Reason for filming: Mockumentary – several years prior, a haunted house attraction experienced disaster on opening night, and several tourgoers as well as all the employees died. The film serves as a documentary that tries to uncover the truth of what happened.
What’s the horror: ghosts, demons, supernatural
Does the dog die? No animal cruelty
Gore factor: very little.
Re-watch scale: HEAVY rotation. This is one of my favorite horror movies, found footage or not.
Spoilers below – don’t scroll if you don’t want to know
Hell House LLC (usually just called “Hell House” – they may have had to add the “LLC” since another movie is out there with the Hell House title) is that rare treasure of a found footage film that even people who dislike the genre appreciate. It hits all the right notes, is incredibly creepy, has a consistent feel and pace throughout, and has good actors in all the main roles. The documentary format lends an air of realism to the story, and is very well-done – somehow they had the budget for a scene of the aftermath of the tragedy, complete with ambulances and stretchers and a shit-ton of fire trucks, which is impressive. There’s also another fantastic set piece in the “Abaddon Hotel” – which is a real Halloween haunted house attraction under another name. It’s old, it’s creaky, it’s creepy, and once it’s all dandied up for opening night it’s hard at times to tell what’s real and what’s part of the show.
We start the story with Diane, a reporter who is putting together the documentary to try and get to the bottom of what happened that caused so many deaths in this Halloween haunted house. There’s been no real news since the incident, and no one with any authority wants to cough up any info.
Diane is contacted by Sarah, the one surviving crew member of the company that ran the attraction, who wants Diane to help her tell her side of the story. Sarah shows up with a bag full of tapes – it appears the crew was filming everything that happened in the lead-up to opening night, with the intention of using the scenes for promotion or perhaps a documentary of their own. Sarah gives Diane the tapes, and from that point forward we cut between Diane’s interview with Sarah and footage from the tapes she provided.
We also get a few interviews with tour-goers who were there that night, a local historian, and a photographer who snuck in and took some photos after the incident. All of these actors play it straight, and take the documentary format seriously. It’s very convincing.
The Hell House footage begins as the crew drives to a new location the company’s founder, Alex, has scouted out for the coming Halloween season. Sarah, Diane’s interview subject, is Alex’s girlfriend, and even though the sole female character is relegated to girlfriend status, Sarah does a good job giving her character a personality of her own. It’s unclear what she does to help the team prepare the house, but she’s always around doing something, and the crew has good chemistry with her that makes her feel like part of the team. There’s also a lighting crew made up Tony and Paul – they’re the two who also man the cameras, with Paul taking the lead in that department. A tall stocky redhead named Mac rounds out the team; where Alex and Mac are overly serious and focused, Tony and Paul are laid back and full of wisecracks (“What are you doing?” Alex asks Paul one day as he wanders around filming. “It’s my day off,” Paul responds. “What? There’s no days off, get back to work!”).
Paul, as the main cameraman, is the head jokester; he has a good sense of humor that unfortunately often gets sexual harassment-y with one of the female actors they hire to work the haunt. She doesn’t seem to mind, but still, it grates. Tony is less defined; he seems to be a good-natured guy who wants the company to succeed, but that’s about all there is to him. Mac is pretty much a dick; it’s clear he can’t stand Paul, and is constantly blaming him for everything that goes wrong in that way someone often does in found-footage films that keeps them in denial about what’s really happening. This prevents Mac from realizing the truth about this mysterious hotel they’ve – rented? bought? it’s never clear – until it’s too late.
This is emphasized in a scene that’s really refreshing for a found footage film; if you’ve ever wondered why people get so much evidence on camera of strange happenings that they never just stop and show to the people who don’t believe them, well, here’s your reward. Because Paul actually does just that. After catching one of the incredibly creepy clown mannequins they’ve installed moving around on its own, Paul shows the footage to everyone. And of course, Alex and Mac chalk it up to Tony and Paul messing with them, no matter how much Paul persists. They do the same thing when Paul shows them footage of an extra mannequin just appearing and disappearing in a strobe light room, which is an awesome scene, by the way. With each flick of the light, we repeatedly see an extra body appear and then disappear in the next flash. But Mac and Alex have money to make, and they aren’t going to be stopped by Paul’s shenanigans.
Let’s talk about those clowns, because they are wicked. There’s one that’s practically another character in the cast, and all it does is stand around and move its head once. But it’s menacing as hell, and every time it pops up onscreen it gets your heart racing. Clowns, blink-and-you-might-miss-them hooded figures in corners, and a zombie girl who just appears in Paul’s room one night when he turns on the light, creeping closer and closer to him every time he peeks out from the covers he’s hidden himself under – the scares are fairly small and quiet, but they are effective. It’s a slow burn, and being introduced to the disaster of the night in question at the very beginning of the movie builds tension.
When we finally get to the big night, we get to see this scene again, but with the added background information and the footage from behind the scenes. This fills in a lot of the blanks, but not all of them, which doesn’t bother me but is a complaint people have about this film. Why can’t the crew just pack up and leave once it’s clear there’s something terrible going on there? We know there’s a reason why, because we catch the end of a conversation between Tony and Mac where Tony keeps saying it over and over: “We can’t leave…we can’t leave.” But we’re never told what the reason is. It seems to me that it’s a money issue, and that Alex probably put all their money into this new location, but that’s conjecture and never confirmed. Another question people have is, just what exactly did happen in that basement? The film devolves into incredibly shaky tour-goer footage at this point, and it’s hard to see much beyond hooded figures, skeletal faces, and chaos. For me, that’s enough, but for a lot of people it’s a bit unsatisfactory.
I have a few questions about this team of haunt makers, too. They make some sketchy decisions that are necessary for the sake of scares, but that peg them as irresponsible nonetheless. The first is when Tony “finds” an actor to dress up as a scary clown and stay stationed in the basement with their female actress as protection, since the crew can never get a camera to work down there (hint, hint). When Paul asks Tony where he found the guy, Tony says he found him at a gas station; Paul asks if he worked there, and Tony looks bemused. “I have no idea,” he responds with a grin, which they really should not have recorded if they’re trying to promote their haunt with this footage. To know that they just grabbed a dude out of a gas station parking lot and hired him as security would be enough to keep me away, just saying. And sure enough – at the first sign of trouble in the basement on opening night, the gas station clown just bails. He up and runs out of the house, leaving the actress chained to a pipe over her head, which is another detail that is necessary but stupid. There’s no reason to really chain a girl to a pipe in a haunted house; she could have easily just held her hands up there and been fine. But then we wouldn’t have had a way to strand her in the basement so the hooded figures could do – something to her, we’re not sure what.
Now, remember how I said up at the top of this post that all the crew members were killed in this incident, and then I said that Sarah was the sole survivor who shows up at Diane’s interview with a bunch of tapes? Well, that wasn’t a mistake. But I’ll leave the rest for you to discover when you watch the film.
The success of Hell House LLC spawned two sequels and a director’s cut of the original. While the director’s cut has a few interesting scenes included that were left out of the first one, it doesn’t add much to the story to have them included, and I can see why they were left out as they tend to slow down the pace a bit. The sequels are another story – I personally do not like them, but a lot of people do, so you’ll have to find one of those people for a recap of them. There were two sequels made, making Hell House LLC a trilogy, but my guess is that a trilogy was never intended and got tacked on due to the popularity of the first film. They add a lot of details about the hotel’s history, the creepy previous owner who hung himself in the dining room in the 80’s, a weird cult he led, and other disappearances that have happened since the event. The third one in particular goes waaaaay out there to create some sort of arc, and for me it just does not work. The first film was fine on its own, and it doesn’t benefit at all from the sequels – again, in my opinion. As a horror film, I think part 2 is actually better if you haven’t seen the original; it’s nowhere near as good as the original, but is a fun found-footage film in its own right if you don’t compare it to part 1. The third one draws much more on the lore of the place and the backstory with the original Hell House crew, and it’s a spotty, silly bore with a ridiculous ending. So while I will occasionally give part 2 a view, I never watch part 3 at all because, ugh. The original film is a standout of the found-footage genre; one of the best out there, and the sequels do not live up to that standard.
Reason for filming: A team of paranormal investigators filming footage for a new TV series spends the night in a haunted asylum and disappears. The footage they shot is now being shown to the public.
What’s the horror: ghosts, demons, supernatural
Does the dog die? No animal cruelty, except for one very unfortunate rat
Gore factor: very little.
Re-watch scale: Frequent re-watch. This movie is one of the better-known and better-received found footage films for good reason. It’s good old-fashioned scary haunted house fun with a new twist.
SPOILERS below!!! Don’t scroll if you don’t want to know.
Coming out as it did in 2011, Grave Encounters suffered from getting lumped in with the glut of found-footage films that came out after the success of Paranormal Activity revitalized the genre. Critics in particular were sick of the format, and the movie received middling reviews. But since then it has developed a reputation online and become a favorite of many found-footage fans – any horror film is going to have its detractors, found footage in particular, but this is one that is more universally praised than most others nowadays. Personally, I appreciate it as a pretty standard haunted-house flick, that doesn’t try to do too much except create scares, and the pacing builds suspense that has a real payoff at the end of it.
At the time, the Vicious Brothers, who wrote and directed the film, couldn’t believe that no one had made a found-footage film about a paranormal TV reality series, so they set out to be the first. Of all the reasons for keeping the film rolling during a found-footage flick, the documentary premise is the most reasonable, so it gets used a lot, but Grave Encounters takes that extra step of making it a professional documentary rather than just a bunch of college kids or film students working on a project. This is an episode of what we’re told is an actual TV show – albeit one that never got a chance to air as the disappearance of the crew happened in its first season – and it approaches the task of filming inside this supposedly haunted asylum professionally, which makes a huge difference.
One of my biggest pet peeves of found footage films with a documentary premise is when the movie doesn’t make even the most basic effort to create the sense that a real documentary is being filmed. This happens quite often when the cast is younger; I’ve already written about Devil’s Pass (which is, admittedly, a huge favorite of most found-footage fans) which is supposedly a student project but which involves seemingly hours of footage where the student in charge films members of the team hanging out, flirting, and joking around – and doing so from the very beginning, not just after things have gone wrong under the pretense that they want to document their own downfall so people will know what happened. She just seems to think the team’s childish banter and petty arguments are interesting. They are not. The entire team acts like spoiled preteens throughout the whole event – which just isn’t believable if they’re supposedly filming a documentary. Another pet peeve of mine is when a student is supposedly making a documentary, but they go around interviewing people while wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a tank top. Come on. Who would really do that? Without fail these “documentarians’ will also sit down on a bench or a couch directly next to their interview subject so that they’re in the shot at all times – again, not professional at all, especially when you’re dressed like you’re heading out for a day at the beach. While it’s not unusual for an interviewer to also be seen during a discussion, that’s usually done with a second camera trained on them to be intercut later; if that isn’t an option, then a voice off-camera asking the questions is perfectly acceptable. Grr. Moving on.
