenched with gawjuss art and analysis, let’s do it.
It’s impossible to summarize except to say the global breadth of the documentary’s focus was refreshing–there’s so much more out there than Nigel Kneale and The Wicker Man–and it was as beautifully produced as it was meticulous in scholarship. If you’re a fan or scholar or just curious about these films, this documentary offers a great guide to films you might have never seen and new context for films you already love. I didn’t expect it to be my favorite part of the festival, but it absolutely was.
LAKE OF THE DEAD (Norway, 1958) Directed by Kåre Bergstrøm
Lake of the Dead has what seems like a pretty straightforward, if artificial, setup. Liljan is worried about her brother Bjørn, living alone in a lakeside cabin in the woods, to the extent she has had nightmares about him. So she arrives at her brother’s doorstep with her fiance and several of their friends for a getaway-slash-welfare check, but instead of putting her foreboding to rest, they discover Bjørn missing, his dog dead by the nearby lake. As the guests fret over Bjørn’s fate, we learn the spooky legend of the cabin, that a man, tormented by his incestuous passion for his sister, murdered her and her lover and drowned himself in the lake. Now, according to legend, everyone who stays in the cabin is compelled to drown themselves, too. Kind of a lot for a local legend! You will not be surprised when guests start disappearing under the surface of the water.
Tonally, Lake of the Dead is a curious classic, almost like a magic eye puzzle, where your perspective entirely changes the image. Despite its sordid legend, delicious dread, and magnetic drowning pool, Lake of the Dead offers an incredibly cozy murder mystery watch. It’s at once a harsh, unexpurgated fairy tale, the kind that only gets reprinted in collections for adults, but also an mannerly episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The specious psychoanalysis in the second half may remind you of the final act of Psycho–not the corpse in the rocking chair, but all the anticlimactic explanation in the police station–but even that is oddly soothing. The performances and the cinematography are wonderful, but what will stay with me is the odd pleasure of wondering who’s next.
CLEARCUT (Canada, 1991) Directed by Ryszard Bugajski
Based on M.T. Kelly’s novel A Dream Like Mine, Clearcut tells the bizarre experience of Peter Maguire (Ron Lea), a white lawyer representing a First Nations tribe whose land is being harvested for logging by Bud Rickets’ (Michael Hogan) company. Maguire’s attempt to stall the logging operation by contesting the use of a road on the tribe’s land fails, and on his way to make what is almost certainly a doomed legal appeal, the nations’ elder Wilf introduces Maguire to Arthur (Graham Greene). This is when things get interesting.
Maguire assumes that Arthur is an activist of some kind, and when he jokes about kidnapping and skinning Rickets’, Arthur replies that’s a pretty good idea. Arthur is a sanguine guy and a bit of a jokester, and it’s hard to know when he’s funnin’ ya, but here’s a gimme: when it involves shedding blood, he’s happily serious. And so Maguire finds himself tied up and dragged along in a never-ending canoe voyage into deeper and deeper Indian territory as Arthur tortures the kidnapped Rickets, protesting vainly that there are better ways to protect the tribe’s land. Of course, when it comes down to it, Maguire doesn’t have any.
The movie is careful about suggesting, rather than defining, exactly who or what Arthur really is, but the longer we travel with him, the more we are given to wonder, and if his goal is simply to torture and terrify Rickets, then he doesn’t need Maguire to do that. Maguire’s white savior centrality in the story might be irritating-to-unwatchable, particularly in a contemporary context, but the crisp, grounded dialogue and Greene’s winsomely chaotic Arthur keep this 30-year-old story compelling. Far from either a nihilistic gorefest or a plain repudiation of violence in service of the oppressed, Clearcut is never terribly, um, clear cut on solutions. It’s more about calling out wrongness. To that end, Maguire is clearly a cog in a depraved system designed to steal and exploit; Arthur’s not wrong in calling it what it is. Yet peeling a man’s skin off probably isn’t a good long-term solution either. It’s a problem.
Anyway, whatever Arthur is, Graham Greene is now my favorite Joker.
ALISON’S BIRTHDAY (Australia, 1981) Directed by Ian Coughlan
Alison’s Birthday might be the most straightforward horror film I watched at Nightstream, and yet the horror is less about what happens than the endless treadmill of misunderstood, thwarted, refused escapes. It’s a slow-motion nightmare where you can see the bad thing coming and yet you can’t move out of its way. This is a film where the people on the screen can hear the audience yelling for them to get out and yet it does no good. Destiny gonna destiny.
I mean, the very first scene is girls playing around with a ouija set-up, when one of the girls is possessed and utters a warning for Alison (Joanne Samuel) to stay away from home on her 19th birthday. Sure, that’s years away in the film’s chronology, but as her possessed friend is then crushed by a falling bookcase, it’s still kind of memorable. Yet Alison’s birthday looms up and her aunt, who raised her, calls her up to invite her home. Alison tries to demure, but then Aunt Jenny guilt-trips her about her uncle having a bad health diagnosis. It will mean so much to him for her to come home. Oh, all right.