There are two types of documentary/found-footage films: the ‘found’ footage of a documentary that was in the process of being made when the crew disappeared, and a tragic event that happened in the past and is being made into a documentary film based on found footage – also known as a mockumentary. Grave Encounters is presented in the first format: although we get a clip at the start of the film from a TV producer explaining the setup – this was a team who disappeared halfway through filming their first season, everything you’re going to see is, real, etc. etc. – the rest of the movie plays out as if we’re simply watching the footage as it was recorded and as things go downhill for the people involved. This is by far the more common approach, and Grave Encounters handles it quite well.
So after our introductory blurb from the producer, we’re off to the races. We start with the background material the team filmed before entering the haunted asylum they’ve decided to spend the night in; it’s a skeleton crew, with two cameras, a sound technician, the host, and a psychic. Thanks to the two-camera team, there’s a reason for behind the scenes footage to also get filmed, and from that we get the idea that no one involved really believes in ghosts and is accustomed to manufacturing scares in the usual manner – exaggerating and over-analyzing every little sound or shadow, and leading the audience through suggestion and interpretation. We even see the host pay a gardener to say he’s seen ghosts on the property, and in my opinion the actor who played this bit role is a real MVP; the way he looks dead-eyed into the distance and says in a perfect monotone, “Yes. It was really scary,” is a corker.
There are more interviews before the team locks themselves in for the night: a caretaker, a contractor who was hired for repairs and abandoned the task due to strange disturbances, a historian who provides background information about the asylum. There’s some supposedly historic footage of the asylum and its patients that isn’t particularly effective, but it doesn’t detract too much from the overall premise, and hey, they tried. Soon enough, though, we get down to business, and the team has the caretaker lock them in so they can film the goings-on. I always have to suspend my disbelief when characters in movies like this take that particularly stupid extra step of truly locking themselves in somewhere with no way to escape – I mean, if you’re willing to pay people to pretend they’ve seen ghosts on the property, you clearly aren’t above pretending to be locked in when you aren’t, but for the movie to work, I guess it has to be done (although not really – couldn’t the ghosts just lock you in later? But I digress). Through this plot point we also get the trope of oh, no, our cell phones won’t work, and the oh, no, I left some equipment that 100% totally would have helped us get out of this situation in the car, but again, I’ll allow it. You’ve gotta explain why your characters don’t just call 911 or break a window somehow.
One of the things Grave Encounters does particularly well is utilize the setting. I’ve seen a ton of found footage films in cool abandoned settings that fail to use them to full effect, but GE is that rare movie that manages to use the building itself as its own character, and it does so effectively. When the team first enters the asylum, it is deadly quiet, but by the end it is cacophonous with evil laughs, screams, moans, and the low hum of what might be electroshock therapies or the wheels of gurneys. Every time I watch this movie I assign myself the task of really paying attention to just when and how the building starts to come alive, but because so much else is going on with the team I forget to do so every single time. When it starts, I make note of how quiet everything is, and the next thing I know, they’re surrounded by a chorus of inhuman sounds. Lance Preston, the host, makes note at some point that it seems as if the building is shifting and changing around them, which is true – hallways appear where before there were none, slams and bangs happen above them and below, or in rooms they just exited, and at one point, the characters even discover that hospital ID bracelets have appeared on their wrists, with their correct names and birthdates. Yes, there are physical ghosts and demons about, but it’s beyond that – the actual building itself is reacting to their presence, with freaky, tragic results.
But let’s talk about those ghosts and demons. They’re…not great. The cheesy CGI effect of expanding someone’s eyes and mouth gets lots of use here, and while it freaked me out the first time saw the movie, I’ve seen the same effect so often since that it no longer works. But there are a few good jump scares involving actual demons that we can see and hear, and that’s not something found-footage movies typically even attempt, so I appreciate the effort. Some of the setups are really obvious – like the bathtub where a woman was known to kill herself that, of course, later fills with blood and drags one of the team down into it – but so often in found footage films scares are set up that never deliver that it’s refreshing to watch a movie that actually does so. More problematic is the use of night vision filming, which is necessary for believability but is also annoying. Still, Grave Encounters has taken this into account, and does the best it can within that limitation, including dropping the construct whenever possible. The fact that the film crew also set up several stationary cameras is put to good use as well.
The characters here are also well-done. They’re not all likeable – T.J. the cameraman, does way too much shouting and arguing, which gets old quickly; and both Lance and the psychic James Houston are appropriately sleazy for people who are faking hauntings and being haunted. But you can forgive T.J. for being pissed off the entire time since he was the first one to point out the stupidity of being locked inside for real, especially when Lance did so without giving him a chance to bring his toolbox into the building, which most likely would have kept them alive. And while Lance’s sleaziness is justified given his drive to create a successful TV show, Houston’s is so overdone that it’s actually pretty amusing.
And Sasha, the other cameraperson, comes in like a badass but is ready to run at the first sign of paranormal activity; she also provides another one of my favorite LOLs early on when she’s sitting in a room that is covered from all four walls and floor to ceiling with hand-scrawled messages and she asks the question, as if talking to the author directly: What are you trying to say? I can’t help but imagine a tortured spirit balling its ghostly hands into fists and thinking, bitch, I spent years writing it all over the damn walls, what more do you want?
GE starts out slow, but once the first crewmember gets got it kicks up the pace nicely, with plenty of jump scares, kills, and other surprises to keep things rolling. However, once it’s down to just Sasha and Lance, it slows down to a crawl for some reason. Sasha starts feeling sick and feverish and puking up blood only to disappear in a massive fog that overtakes the two in the bowels of the building where they’re trying to hide – so what was all that sickness about anyway? It never leads to anything, so I always wonder why it was necessary.
And once Sasha has vanished, we spend way too much time with Lance huddling in that same hallway while being taunted by the spirits all around him, screaming and laughing while he slowly goes insane. I mean, a few seconds of this is effective, but do we really need to see him whispering into his tape recorder and playing back the same screams and laughs we’ve been hearing without it, or watch him hunt down and smash a rat so he can eat it greedily? I would argue that we do not, and I would much rather the movie get to the point – which is when all of a sudden Lance looks up and sees a door at the end of the tunnel he’s in.
He goes through it, and we get a nice callback to the footage we saw at the beginning of the film when the historian was telling us about the history of the place. There was a mad scientist there, of course, who was performing experiments and forced lobotomies on his patients, and on the other side of the door Lance opens, the mad doctor is right there, still operating. For added effect we also see a lot of pentagrams and other occult-like artifacts scattered about, and as the camera Lance is still using (purportedly to use its light) swings back to the doctor, he does the creepy CGI face change and swarms the camera. Cut to Lance, blood dripping down his face and blinking rapidly, filming himself weakly reciting the closing quip he’s been using with every episode: “Until next time, I’m Lance Preston with Grave Encounters.” And cut. Well done team!
There’s a sequel that really isn’t worth much; simply titled Grave Encounters 2, it’s basically a new group of characters sneaking into the asylum and filming with some extra CGI effects and scares thrown in for good measure. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but in my opinion you’re better off just re-watching the original Grave Encounters again. It’s entertaining found-footage haunted-house fun.
Reason for filming: Carl and Taz, who are – you guessed it – still alive, head back to the farm to convince Darren and Lucy to sign a contract they still need to get on file so they can use the behind the scenes footage they shot during Part 2
What’s the horror: ghosts, psycho killers
Does the dog die? As with the others in the trilogy, no animals are in danger here
Gore factor: None
Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. While ultimately Part 2 is my favorite of the three, they’re all great.
So, here we go – Carl and Taz are back, and Part 3 starts as did Parts 1 and 2, except that this time they’re heading out to the farm at night instead of in the afternoon, which starts things off on a more somber note. We get a few hints at how it is that, in spite of appearing to meet their end at the hands of Darren’s death-gathering (remember, it is NOT a cult) at the end of Part 2, they have both managed to live on and film another sequel, but the full story won’t come out for a bit, so I’ll wait to share that information.
As it is, the two arrive at the farm just in time to hear Lucy screaming from the now-familiar farmhouse, and as Taz and Carl rush inside they find them both being attacked by their own mannequins. Carl manages to free them while Taz films the entire ordeal. And no, we still don’t know exactly why it is that all these dummies surround the house, and guess what, we never will. Moving on.
Darren tells them the mannequins have been acting up quite a bit lately, and he has no idea why. While this conversation is taking place, we can hear Lucy hacking and gasping in another room dramatically, and one of my biggest joys in watching the final installment of this series is watching how much Lucy French really digs into her role, hamming it up at every opportunity. Gone is the freaky, tipsy, sullen Lucy of the first film. In her place is a woman who is tense and upset at all the supernatural activity that’s still occurring on her farm, and who is also starting to get more than a little miffed at Taz and Carl for failing to help rid of the place of evil spirits.
It’s a new twist thrown into the mix in Part 3 – we got a taste of Lucy and Darren’s irritation at the guys in Part 2, when Lucy snaps at Carl for how she came across in the first film and Darren keeps bristling at Carl every time he calls his group of clown mask-wearing fire-chanters a cult. And both of them reveal a deeper sense of frustration this time out, which has led more than one reviewer to wonder how much of that is for the movie and how much of it is real – are the owners of the farm simply sick and tired of making these movies, or is that all for show? It’s one of the delights of this series that the audience never knows – but my guess, based mostly on Lucy’s commitment to her character, is that it’s mostly for show. She really seems to be having a good time here, even when she’s supposed to be traumatized.
Darren, however, is testier than Lucy is overall, which is why at the end of Part 2 he asked his “gathering” of beast-casters to scare the shit out of Carl and Taz. That’s right – it turns out that the entire cult attack of Part 2 was just a ruse Darren pulled together to get even with Carl for continuing to conjure Sarah’s spirit after he explicitly told him to stop. Obviously it got out of hand – Darren never intended for the guys to get chased with machetes, and he certainly didn’t intend for Carl to stab Taz with a rake; he just wanted to get Carl back for disrespecting his requests that they stop the spirit-conjuring. And thanks to some backstory from Taz, we learn that right after Carl ran off another of Darren’s buddies removed his clown mask and pulled Taz out of the swimming pool before getting him help. As Taz describes this, he side-eyes Carl, who tells him “I really can’t apologize for it anymore,” indicating that there’s been more than one conversation about this since it happened.
While it’s clear that Taz has forgiven Carl, it’s also clear that this time out everyone is tense. Carl, focused on his film as usual, jumps right into a conversation about getting those contracts signed as they all sit down to dinner, and both Lucy and Darren avoid the subject by reminding Carl that there are still bad things happening at the house, and in spite of all the time he’s spent there he hasn’t helped them solve any of their problems. Carl backs off the contract talk, and in spite of all the tension between them they manage to have a nice meal. There’s definitely a kinship between them all by now, but along with that is more honesty about how everyone truly feels, and it plays out almost like a family drama throughout the film.
And there is a family drama here, although it takes a while to get to that. For now, Lucy and Darren don’t want to sign the contracts without a guarantee that Carl can help rid their farmhouse of spirits, and even though Carl thinks he’s proven his gifts to them already, the couple wants more assurance. Lucy takes off one of her rings, slaps it down on the table, and demands that Carl make it move with his mind. To say this is a weird request is an understatement; we’ve never seen any signs of telekinesis from Carl, so where this idea comes from is a mystery. Carl is similarly confused, and starts to explain in great detail to Lucy what his gifts are – as an empath, he gets in touch with spirits through emotions and feelings on another plane and doesn’t have any real skill in the telekinesis department – but as he’s doing this, lo and behold the ring scoots across the table towards him on its own. Everyone gasps, and Darren and Lucy immediately sign their contracts, convinced now that Carl is legit. Carl and Taz, however, have no idea how that just happened. Taz wants Carl to start moving other items with his mind right away, but Carl resists. It has to have been a fluke, he reasons, since he’s never done such a thing before. We’ll get back to that later.
Carl and Taz set out in the dark to check out other areas of the farm to see what energies they can pick up on. My favorite part of this scene is when, after encountering more orbs in one of the barns (or attics or something, I can never tell) Carl says that they should contact a paranormal investigator about them. “You are one,” Taz reminds him. Hee hee. We get some good scares as Taz and Carl investigate a stuffy loft – an overhead light keeps swinging harder and harder at the other end of the room, and at one point some sort of figure rushes quickly past, scaring the crap out of everyone. Carl swears he sees a shadowy figure leaping over a fence, too, but by the time they get down there, whatever it is has gone. Still, we’re off to a good start.
Cut to later that night, and Carl, Taz and Lucy are taking it easy in the spa. It’s a great moment; watching Carl and Lucy relax in the bubbly water makes us all feel right at home, and reminds us how much we’ve come to love just hanging out at the farm with Lucy and Darren and familiarizing ourselves with their strange, quirky ways. Then a light goes on, and a shadow is seen; everyone’s fairly calm by now, as nothing bad has happened during their little pool party, so Carl isn’t particularly concerned as he pulls back the tarp’s flap, but he steps outside and immediately starts screaming. Taz and his camera go rushing outside to find Carl standing there in his Speedo, covered in blood. Taz looks around for what might have done this, but there’s no one else there. It turns out not to be Carl’s blood that’s all over him, thank goodness, and with no leads to go on everyone shakes it off and turns in for the night.
The rest of the night is uneventful, and it’s clear the next morning that Carl and Taz are feeling more at home on the farm now, as seen by the way Carl hides around a corner in order to jump-scare Taz as he comes out of the bathroom, and how Carl casually grabs a random kitchen knife and wanders around muttering “Yah! Yah! Come get me!” But the jocularity ends when Carl and Darren walk into the kitchen, where they’d both been just a few minutes prior, and everything has been upended. All the cabinets and drawers are open, and stuff is thrown about everywhere. There’s even a putrid rat on the kitchen counter, and Darren’s had enough. He lays into Carl for spending all his time filming and screwing around instead of using his psychic gifts to help them out, and stomps off. Carl gets the message that he and Taz have become just a bit too comfortable at Darren and Lucy’s, and they need to buckle down and get to work clearing the farm of whatever’s doing all the haunting and blood-smearing.
Carl and Taz head out to try and interview some random people around town. Instead, they find something black and furry scampering around in some brush – at first it looks like a dog, but when it turns around and starts charging towards the guys I actually yelped a little; it really looks big and hulking, whatever it is. The camera snaps off as they run away, and pops back on as they wander through through an empty house, exiting through a back door into a lovely garden. There’s a woman sitting on a bench outside, and Taz and Carl approach her to warn her about “the beast” they just saw bounding about in the brush. Like the other locals they’ve encountered, this woman seems unfazed by the news, and it takes Carl and Taz way too long to figure out that she’s blind. It turns out that she’s a psychic, as well, just like Carl, and she picks up on his gifts right away as he leads back into her house.
Well, she’s not quite like Carl. She hasn’t used her gifts in years, and she hints at some past trauma that might be why that is, but doesn’t name it specifically. She does name what she senses is Carl’s gift, though – moving things with his mind. Soon enough, another visitor wanders into her house – it’s Robert, Sarah’s father from the second installment, and it turns out he’s this woman’s ex-husband and Sarah’s mother (In the cast list, she is known only as “the spiritualist,” so I don’t have a name for her – incidentally, “The Spiritualist” is the title of another Carl Medland movie, and in that movie Caroline Burns Cooke plays a character named – you guessed it – “the spiritualist”). It’s clear she can’t stand Robert, and for me this is the only part of the movie that drags. The woman who plays the spiritualist is a great actress, but she’s so scattered and melodramatic that it’s almost uncomfortable, and it seems her hatred for Robert is made clear in the first one or two minutes he’s there and the rest of that time is just overload. To be honest I usually just fast forward past this section, which lasts about fifteen minutes.
Finally Carl gets them both to agree to hold a séance that night, and sure enough the ghost of Sarah shows up. Once again, the spiritualist is so fragmented – she rarely completes a sentence – that it’s hard for me to follow, but the closed captioning helps: she can feel Sarah, but there’s something evil in the way that prevents her from being able to communicate with her daughter clearly. There’s a nice little jump scare when some costumed kids show up banging on the door for trick or treating, as it’s Halloween, and after everyone calms down Carl tells the camera “I’ll go get them a banana,” which cracks me up.
The next day, based on what the spiritualist tells Carl about his ability to move things with his mind, he tries one more time to consciously unscrew a nut from a bolt that Taz gave him earlier – and yes, there are many screw jokes thrown in for good measure. He settles down and concentrates. And sure enough, the nut winds off on its own. He also makes a coin move across the table. It’s a cool effect, and after he’s done Carl’s fingers start smoking. “Taz, it’s not good to smoke!” he quips, wondering aloud if he’s about to internally combust. He does not. But the point is – Carl can move things with his mind. This will be useful later.
The next morning, the team sets up a trap to capture the beast, using a big hole dug into the ground by covering it with a tarp and placing some of Lucy’s animal baits on top of it. It’s not super-clear what the plan is here, but before we can figure it out Carl and Taz go back into the house and discover a woman in Jessica’s bedroom, where Carl is staying. It turns out to be Jessica herself, and she’s popped into town to surprise her mother with a visit.
Jessica says a few strange things during this encounter, the strangest of which is her claim that her mother has been sounding tired lately, and stressed, and that they need to be careful not to overtax her. Yes, Lucy, who we’ve seen mowing and chopping and horse riding and dog feeding and stable cleaning and cooking and basically never sitting down for more than five minutes over the course of two and half whole movies is easily worn out, it seems, and I don’t believe that for a minute. She appears to be one of the healthiest people on the planet, and she regularly wears both Carl and Taz out with her energy, even though she’s clearly 20 or 30 years their senior. Jessica also asks the two repeatedly how much longer they will be filming, pushing them to say they’ll be done by the end of the day, but Carl stands his ground and says they need more time.
Carl and Taz head outside to speak with Robert, who is lingering over Tia, Sarah’s favorite horse. Then Jessica appears again, as if she’s following them around, so it’s surprising when she pulls Robert aside for a private “catching up,” as she calls it. The two walk off to the barn, and Taz and Carl return to the bedroom, where Carl takes the crystal ball the spiritualist gave him and starts staring into it, unintentionally causing a large package to fall to the ground from the top of Jessica’s closet. It’s a package she was stuffing up there right when Carl and Taz walked into the room earlier. Carl looks at it for a moment, then rushes back outside to the barn with Taz confused but in tow.
And here we go. Medland’s ready to knock down the various pins he’s set up over the course of the movie, and he and Taz get right to it. They overhear a conversation between Jessica and Robert that confirms they had an affair years ago, and Jessica is not happy that Robert’s moved on. Yikes. Jessica sees the two hiding behind some hay bales, grabs a knife to chase Carl and Taz off, but Carl is undeterred, and he marches right back into the barn where Jessica and Robert have gone and confronts her. She was saying something about Sarah when he walked in, and he wants to know what it was. Then the spiritualist walks in, for some reason, and Jessica flips out, asking Robert if he’s betrayed her by getting back together with Sarah’s mother, holding the knife to Robert’s throat. Carl decides it’s time to let his telekinesis powers fly, and he starts screaming at the top of his lungs, which causes the entire barn to shake and barrels and hay bales to fly around. Everyone surrounds Jessica, including Robert, and she finally admits to killing Sarah herself because she was threatening to out her affair with Robert.
Much drama ensues. Robert screams at Jessica. The spiritualist screams at Robert. Jessica screams at everyone. Then the best part of the entire series happens, in my opinion – Lucy comes in and really lets rip, and it’s right out of a soap opera. “Yeeeeew bitch,” she drawls. “How daaaaaaare you! You call yourself my DAUGHTER?! After all I’ve done for you?!” It’s delicious. I love Lucy. Lucy French, that is. Jessica blames Lucy for the whole thing, telling her that her father (who isn’t Darren, by the way) was abusing her, and Lucy ignored it, which is why she killed him, too. Dang. Jessica’s gotten away with a lot of murder. But not anymore, because Taz proudly proclaims he’s gotten the whole confession recorded, and with that, he and Carl pack their bags to get the hell out of that madhouse. But before they leave, Taz asks Carl how he knew what was up with Jessica, and Carl pulls a black furry costume out of the package that flew off the top of the closet earlier. Jessica was the beast who covered Carl with blood the night of the spa.
From the way they rush away, and how relieved they are to be out on the road and away from all that drama, it seems clear there will not be a Paranormal Farm 4. And anyway, Carl gets a call from Hollywood while they’re on the road, and it appears they’re on their way to California to film a documentary of a haunted house. Welcome to America, Carl and Taz!
Each installment of this series has more structure than the last, and Part 3 definitely is the least spontaneous of the bunch. While this makes “Halloween” more plot-heavy and intentional, which leads to some lags here and there, it’s necessary if Medland is going to give his trilogy a satisfying conclusion. Though the addition of even more characters here means some of the unity and cohesiveness the core cast has established gets diluted, it actually makes the dramatic conclusion easier to accept. We’re not left wanting another installment, because the whole thing’s gotten way too messy this time out, and everyone is good and tired of each other by the end of it. In fact, we don’t even see Carl and Taz tell Darren and Lucy goodbye, and Darren in particular barely registers in the final moments. If that makes you feel sad and nostalgic for the simpler times of Parts 1 or 2, well, you can always go back and start the whole thing over. It’s what I always do. 🙂
Reason for filming: Carl, who is still very much alive, is returning to the farm to film some behind the scenes footage for the DVD release of Paranormal Farm, Part 1
What’s the horror: ghosts, cults
Does the dog die? As in the previous film, there’s animals everywhere, but they’re all safe. Two dogs do get into a fight, but nothing comes of it.
Gore factor: None
Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. I love this series!
SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t scroll if you don’t want to know.