Alison brings her boyfriend Pete (Lou Brown), who is immediately made unwelcome by the family and disinvited to her party. Pete, bless him, is the living antithesis of every Dumb Man in Horror who tells his honey that that sound is nothing, trust the doctor, it’s just her imagination, etc. Nope, not Pete. Pete knows this is all very much not right, and instead of shrugging at Alison’s gaslighting, he tries his damnedest to rescue her, even enlisting some witchy help of his own with a local psychic. Meanwhile, Aunt Jenny and Uncle Dean do everything short of ordering a sheet cake with “Happy Sacrifice Day, Alison” written in icing and decorating for the party with actual red flags. It’s sad, but Alison really could have done with the intervention of her own Arthur, as she is, like Maguire, bound by a society that exists to exploit and possess…here, just a little more literally.
In Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, Alison’s Birthday is cited as an example of how the Old Religion is exported, in this case to Australia. Alison’s aunt and uncle are clearly part of the kind of elite the documentary identifies as chief antagonists in folk horror, turning to old occult ways to keep their hands on undeserved and unnatural rule. Truly it’s that elite misuse of the Old Religion that is the real power behind the frustrating conspiracy to possess Alison; the Old Religion in the form of the helpful witch trying to help Pete and ouija warnings from beyond the grave are totally cool.
HELLBENDER (USA, 2021) Directed by Toby Poser, Zelda Adams, and John Adams
A lot of the more recent films I’m watching this October, at Nightstream and beyond, heavily feature themes of alienation and isolation with tiny casts either scattered in the open or boxed into a Zoom screen, Covid protocols as mise-en-scène. Hellbender is consistent with that trend, but here, the extreme close-up on a mother and daughter’s exile from human society turns a trope on its head and then spins it back around. Instead of civilization being the looming, corrupting influence that hunts the magic users to the margins of existence, we have Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mom (Toby Poser) self-isolating in their spacious mountain house. The intention and the result of that self-isolation, however, is a little different than we might expect.
To begin with, life on the mountain is fun and halcyon. Izzy and her mom have a candid, loving relationship where they show easy affection and jam on sweet heavy metal tunes together. But Mom, we soon realize, through gorgeously tactile spellworking sequences, is a powerful witch, and she’s keeping a close eye on Izzy, forbidding her the least contact with the outside world.
The thing about humans though is that you can’t keep them out forever. We’re like ants that way. Eventually, civilization finds Izzy–first in the form of a hapless lost hiker, then a girl Izzy encounters lounging by the pool at a mountaintop estate. Izzy makes friends. Izzy has tequila shots. Izzy soon realizes her mom’s reason for living apart from humans–that Izzy is sick–isn’t true at all, and her mom comes clean. The real reason they have to live apart from humans is that they are Hellbenders, powerful witches who thrive on animal life, and Izzy doesn’t know how to control her power. While her mom seeks to redress that by finally teaching her daughter about magic, she fails to consider what else she’s denying Izzy by keeping her away from people. And after Izzy is scorned by her only friend, like any hurt teenager, Izzy discovers a deep well in herself no one needs to teach her to dig.
Hellbender may be considered Folk Horror by virtue of Mom and Izzy’s very granola brand of spellcrafting, the sense that they represent something at once ageless and ancient, and the fact that their very existence is a danger to modern human society and not the other way around. It appealed to me greatly for all of these reasons, but also, Hellbender is pretty much my experience of being a parent. “Show, don’t tell” applies to more than creative writing classes.
THE GREENHOUSE (UK, 2021) Directed by Thomas Wilson-White
The Greenhouse trades conventional scares for grey keening grief–not just grief for a lost loved one, but grief for all the parts of yourself you sacrifice to keep going. It reminded me a lot of Channel Zero’s third series, subtitled “No-End House,” where its heroine ventures into a strange haunted house attraction only to find a sinister doppelganger of her beloved dead father, and then spends the rest of the series struggling to tear herself free of both, emotionally and physically. In a similar way, The Greenhouse’s Beth (Jane Watt) grieves her dead mother while planning her surviving mother’s 60th birthday, ever the diligent daughter who stayed home to take care of mum while her siblings have all flown away into their own successful lives. There’s not a little simmering resentment there, and she gets a potent reminder of everything she’s given up when she bumps into a former friend–her secret girlfriend–in town.
So Beth is already kind of a mess inside when she stumbles on a portal to the past in the forest surrounding her mums’ house, terminating in the titular greenhouse. Wandering through, Beth can revisit not just memories of her dead mother, but all the pivotal moments between her and her siblings and between her and her girlfriend that she has hidden away from herself over the years. Her adventure is not entirely wholesome, and the visions of her past are not innocuous, leading to at least one pretty harrowing pursuit. There’s the sense that having a window into the past is all too alluring for someone not quite able to move past her own regrets. But then again, for someone lingering on the threshold of grief, a good hard look at the past might be galvanizing, too.
There’s not a ton of narrative here, but I loved The Greenhouse because I loved everyone in it. I don’t watch big family dramas, but with its sci-fi adjacent premise, dammit, The Greenhouse tricked me. The characters themselves are knotty, consistently inconsistent, sometimes selfish or bossy or harsh, but also forgiving and loving and empathetic. They are you and everyone you know. The way loving queer and interracial relationships were upfront was great to see, too. Just…totally normal, because they are. Likewise, it was good to see Beth challenged and even to see her fail, to see her hurt her girlfriend as she refuses to accept her bisexuality, even though she comes from a family with two moms and a bisexual brother, because we get to grow along with her. I wouldn’t call this a feelgood film by any means, but it was a healing film with a hopeful final act and characters who are as grateful for second chances as the ones who make it to the end credits of Saw.
Angela is not saying Arthur was right. He just wasn’t wrong.