At the heart of the sequel to 2017’s surprise zero-budget super-indie hit is a clever premise. We start part 2 just as we did in part 1, with Carl filming as he drives to the farm and explains what he’s about to do. The movie he made with Darren and Lucy has had some success since being uploaded online, and Carl’s got a distributor now who wants him to film some extras to include in its upcoming DVD release. And within moments of the movie’s opening, Medland has essentially upended the entire premise of his original film.
*Side note: As much as I love to add as many screenshots and photographs as possible to my posts, the side-effect of having done this since at least 2011 means I have once again used up all my storage space. However the cost of maintaining all of this as well as expanding my storage to be able to continue uploading files is no longer cost-effective, so I am reduced to using links to photos from this point forward. That’s not a problem with my own photos as I can link to them on my Flickr Pro page, which has unlimited storage, but when it comes to screenshots of films I am at the mercy of what I can find to link to publicly, and for these movies that’s not very much. So there aren’t as many screenshots of these films as I would like to have. Sorry.
Of course, we all knew PF1 was fake, no matter how convincing its found-footage feel; we just didn’t expect the sequel to totally acknowledge that at all, much less in the first ten seconds. The foundation of any found-footage film is that it’s just that – footage that was taken by others who experienced something horrible and then found by others who are now sharing it. So closely do found-footage enthusiasts attach themselves to this idea that many will eschew any movie filmed in this style that tries anything that takes it out of that realm – adding music, for example, or having multi-camera perspectives, or overly effective lighting. Paranormal Farm 2 doesn’t break any of those rules; it’s still filmed entirely on a cell phone, and incorporates no musical cues or other tweaks some FF films attempt to pull off (for the record, such flourishes don’t bother me). But in a few sentences, Medland has managed to blow the entire conceit of his first film out of the water.
And so, having knocked down some the previous movie’s mysteries, Medland sets up some new ones to explore, while quickly and handily taking care of the whole why-isn’t-he-really-dead business in a pretty satisfying manner. Bringing a character who is clearly dead by the end of a movie back to life in order to film a sequel always requires a willing suspension of belief on the part of the audience, who usually accepts whatever explanation is provided in order to enjoy returning to the world of the original. But in blowing up the premise of his original movie, Medland actually creates a sequel with a surprising amount of depth most sequels fail to deliver. Instead of a movie that’s a rehash of the first, with perhaps a bit more money thrown at it and a new cast, Medland goes in the opposite direction, revisiting the same characters but revealing the real people behind the false personas of the first film, while also continuing the spooky mood and taking the supernatural elements in a new direction. It’s brilliant.
Not completely out of the water, though, as it turns out – we soon learn that there is something supernatural occurring on Darren and Lucy’s farm, and there is a cult hanging around (although Darren will bristle at the word every time Carl uses it), and there was a young woman who disappeared in the area about five years ago; it just wasn’t the farmers’ daughter Jessica, who is very much real and also very much alive. And the rumor around town is that the young woman who died was mauled by a mysterious creature the locals call “The Beast.”
The characters best served by this perspective are Darren and Lucy. In fact, it’s hard for me to remember how off-putting and unlikeable these two were upon first viewing, because it doesn’t take long at all for “Closer to the Truth” to reveal the downright loveable oddballs behind that façade. Lucy French benefits the most from this FAQ-style of character development; it’s rude to point it out, of course, but the damage to Lucy’s face is unavoidable. In the first movie, it adds to her creepiness, but it would be a shame to allow that perception to continue any further (although there’s another film from 2013 that was filmed at this same location by Taz called “Crossland;” it also incorporates Lucy into its story and makes creepy use of her disfigurement, so I can only assume Lucy doesn’t mind). Medland gets to work right away giving Lucy space to tell her story, which is that she was in a horrific car accident that smashed a whole side of her face, and it’s now full of titanium and skin grafts and an eye socket that didn’t get set right which makes it hard for her to see. She shows Carl some photos of her face in different stages of recovery with cheerful resilience: “You’re smiling in all of them,” Medland observes, to which Lucy replies, “Well, because I’m alive.” Cut to a scene of Lucy rolling around on the floor barking with her dogs, and the redemption is complete.
Darren gets his chance too, when it is revealed that he used to be a stuntman with some world records under his belt. As I started to write this paragraph about Darren I decided to Google him and see if he was really ever a stuntman, and yep, he was, although the scrapbook pictures he shows Carl had me pretty convinced this was true already. He also apparently really did have a nervous breakdown after retiring, and wrote a book about the power of positive thinking and perception that is no longer in print. When, in the movie, Darren talks to Carl about this experience, it’s a truly sympathetic moment. One minute he was this locally famous guy jumping over things on a motorcycle, and the next he was just another unemployed one. “I felt worthless, basically,” he tells Carl, and there’s something shocking about the stark honesty of this admission that’s quite endearing. In “Closer to the Truth,” Darren and Lucy are no longer the antagonists of the story; they’re more aligned with Carl in trying to discover the truth about the supposedly real haunting that is still taking place on their farm.
Although, not entirely. Lucy is pissed at Carl for how she was portrayed in the first film, and she has to get that off her chest eventually. “You humiliated me,” she lectures him, in another super-meta moment. And Darren gets pretty testy with Carl several times, especially when Medland refers to the gathering of friends he has who meet out in the woods around a campfire on occasion to “send the beast back through the gate” as a cult. It’s not a cult, Darren insists, just some friends who don masks and chant around a fire every once in a while, to which Carl logically responds, “I don’t see the difference between that and a cult.” Indeed.
Medland also adds some new characters into the mix here, which is a wise choice to keep the sequel moving. The producer, Mumtaz Yildirimlar, who goes by Taz, meets up with Carl at the farm to help him film DVD extras. The pair have great chemistry, and Taz is a proper foil for Carl who helps flesh out his character; Taz’s good-natured silliness often clashes with Carl’s perfectionism, and reveals Medland as the more rigid and controlling of the two (although he’s still charming and funny throughout). And Taz is even more spooked by the supernatural than Carl is, if that’s possible, and Carl regularly has to push him to stay in the mix. For example, when Carl gets the idea to hold a séance to try and contact the spirit of the dead girl, Sarah, Taz wants to sit that out because he is terrified of such things. This prompts quite the lecture from Carl, who insists that Taz is there with a job to do, and therefore, he needs to show up for everything. “He promised me he wasn’t going to do this,” Taz says into the camera, but ultimately, he shows up.
No one is, in fact, very thrilled with Carl’s séance idea, but Carl has encountered another new character while out riding Lucy’s horse, Tia – Sarah’s father, Robert French, and he’s convinced the man has something to do with Sarah’s disappearance. Carl’s interview with Robert is sufficiently creepy – he’s clearly still haunted by Sarah’s death, he’s hurt that there’s gossip in the town that he had something to do with it, and he keeps caressing the photo he holds of Sarah as a child in a manner that Carl finds “darkly disturbed.” And even though Lucy insists Robert is a stand-up guy, a “gentleman’s gentleman,” as she puts it, Darren has a different perception, telling Carl that Robert was not the best of fathers and making it clear he doesn’t like the guy. All of this piques Carl’s curiosity to the point of insisting on the séance that no one else wants, and while it is successful in contacting Sarah, it also pisses everyone off, and soon Carl is on his own.
But before we get to that, though, as it sets up the final act, let’s address the question – is the sequel actually scary? We have some motifs from the previous film that show up again – those creepy mannequins are still around, doing creepy mannequin things. The plasma ball lights up without provocation, and lights still flicker off and on. And all the animals on the farm start acting oddly as soon as Carl shows up, including Lucy’s adorable dogs, who take to scrapping with each other so much that they end up in muzzles. Oh, and a rooster attacks Carl while he’s on Robert’s property, which leads to some amusing dialogue: “I got attacked by a huge cock,” Carl tells Taz, “I think I need stitches,” then pulls up his pants leg to reveal the smallest rooster-wound ever known as Taz explodes in laughter. So, while the hauntings here are often tempered with humor, “Closer to the Truth” still manages to spook.
The majority of scares are reserved for the final act, though, as much of “Closer to the Truth” is about humanizing Lucy and Darren, and discovering what Taz and Carl can about the mysterious “beast” lurking around in the woods near their farm – some more investigation reveals that it’s most likely a large panther, which, while not exactly a supernatural monster, is still a big threat to any animals or humans who might cross its path. As Lucy keeps insisting, this is how it is in the country – there are predators about, and sometimes those who attempt to coexist alongside them end up being prey, as is believed to be the case with Sarah, and you either accept that or move away if you can’t handle it. Another fact of country life that Carl and Taz learn the hard way is that you really, really shouldn’t trespass on other people’s land: while out in the forest investigating “the beast,” they come across two farmers who don’t take kindly to seeing strangers on the property with a camera, and there’s a tense albeit hilarious car chase that ensues between the filmmakers and some deliverance-style hunters who ride up alongside of them and point guns at them through their open windows while Taz screeches in what can only be described as “like a girl.”
When Carl, in his usual melodramatic fashion, relays this experience to Lucy, it’s quite fun to watch her and Darren blow it off as just another fact of country life; if she’d had a gun and seen two strangers stalking about on her property she’d have pointed it at them, too, she tells them – and after checking out “Crossland” I recognize this as a callback to that movie, as it’s the entire point of that film. Also filmed on Lucy’s farm, she plays a far more malevolent character who basically murders anyone she catches trespassing, and also rants at one point about how anyone who ventures “off the footpath” deserves what they get – which is the exact line she uses on Carl and Darren, albeit with much less venom.
Some more Googling actually located the farm where both “Crossland” and the “Paranormal Farm” movies were filmed – it’s a real farm, owned by Lucy, and it rents out space to campers and RVers in the area. It actually gets great reviews, and Lucy is often mentioned as a perfectly delightful and accommodating host, so while there’s truth to Lucy’s ownership of the farm, her malevolence is all an act, just so you know. Indeed, my fondness for Lucy led to me actively rooting for her while watching “Crossland” (which was written, produced, and directed by Taz) even though she’s clearly the antagonist in that film. But I digress.
Darren stops the séance before the spirit can fully spell out the name SARAH, and Carl leaves his phone charging in the room so he can spy on Darren and Lucy’s conversation. Lucy, – who appears to have been hitting the box wine again, god bless her – keeps insisting that there’s no reason to investigate Sarah’s death as it’s all over and done with and everyone has moved on. Darren hints to her that there’s more to it than that, but it was long ago and he doesn’t want to relive what for him was a dark time. Lucy, perhaps due to the wine, doesn’t appear to catch what Darren is hinting at – that he knows something more about Sarah’s disappearance – and eventually Darren drops the conversation and they both wander out of the room.
When Carl goes up to Jessica’s bedroom, where Taz is waiting, to relay what he’s heard, the plasma ball from Part 1 lights up again on its own. Soon Carl is communicating with the spirit again, which at this point he’s convinced is Sarah, and he feels guided back into the barn (at least I think it’s the barn; there are many buildings on the farm and it’s hard to tell what’s what) where he discovers a real Ouija board. Carl is convinced this means Sarah really wants to communicate with him, so in spite of Taz’s reservations they head back to Jessica’s room to use it. While doing so, the lights go out on their own, and Carl hears a voice whisper to him “don’t go through the gate.” Taz freaks out and leaves the room, and soon after that Darren comes into the room and freaks out that Carl is still holding seances after being explicitly told to knock it off, and he kicks both Taz and Carl out of the house.
But not right away – he is kind enough to at least let them stay the night and pack up their things in the morning. But what at first appears to be a last act of generosity takes a sinister turn, when Carl is awakened from sleep by – you guessed it – someone in a creepy clown costume filming him with Medland’s own camera. Carl flips out and charges out of the room and down the stairs, with creepy clown and camera close behind. We are guided down the stairs via the camera’s perspective, and as we turn a corner we see Carl sitting at the head of the kitchen table, held at knife point by another dude in a clown mask who is also, inexplicably, wearing a superhero costume. He’s surrounded by other clown-mask wearing creatures. “Tseab, tseab, tseab,” they all chant, which Darren has already explained is “beast” spelled backward. Soon the truth comes out – the cult killed Sarah (why? who knows), and if Carl doesn’t leave immediately he’ll be killed too. Carl convinces them to give him back his camera and tries to get more of a confession out of the men, but they leap up from the table instead and charge him, which forces Carl to take off.
Another chase scene ensues, during which we can hear at least one of the cult members (I mean gathering members, sorry Darren) telling Carl to “go back through the gate,” and that’s the last reference that will ever be made to said gate so figure that out for yourself, I guess. No matter – because soon Carl manages to run to a neighbor’s house and bang on the doors, but it appears no one’s home. Then Carl hears some commotion and hides in a dark space on the side of the house, grabbing a rake to defend himself. He hears something approaching, and steps out from the shadows to stab whoever, or whatever, it is, and we soon see that he’s accidentally shoved the rake into the gut of Taz, who falls into a swimming pool. A creepy clown is right behind him. Both the creepy clown and Carl take off, leaving poor Taz behind impaled on a rake, and it always cracks me up to hear Carl yell “I’ll be back, Taz!” as he runs off, leaving Taz to fend for himself. So long Taz. We barely knew you.
Carl has to run back into the house to grab his keys, which he does with much panic and mucho shenanigans from the mannequins, who keeps popping up in doorways ever closer to Carl at every scare. He ends up having to run right past one of them to escape (which totally reminds me of a scary clown mannequin scene in Hell House, LLC, albeit probably unintentional), but escape he does – only to end up getting squelched by some weird costume-wearing dude standing out in the middle of the road after Carl (still Taz-less) hops into his car and starts driving away. For reasons unknown to me, Carl gets out of the car with a flashlight to get a closer look at this weird character, who suddenly sprouts wings that fold around Carl as the camera goes dark. The closed-captioning simply interprets the final audio moment as “squelch.” The end.
So there it is. The end to both Carl and Taz, and the end of the mysteries of the Paranormal Farm. Or is it? Stay tuned for part 3.
Reason for filming: Carl, a wanna-be paranormal investigator, arrives at a Devonshire farm to try and help its owners figure out what can explain the supernatural occurrences on their property
What’s the horror: poltergeists, ghosts, cults
Does the dog die? Lots of animals in this one, but the only ones that die are already dead and being used for bait for other animals (squirrels, rabbits). They barely even look like animals anymore, and are not related to the story in any way. But they are there.
Gore factor: None
Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. I love to watch these films!
SPOILERS ABOUND! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
The Paranormal Farm trilogy starts with this entry, released in 2017. It’s not clear if the writer, director, and star (Carl Medland) intended to construct a trilogy around the concept, but my guess is that he didn’t, and continued on with the story in parts 2 and 3 due to the reception of this first one.
Shot entirely on Carl’s cellphone, Paranormal Farm starts with the protagonist explaining to his audience what the film is going to be about. It seems Carl recently filmed some mysterious orbs in a French chateau, and as a result of uploading this video to YouTube he was contacted by Darren and Lucy, a couple who own a large farm in Devonshire. Darren and Lucy have had strange occurrences on the farm, and they’ve asked Carl to investigate.
Now, I’ve read an interview or two with Carl about the making of this first film, so I want to share what I know here since I think it plays directly into the enjoyable aspects of this movie. Obviously it had no budget, and the decision to film it on a cellphone was to create an “immersive” experience, according to Medland (he uses his real name in the movie). There was no script, and Medland claims the producer (who goes by Taz and is introduced in later films) was the one setting up the scares – it seems to me this would be impossible to pull off unless the owners of the farm were given more details, even if Carl didn’t know them – but the interview I read doesn’t get into that. I will say that the film feels very reactionary, much more than most found footage films, in the sense that it genuinely seems to be reacting to the farm setting and the oddness of the two characters, as if the script is being constructed as the director familiarizes himself with the setting, and begins incorporating elements of the farm into the experience. I credit this at least partly to the fact that Carl Medland was already a filmmaker and screenwriter before this endeavor, and it is far from his first time making a movie. He definitely brings to this a skill that transcends the format’s limitations.
Some of these farm-quirks are downright inexplicable, like the presence of MANY mannequins placed around the property, fully dressed in farming attire. Why are they there? It’s never explained, and since Carl never asks the couple about them, it remains a mystery, both to him and to us. This is one choice Medland repeatedly makes throughout the film that works well to keep us rooted in Carl’s experience: there are a lot of weird things going on here that he documents, but never asks for clarification about, and while that does come across as a bit strange, the more immediate effect is to make us feel as nervous and edgy as Carl does as he wanders about trying to solve the mystery of the supernatural goings-on. Sure, it would have made sense to ask Darren and Lucy what the deal was with the mannequins, but it works so much better if we (and Carl), don’t know. Likewise, Carl often experiences pretty scary things on his own that he fails to clarify with the couple (such as the figure in the clown mask that follows him around at one point), opting instead just to tell them that some force around the farm feels malevolent.
To Medland’s credit, that lack of questioning never comes off as merely a way to service the plot. In fact, this movie throws a lot of weirdness at you that goes by too quickly to make sense of, and in this manner Carl’s failures to ask for details or report them as they occur seems normal. The scares here feel really organic, and it all goes back to the idea that Medland (or Taz) is fully utilizing elements of the farm that already existed to create scares and reasoning for those scares as he goes, which should feel sloppy but doesn’t. Credit for this organic feel must also be given to the other two characters in the movie, Lucy and Darren.
Medland says Lucy and Darren went into this project with no idea of what they were supposed to do beyond a very thin framework, and that he peppered them with questions on the spot that they had to make up answers to. While that seems hard to believe at times, I can say that their behavior in relation to Carl’s questioning is certainly odd, especially in the beginning when they have no idea what Medland and Taz are going to throw at them. But they are clearly game for the whole thing, and knowing they were totally making up information in response to what they were being fed goes a long way to explain how odd they come across in the first film. Their answers are often vague and non-committal, and at times they both squirm and shuffle oddly in their responses. (It may be a bit of a downer to know going in how this was filmed, but hey, I warned you.) Given how the movie ends, this weirdness really works and manages to come together quite nicely – although there’s no way they weren’t coached on what to do in those last ten minutes. At least I certainly hope that’s the case (and future installments will confirm that it is).
And just what exactly is going on down on the farm? Well, there’s strange sounds and knocks in the walls. Stuff gets knocked off of shelves or moved around. There’s a huge gong that sometimes bongs for no reason. And there’s strange lights that they both see in the distance sometimes at night – right around the spot where they think their daughter Jessica disappeared five years prior. The couple show Carl around the farm, both inside and out, then take their box of wine out to a camper parked on their property and leave him alone to do his thing for the rest of the night.
Soon Carl is experiencing paranormal events of his own. The lights flicker every time he whispers Jessica’s name. Just as Lucy described, the gong rings out on its own. And a strange dude in a clown mask is wandering the premises, along with the creepy mannequins who suddenly don masks themselves – one has even grown a Freddy Krueger claw. At one point, Carl gets the bright idea to use a plasma ball he finds in Jessica’s room to try and communicate with her (another example of Medland using what he finds in the moment to move the story) and channels her just long enough to get a weird clue that is never totally explained. Plasma balls, dummies, clowns, weird sounds – it all culminates in the moment when Carl visits Lucy and Darren in the camper (where Lucy has clearly taken advantage of the majority, if not all, of the boxed wine) and tells them he does feel Jessica in the house, and that she is at peace, but there is also something evil lurking about, which leads Darren to inexplicably get upset and run off.
And that’s when the movie ties things all together. As Carl searches for Darren, the clown-masked mannequins start to move and lay chase. After much running about and away, Carl stumbles upon a campfire out in the woods, surrounded by more clown maskers chanting “tseab, tseab, tseab!” Um, okay? Of course, he steps on a twig that alerts the cult to his appearance, and more chasing ensues in the form what appears to be an ever-increasing population of clown-mask-clad characters, culminating in Carl hiding out alone in the barn, only to be discovered by a maniacal clown with a chainsaw who hacks off his arm (we don’t see it). Carl’s phone is still recording, of course, and so the audience sees the maniac remove his mask to reveal that he’s actually Darren.
Cut to some security footage the next day, showing the now-dead Carl being strapped to a ladder as bait for a mysterious “beast” who lives in the forest. Then cut to a scene of the family singing happy birthday to someone who is clearly their son, while Lucy scoops out heaping helpings of lasagna onto paper plates. “This tastes different this time,” someone says, to which Lucy quips something to the effect that there’s a secret ingredient in it, which we’re led to assume is Carl. The end.
The way this seemingly muddled mess of a movie manages to tie it all together quite nicely at the end really sold it to me, as well as the personality of Medland himself, who is funny and charming throughout. He wants to be a paranormal investigator, but he’s so scared of every single supernatural thing that happens that it appears he’s chosen the wrong profession, even though he really can channel spirits such as Jessica’s. Likewise, we can attribute the weirdness of Lucy and Darren to their evil-cult plans, which appears to also explain the mannequins and clown masks and other bizarre goings-on – Medland manages to fit it all in to this cult he reveals in the final moments. Even though the necessity of clown masks and mannequins is still unclear, it’s satisfying enough in its own right, and leaves Medland with some terrific meta-material that he will mine in the next film – which I’ll discuss next time.
I’m pretty sure this was made with almost no budget, as it is simply several people communicating via computer during confinement due to a pandemic. That’s one of several things I think this movie does cleverly; it doesn’t date itself by using any particular technology when communicating with each other, and it never names the pandemic as COVID. This gives it a little bit of a broader scope, and makes it applicable to any time period.
The concept is pretty simple. A woman and her boyfriend are separated due to his job when he tests positive for whatever the plague is that has everyone in lockdown mode (we can assume it’s COVID, but again, since the movie doesn’t say, I don’t want to make assumptions) and is forced to stay out of town until he is cleared to go home. The two are communicating via computer when the man, whose name is Austin (and who I have to mention looks WAY too old for his girlfriend, not to be ageist but it’s pretty jarring) hears a knock at his door. He goes to answer the door, but no one is there. The next day, while Lisa, the girlfriend, is doing that THING that found footage movies simply MUST throw into the mix where the dude asks the girl to make some sort of naughty video for them (ugh), she hears a knock at her door. She goes to answer, and yep – no one’s there. It’s late at night, and she’s a little freaked out, but she gets back into the tub (no, we don’t see anything) to make her video, and there’s a loud knock again, but this time it’s at her bathroom door. But once again – no one’s there.
And that’s pretty much how it goes – although they’re miles and miles apart, both of them are hearing knocks at the door, that escalate into knocks inside the walls of the house, then they also hear scratching, and doors start to open on their own. Rooms they just left get trashed, and stuff is moving from where they put it down to some other random place. Meanwhile, they both start feeling sicker and sicker, as if this weird, supernatural haunting is somehow connected to the virus.
There’s also some pretty good drama between Lisa and Austin, and I like the way they did this. Usually in found footage films I find the obligatory “people must fight with each other” trope to be completely overdone, but the way this film goes about it makes more sense than it usually does; instead of the usual fighting over what to do about the ghostly happenings (one person wants to leave, one wants to stay, blah blah blah) they actually fight about what the happenings are. Austin thinks it is an ex-boyfriend of Lisa’s playing tricks on them, while Lisa knows that isn’t the case; Austin thinks Lisa’s complete rejection of the idea that it’s her ex means she still has feelings for him, and he pushes and pushes her in every conversation – to the point that I found myself wanting to strangle Austin as much as Lisa does. It’s super annoying, but really effective, and a much more engaging way for tension to build than usually occurs in found footage movies, because it’s something you could really see a couple getting into conflict over, and instead of being fighting for the sake of fighting, it actually adds some depth to their relationship.
There’s also a friend named Avery who’s involved on the periphery, a police detective who gets drawn in at one point, and the moderator of an online group dedicated to people who are having the same supernatural occurrences as Austin and Lisa and who is trying desperately to find out what’s going on before more people die. The dude does make a connection that I won’t get into here, in case you don’t want to be spoiled – but it’s an effective explanation that works within the confines of the story. There are also occasional YouTube videos of other people experiencing the same thing scattered into the mix.
I do think the acting is very effective in this movie. I was particularly impressed with Lisa, who is played by actress Sumayyah Ameerah; she just has a few other credits and there’s not much about her online, but she really has to carry this film, and she does a great job. She’s very likeable, and her increasing panic as the illness and the hauntings escalate is more than one-note. She gets a bit of backstory as well, and her therapist makes a few appearances to help flesh out some of her issues that are definitely getting triggered by her isolation and panic as well as her conflicts with Austin. Kipp Tribble, who plays Austin, is also quite good here. He has kind of a shitty role to play in being such an ass to Lisa about her ex, but he commits to it enough that you want to punch him, but you don’t want him to die or anything.
One thing that makes this movie stick with me even upon repeated viewings is that it works well within the confines of the (completely absent?) budget and the found-footage constraints. It doesn’t try to do or show too much, and as a result, it comes across as pretty realistic. We’ve all seen the videos that claim to show actual hauntings, and they’re never anything more than a shadow or a random sound or something falling over; while that’s never convincing when looking for ABSOLUTE PROOF of the supernatural, there’s a reason such videos still get so much play – it’s easy to convince yourself that pencil that rolled off the table could have been a poltergeist, and it’s similarly easy in this movie to believe that loud knocking on a door in the middle of the night just might be the boogeyman out to get you. This movie does not underestimate the power of those creepy ‘house sounds’ we all experience when we’re home alone and awake late at night, and it doesn’t try to fill in any visual blanks about what might be causing them. In short, this movie does just what it needs to do to creep you out, and nothing more, and that’s a good thing in my opinion.
I also like how the movie ties this current pandemic to similar plagues throughout history, reminding us all that humanity has been here before, many times. COVID, the Black Plague, you name it – there’s always something lurking out there that’s waiting to wipe us all out. And when your luck runs out, it might just start knocking on your door.
What’s the Horror: Badass pissed-off witches and family curses
Does the Dog Die? Heidi owns a sweet golden retriever named Troy, but there’s no need to worry. He suffers no cruelty in this movie.
Gore Factor: Not much – on a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a four. Everything is very stylized here, and what blood there is still manages to be kind of twisted and beautiful.
Character Quality: It’s lacking. Sheri Moon Zombie does her best, but her range is limited, and there’s a lot that isn’t fleshed out among the others. A few character actors give powerful performances, though, and while Sheri Moon is a little one-note, she is quite likeable and sympathetic, and you can’t help but root for her.
Why Do I Like It? Zombie creates tension and dread beautifully in this movie, and the visuals are stunning. It’s more of a mood than a movie with a plot, but it’s a hell of mesmerizing mood in my opinion. It’s lovely to watch, and just feel.
Rob Zombie movies – I either love ’em or hate ’em. It always feels to me like he aims much higher than his relatively independent budgets allow him to go, and he ends up having to modify his original vision down to something that often just looks confusing and half-baked. But when he is able to bring his visions to the screen clearly and entirely, I think he rocks – and not just because he’s also a musician.
The Lords of Salem, which released in 2012, is probably an example of a Zombie film that got lost a bit in translation, possibly because his vision exceeded his budget again. It’s a common theme I’ve heard in the movie commentaries I’ve listened to on other films; Zombie constantly mentions scenes that had to either be cut or reconstructed because he didn’t have the money to pull off what he’d conceived in the script. In 2013, Zombie released a Lords of Salem book that actually fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie, and since I loved the film so much I actually bought and read it, something I’ve never done to compliment a filmv- aside from Pan’s Labyrinth (which, holy shit, if you haven’t seen that movie, please do). Personally, this movie pleased me on such an emotional and aesthetic level that I didn’t care if the plot didn’t pan out, but reading the book was an enjoyable way to get the entire backstory that explained some of the random bits and bobs that popped up in the film without real explanation.
One reason I love Lords of Salem is because it’s about witches. And like one of my other favorite films, the 2018 version of Suspiria, these are not pleasant witches to deal with, which is fine by me – while I dislike the idea that witches represent a means to denigrate powerful women, I also don’t mind them showing up on screen as badass bitches who take revenge over those who’ve wronged them. So, there’s that.
We have two types of witches here – wild, wooly hags of the past dancing around fires and casting spells (as well as getting burned at the stake when their enemy, John Hawthorne, finally captures and condemns them), and seemingly benign, cheerful women in midlife who take a particular liking to the film’s protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne (that last name turns out to be significant).
Now let’s talk about Heidi. Rob Zombie has a stable of actors he uses in his movies, and his wife Sheri Moon Zombie always plays a part onscreen. Her acting range isn’t great, and her character takes center stage here; while another actress may have provided more depth to the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part as it seems apparent Zombie wrote this script to showcase her. In fact, I read somewhere that Lords of Salem is “a love letter to his wife,” and I have to agree – the role of Heidi plays to Sheri Moon’s strengths, which are an uncanny ability to radiate California-sunshine sweetness in even the most sadistic of roles (such as Baby Firefly), and to project a disarming sense of innocence in a woman over 40 (she was 42 or 43 when this was made) that always makes the audience root for her no matter how psychotic her character may be. Plus, I must admit that I have a massive crush on the woman, and even though the “ugh, another Rob Zombie movie with his wife in it” attitude out there is strong, I for one am always down to see her onscreen. She is gorgeous and also close to my age – she just turned fifty – and she’s all natural, which is obviously rare. In fact, her Instagram reveals her to be pretty much the sweet-natured, animal-loving, healthy-living California girl that she looks like in most of Zombie’s movies – even though they try hard to disguise that quality here.
Heidi Hawthorne is massively tattooed, dreadlocked, and bespectacled – all adornments Sheri Moon Zombie lacks in real life. She is still model-tall and rail-thin, with a great ass – don’t judge me, Rob makes sure we get a good glimpse of her derriere at least once in every film. In fact, the first shot we get of Heidi is when she’s asleep face down naked on her bed, as the camera slowly pans up from foot to fingers. It’s a lovely shot, and my guess is that even now, at age fifty, Sheri can still pull it off.
She’s also fairly normal here, in spite of her alternative looks, which Heidi gets away with because she’s one of three hosts of one of those kooky morning radio shows where they play very little music and create a lot of annoying banter between them. She wakes up like the rest of us, most likely – jarred by the sound of the alarm, shuffling to the bathroom and heaving a weary sigh as she looks at her tired face in the mirror. What we soon learn is that she’s also recently gotten clean, although the movie gives little insight into what extent her addiction had over her, and only provides a tiny glimpse at what her drug of choice had been (there’s one scene of her smoking crack towards the end of the film, after everything’s gone of the rails and she’s essentially given up all hope). This is one area where the book does a better job than the film at describing the extent to which Heidi’s addiction affected her co-workers and the pretty big risk both guys took by fighting to keep her on; her crack addiction almost tanked their morning show entirely at some point in the recent past, so when it appears she’s fallen off the wagon, the level of anger her co-workers show makes a lot more sense with that context. In the movie, one of the DJs in particular comes off like an unsympathetic dick, but once you realize he basically promised the powers-that-be that she’d stay clean, it makes more sense.
The problem is, Heidi does stay clean, for most of the film, and only turns to crack once her life has fallen apart, and she has no idea why. Things start to go off the rails fairly quickly, when Heidi receives a weird record from a band called “The Lords” that is sent directly to her with no return address. Soon, she’s putting the record on the old turntable and giving it a spin, and immediately falls into a trance where she’s transported back to those crusty witches of yore we already saw in the movie’s opening.
Meg Foster plays Margaret Morgan, the badass head of the coven that gets roasted by what turns out to be Heidi’s great-great something or other grandfather – the connection isn’t made until later because Heidi doesn’t use her real name on the air, she goes by the perfectly cheesy Heidi LeRoq. But I digress. Meg Foster is as badass as her character, and she is hella wild in this role. Her voice is gravelly, she still has those ice-blue eyes that made her famous, and she hams it up at every opportunity. So as I said, Heidi hears the music of The Lords and immediately trances into a scene of Margaret Morgan spitting on a newborn baby and screeching about how the coven has failed to birth what I can only assume would be the son of Satan.
The music, by the way, is singularly freaky, and could not better represent what might be some ancient music played by witches using human bones and organs as instruments. The real clip of it is only 35 seconds long, but some twisted person on YouTube actually looped it out to 11 minutes, which would make anyone insane. It’s worth a quick listen though, because it’s oddly effective.
So the skinny is this: when John Hawthorne burned Margaret and her coven members at the stake (in a scene that is horrifying in its accuracy), ol’ Meg put a curse on his entire family line, culminating in eventually using some distant relative of his to be the bearer of the devil-baby they were never able to produce. Enter Heidi Hawthorne.
And that’s basically it. Since Heidi’s on the radio, her team decides to play The Lords’ trippy tune on air, and it sends out a sort of clarion call to all the women of Salem who are direct descendants of witch-burners from times past. It’s clear that not only Heidi is being affected every time the music plays, as we get scenes of other women all over town who are frozen in place whenever it sounds, but clearly Heidi is getting the worst of it. This is another area where the book goes into much more detail than the film, making it far clearer just what’s going on. The music was originally made by Margaret’s coven, and it’s been lying in wait for Heidi Hawthorne herself to get prepped and ready for the miraculous birth. The other women are being called to join in the ritual and ultimately sacrifice themselves as punishment for the forefathers’ sins.
So the rest of the movie is just Heidi slowly being driven into a state of submission and weakness, having terrible dreams and horrific experiences, and becoming more and more despondent as her life falls apart due to forces she doesn’t understand. Throughout the movie there are some stunning visual sequences that represent this descent, and the way Zombie cuts between the slow, sad decline of Heidi and the manic, fiery rage of the ancient witches as they gradually come together is effectively dreadful. It is all manipulated, of course, by the sweet-on-the-surface landlord named Lacey who dotes on Heidi alongside her kooky “sisters” who are actually modern-day members of the same coven, come to escort Heidi to her devilish demise. As Heidi spirals downward, they tighten their grip, feeding her powerful tea and guiding her into mysterious rooms in the boardinghouse Lacey owns, where fantastical scenes play out rather incomprehensively but beautifully. I’m still not clear what actually happens to Heidi in some of these scenes, but what they lack in explication they make up for in mood.
Things get a bit murky as Heidi hurtles towards her inevitable end; there’s a scene that may be the impregnation, by a group of bizarre faceless “doctors,” or it could be another scene where she appears to be connected by umbilical cords to a squatty, grisly demon. There’s a scene where she’s strapped down and attacked by Margaret Morgan and her coven which may be the birth that kills her, and then some sort of resurrection, maybe?, that ends the film. None of it is clear, but it is compelling and fascinating to watch, so when the credits roll and a news radio reports that all the female descendants of the original Salem founders were found dead in an apparent suicide pact while Heidi Hawthorne has gone missing, I’m willing to accept it for the wild trip it all is. And then I watch it again.
Recently Nigel Bach came out with the ninth movie in his insanely low-budget, cult-favorite series, and since I’m in a reviewing mood I thought I’d give it a go.
Reason for filming: It’s Tom Riley, that’s why. Honestly if you’ve made it to film 9 you don’t even question these things anymore.
What’s the horror: More ghosts.
Does the dog die? No way. Bad Ben steers clear of animal cruelty, even when the occasional dog or cat makes an appearance on screen.
Gore factor: Another no.
Re-watch scale: Regular rotation, as are all Bad Ben movies. Letting them play in the background by now is like having a family member chatting away while I do dishes or something.
SPOILERS BELOW -DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW
Tom Riley is back after meeting what appeared to be his demise in movie #8, titled Pandemic. Tom’s appeared to meet his demise many times throughout this series, so this was never a reason to be concerned. We knew he’d be back.
And he is back, and his bullet wound has magically disappeared. And there are all these random items in his house that don’t belong to him, along with a strange cat and a lot of phone calls asking for someone who doesn’t live there. There are some fun tricks Bach pulls as Tom Riley wanders around the house trying to re-orient himself to his surroundings; the old trope of the ball that bounces down the stairs is enhanced by having about 18 of them bounce down all at once, mysterious brownies appear on the kitchen cabinet (that Riley, of course, eats), and a great gag where he takes his ghost meter all over the house and determines it is clear since it never went off, only to realize it didn’t have batteries in it (of course it goes off as soon as he replaces them).
There’s also some really fun Tom abuse – another Bad Ben staple – such as a ghost chucking a full-sized pumpkin at him, getting smacked yet again by the attic door (you’d think by now Tom would have figured out a way to get around having to walk under that thing), and getting yanked off the floor and smashed against the ceiling. None of these effects are done with a Hollywood-level of quality, and some of them are fake looking as hell, but at this point that’s not just part of the charm of these movies, it’s a selling point. Tom getting smashed against the ceiling wouldn’t be half as funny if it was done realistically. With each movie, though, Nigel Bach expands his repertoire and tries to add new things to the mix; in this one we see a demon with more clarity than we ever have, and even though it still appears to be just a dude in a black cloak Bach works some magic to make it more effective than previous attempts have been. He’s got a few good jump scares up his sleeve, and a new clown in a jester cap, and he takes a stab at more physicality than he ever has before – fighting off invisible demons and getting knocked down by them repeatedly.
We also get Tom at his wise-cracking best, with cranky comment after comment that’s really the cohesive glue holding every Bad Bad film together. Where the visuals are weak, Tom’s self-dialogue is strong; where the story lags, Riley’s there with a wisecrack to fill in the gaps. And Bach is never above making fun of himself – he rags on his weight (“did I never think of eating a fuckin’ carrot?” he chastises himself as he tries to squeeze through a window), walks around naked (with proper -albeit probably exaggerated-pixilation), and falls down stairs. He also adds a lengthy Tom Riley butt-shot and some twerking this time around, but more about that later.
Some of Bach’s new effects are fun, like the severed hand that casually strolls around the house, soon to be joined by the floating head of a dead priest who engages in mostly casual conversation with Tom about the ghostly goings-on (“my body was chopped to pieces and distributed across the land,” the head tells Tom. “Well the good news is, I think I found your hand,” Tom quips back). And if there’s one thing Nigel Bach knows how to do by now, it’s provide a movie with a bang-up ending. He sticks another landing here, with Tom Riley getting his dance on to cheer up and clear up the negative vibes in his house, which he’s been told will cast the evil demon away. And it’s no slouch of a dance either – he runs from room to room, spinning and skipping and yes, occasionally twerking, for basically an entire song before throwing a load of roses at the demon to send him away. Bach knows what his fans want, and what they want is a full-length Tom Riley dance number.
There’s also some explaining to do about why there are so many unfamiliar items and animals around his house, and just what happened with that gunshot that should have killed him at the end of Bad Ben 8. But that’s all I’m going to say about that, because you get the idea by now. This is another solid Bad Ben installment that fans will love and others may or may not like at all; such is the nature of low-budget found footage horror – but by this time, it’s clear Nigel Bach is a master of this subgenre, and he’s doing it better and more prolifically than just about anyone else.
My one and only complaint about Bad Ben: Benign is that as packed as it is with sight gags and sarcastic quips, it still drags in the center. There’s a bit too much walking around and wondering aloud about what may or may not be going on, and a book-reading sequence that goes on way too long. For that reason, this may not be the best movie to use to introduce someone to the Bad Ben-iverse. That’s best done with the original, in my opinion. And while the last two Bad Ben installments have taken Tom out of the familiar format and into some different situations – Bad Ben 7 takes place entirely in Tom’s car, and in 8 he’s in his basement for the whole movie, reacting to what takes place on Zoom – Benign puts Riley back where he’s been many times before, all by himself in the house on Steelmanville Road, settling scores with spirits on his own.
Some may see this as a step back due to his recent experiments with different settings, but for me this is Tom Riley at his best (even though I enjoyed both 7 and 8 immensely) and is a well to which he’s likely to continue to return. And why not? Nigel Bach’s instincts have been dead-on so far (for the most part), and his formula, which he tweaks and twiddles with each time out, is one that works. I personally hope he never runs out of ideas for this series, even when Tom Riley has to ride around his house in a wheelchair to scare the ghosts away. For however long these movies are being made, I’m going to show up for them.
I have been wanting to write about this movie since it was released back in November of 2020, but it’s a tough one to suss out. This is a movie that’s all about mood, and a lot of backstory and explanation gets sacrificed to that, but overall I think this works in its favor. It’s not a perfect film, but it is perfectly intentional, and I get the sense that not one sentence or shot is wasted here; that every single thing is weighted with meaning. Now that I’ve chewed it over for a year – which is a lot of chewing – I feel like I can finally summarize my thoughts. In the past when I tried, I found myself over-analyzing every scene and utterance, because the film does lend itself to this, but at this point I think I’ve finally synthesized everything enough to give more cohesive and conclusive thoughts without getting too bogged down in details.
SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Reason for Filming: It’s a movie, that’s why. (In other words, this is not found footage)
What’s the Horror: Family breakdowns, and also demons
Does the Dog Die? No dogs, but many sheep. So many, many sheep.
Gore Factor: Scale of one to ten? I’d give it a four. There’s not much, but there’s some. Including the aforementioned sheep.
Character Quality: Excellent, albeit completely reserved to the point of being withdrawn. Which is the point, so it works. The acting is stellar.
Re-Watch Scale: Oh man. This is such a good film, but it’s too bleak to be re-watched often. I enjoy a lot of horror movies and find them to be so much fun. This movie is NOT fun. It’s one of the bleakest I’ve ever seen. There’s not one moment of levity in the whole thing. It’s brilliantly and intentionally done, but this is one rough watch. In fact, although I am rarely actually scared by a horror movie anymore, the sense of despair is so dense here that the horror elements pack a pretty terrifying punch, and this one really did scare me a little. So that’s something.
SPOILERS AHEAD – LAST WARNING
The Dark and the Wicked is about just that. It’s about the role darkness and wickedness plays in all of our lives – how we can be consumed by our own darkness and give in to it to the extent our wickedness ekes out of us and latches on to the ones we love. When we descend into darkness, it turns out we don’t necessarily go down alone. We may be taking others with us without intending to do so. And how much of that is our fault?
There’s a home care nurse in this story who tells one of the main characters that she believes in God, and therefore she must believe in the Devil, too. And she believes the Devil, and the evil he generates, can come for anyone, at any time, at random. Without meaning or warning. But love – love can protect a soul from the Devil’s darkness. The flaw in her explanation, however, is that she makes love sound so simple. If you’re family, you love each other. And if you love each other, that love is always pure, and reciprocated, and is never selfish, or flat-out inadequate. But we all know love isn’t always pure and perfect and kind, and we don’t – or can’t – always access it to the capacity we need to when the times require. Sometimes we just don’t love others the way we should. Sometimes we fail; we just don’t always get love right. And the consequences of that here are tragic.
The film’s setting is somewhere in Texas, on a bleak sheep farm out in the middle of honest-to-God nowhere. Interestingly, the director grew up on this very farm, so I’m going to hope the way he portrays this farm in his film isn’t the way he experienced it growing up because damn – it’s bleak as fuck in every single shot. Wide angles stretching out the brown, flat, winter nothingness. Miles of brown grass and grey skies and lots of wind, and wolves that howl at night, and shadows. Dark, heavy silhouettes dominate as a motif in the movie, as we repeatedly see characters in full shadow, lit only from behind, everything but the shape of the body unknowable. People as empty shells, or dense as heavy voids.
But I’m already getting bogged down in details. The premise is this – Mama and Papa run the family farm alone, their two grown children having left long ago. But Papa is dying – has been for some time, it seems – and it’s getting to the point that Mama can no longer cope on her own. Enter Michael and Louise, their two children, who arrive on the farm on the same day after being called there by the home care nurse who tends to Papa during the day. She thought having family around him would help. She’s – not right about that.
In fact, according to Mama, the opposite is true: she repeatedly says the kids should not have come, which overall isn’t an unusual thing for someone to say after tending to a dying partner for some time. There’s a tendency to get used to going it alone, and even preferring it that way, and not wanting to burden other people, which is unavoidable since you and you alone know how burdensome the situation is. The guilt just makes things harder. But. That does not seem to be the motivation of Mama here. She never looks her children in the eye, and keeps her back to them as much as possible. She says other things that are more ominous and menacing. “You shouldn’t be here,” she says repeatedly, which – is a different thing to say, entirely.
It’s easy enough though, to write this off as stress and grief and strain, which is what Michael and Louise do. We see these two try to make small talk with each other, and it’s painful. It’s clear they have nothing to say, that they’ve been estranged, and that Louise is perhaps a bit more estranged from her parents than her brother. “When’s the last time you called them?” Michael asks. “She called me on my birthday,” Louise responds, which – ouch. I know that one. Louise never calls.
We don’t know why this is; the estrangement between everyone involved is never explained. There’s no backstory, no reason for their distance, either emotional or physical. Were they ever close to each other, or to their parents? It’s never clear. There’s no family history, other than little hints here and there – Michael says one time that his father was a good man, and we hear him tell his wife that without his mother he’s lost. Louise tells her father she loves him and can’t live without him, but not until he’s literally breathing his last breath. There are images occasionally that hint at past disappointments – Mama has an unfinished wedding dress in her sewing room with the name “Louise” pinned to it, for example – but that’s about it. I’m still unclear as to whether or not more history would have enhanced the story. I’m not sure it would, but more importantly I think it works quite well without it, so I definitely can’t call it a flaw. We are in it as deep as they are, in the moment, with no way out – and perhaps too many happy family memories would have provided points of exit or salvation the filmmaker didn’t want to provide. So it leaves me wondering, but it works.
And there’s more at work here than family isolation, impending death, and familial discomfort. Because Mama has been hearing things. And whispering to someone who isn’t there. And there are wolves that howl at night. And chairs that scrape across the floor on their own. And apparently, there’s a literal demon in the opening scene that I have never, ever seen, so I was surprised to find a screen shot of it:
I re-watched this scene after seeing this image, and nope. Still didn’t catch it. So this shit goes by fast, y’all. It did enlighten me to the idea that the director wants us to know from the opening moments that there’s a literal devil here, which I was willing to believe without ever seeing this moment, because quicker than you can say “Mama’s had a bad, bad day” she intentionally chops off all her fingers while cutting carrots over the sink and then hangs herself in the garage, which is where the siblings find her the next morning. They’ve only been there 24 hours. Shouldn’t have come, indeed.
This sends Michael and Louise into a spiral of silent, isolating grief. In this moment of great pain, they aren’t capable of providing much solace to each other. Louise finds some comfort with a long-time family friend and ranch hand named Charlie, with whom she seems to have a father-daughter type of friendship. It’s been suggested there’s something sexual here, which is possible, but I don’t really sense that myself – I see Charlie as a replacement for the affection Louise should be able to share with her father, but can’t for whatever reason. Her level of comfort with him – she breaks down and cries while hugging him, which we never see her do with her brother – implies they have been this way for a long, long time, probably since Louise was a child, which indicates to me that there’s always been distance between Mama, Papa, and the children. For Michael’s part, his love and loyalty lies with his wife and children, to whom he constantly calls and unburdens himself over the course of the week he is there, expressing his intense desire to leave all of this behind and just get back home to the family he loves and clearly adores – indeed, he seems to cling tightly to his own family as a form of escape or relief from the desolation his childhood home has come to represent. All of the love that should be in that house, it seems, is projecting itself outward and elsewhere, and none of that is doing Papa any favors, just like it couldn’t save Mama.
And let’s talk about Papa for a second. He lies in bed with a tube in his nose, unconscious, and he coughs on occasion. That’s about it. There’s one scary moment where Louise hallucinates his coming into the bathroom while she showers, with his eyes whited over and his head convulsing, but in a flash he is gone. We never see anyone speak to him, touch him tenderly, or otherwise even acknowledge his presence, and yet, it is his impending death that looms over all of them; his death, and – something else. There is something off about the setup here, the way Papa is, as a figure of mortality, ever-present, but as a person, completely unknown and unacknowledged. It works a subtle, uncomfortable spell on the audience and gets under our skin. Who is this man? Who loved him, and why? What did he do with his life, and what influence did he have on his children? Even for the brief time in which Mama was alive, we never see her do anything more than tug on his covers and mutter at her children, and when Michael finds her diary, which she was writing in up until the night she died, it has almost no mention of Papa at all. It talks mostly about the Devil, who wants to steal her husband’s soul and sits on his chest at night, who laughs at her and tells her to die. “Devil, Devil, Devil,” are her last written words before she commits suicide. So more than anything, it’s the Devil that defines Papa – as its target, yes, but also, as the thing that gives the Devil its power, a power it uses to cut down anyone else it encounters as it watches vigil over Papa’s last breaths. In her diary, Mama says she tried to lock the Devil out, but it gained access anyway. But it could have been Papa who let him in just as easily, with or without intention.
Enter the nurse, who by the way, does an excellent job in this role. She’s a peaceful, simple, stabilizing character here, sitting in her corner knitting while watching over the old man, and offering up her own deeply-held religious sincerity. She is open, and honest, and not at all overbearing in her strong and steady belief in God and the power of love – she offers nothing but what she hopes can be comfort for everyone involved, and her eventual disintegration under the pressure of the family’s deep misery is heartbreaking in its subversion of what should be her pure and innocent belief in the power of God and prayer to heal all wounds. But she does provide the best explanation for what’s happening inside the home: Evil exists, and it comes for whoever it wants, and it does whatever it wants, in the end. She’s right about that part. But she is painfully, tragically wrong about the power of love to overcome that evil.
So far, I haven’t actually talked about that evil all that much, so let’s get into that. Mama’s presence is still seen and heard throughout the house, and in disturbingly creepy ways. Michael sees her in the fields at night, with an evil smile on her face and her nightgown blowing in the breeze. She levitates off the ground right in front of his eyes before his bedroom lights go out only for her to be right behind him when he flicks them on again. She approaches him again in the barn at night, her naked body decomposed, and tries to convince him to use his pocketknife to slash his own throat. Louise hears her voice when the phone rings, telling her again “I told you not to come.” It’s unsettling to see Mama, who seemed to be disturbed but also a fairly gentle, maternal character before her demise menacing her own children in this manner. It feels not just evil and scary, but also cruel, and not at all motivated by Mama herself – it feels like a manipulation from someone, or somewhere, else.
Enter the priest. I think he has a name, but I can’t recall it, and the cast list just calls him The Priest so I’m gonna follow suit. Up to this point I haven’t mentioned how deliberate and poetic much of the language is in the movie, because there’s so much going on visually and through the storyline, but it’s magnificent. And the priest has some of the. best. lines. He shows up in their driveway in the middle of some thundering rain, and forces an invitation inside. Michael and Louise are not pleased. It seems the family was never religious, and they feel Mama’s rantings about the devil may be this man’s doing. She’s never been to church much less visited with a priest, but it seems in her hour of need this man was there to “help,” as he says. The siblings think he’s the one who filled her head with ideas about devils and demons and souls, and quite possibly made her go mad. But the priest has a different perspective. Our mom thought the devil was here, Louise says to him, but she didn’t believe in such things. “What does it matter whether you believe?” the priest responds. “Do you think the wolf cares if you believe he’s a wolf? Not if he finds you alone in the woods.” The sheep can confirm this maxim.
“She needed someone. I think you both know that now, hmm?” the priest growls, his voice and cadence darkly demonic. He’s creepy as hell. But he’s not wrong. “She was alone. They both were. I didn’t do that.” Ouch. That one’s gotta hurt.
Now, before you begin to believe too completely that this priest is obvs the Devil himself, make note that a few scenes later, Louise will call him on the cell phone number he left on the card he gave her – and he will have no idea who she is. Or who her mother is. In fact, he’s never been to Texas, much less visited their sheep farm. He is in a hotel in Chicago, and he has no idea how Louise got his number. But there is a connection here, because the priest, or whoever he is, chastises Louise for the cruel joke she’s playing on him, calling him up, using his dead daughter’s name, and imitating her voice so precisely. Louise throws the phone away from her in shock, as if she’s just been burned, and – just exactly what the hell is happening here?
I’ve spent way too much time over-analyzing scenes like these, where reality gets blurred and tiny plot points arise that I know mean something but I’ve no idea what or how important it is to figure them out – such as when Louise wakes up after spending the night sleeping next to her father (which strikes me as weird, by the way) and her face is covered with red lipstick, or just why it is that it’s only Michael who ever sees visions of his mother, while Louise is the one who hallucinates her father having that seizure, and while I have theories about all of these, in the end it’s best to conclude, as the movie does, that this is just how evil is. It fucks with you because it can. And this weirdness with the priest, in particular, I think comes down to exactly that. In the absence of love, in the presence of evil – nothing and no one can be trusted.
The poor nurse has to find this out the hard way. I mean, the hard, hard way – as do those sheep – but I’m skipping over that part as I’m sure you can imagine that damage. They’re adorable animals and this is a horror movie, after all. But let’s just say those aren’t marshmallows they’re roasting in the fire photo up above. Anyway, the nurse has been present throughout the movie, but mostly in the background, watching over Papa and offering solace where she can. She’s the polar opposite of the creepy priest, who was loaded with agendas and guilt and blame and bad intentions; she’s fulfilling what appears to be a pretty Christian calling, in the traditional sense, caring for the sick and the elderly, and on the final day in the house she lights a prayer candle for healing and protection for the family. But we’re way past that – compare her teeny little flame to the raging sheep-fire and you get the idea. Because after the creepy priest shows up in the dead of night on the front lawn with dead eyes, Michael has had enough. In fact, by the time Louise rises the next morning, Michael is gone.
He’s heading back home, he tells her when she calls. It’s too late for Papa. Get out of there and save yourself, he says. His wife and his daughters are all he cares about in this world, and he’s getting back to what matters, to what he can actually affect and protect in this world. Louise is, understandably, distraught. “I can’t believe you left me alone,” she wails inconsolably, and her fear, her pain, her anguish, is palpable. I mean, it is a dick move, Michael. But it isn’t going to work out the way he wants anyway. He’ll go home, walk through his front door, and find his wife and children dead at the breakfast table. Their throats all cut. It’s an eerily effective scene, with loud, plaintive country music on the stereo as Michael slow-motions it around his house, trying to make sense of the carnage. He can’t take it. He takes out that knife his mother tried to convince him to use the previous night, and slits his own throat wide open. And as the blood flows, we see the scene through his eyes – there’s no one home. No children with their heads slumped over their cereal. No wife with lifeless eyes. It was all a lie. And there is nothing Michael can do before he dies except realize too late his terrible, terrible mistake. He cannot, in fact, protect his family. He can’t simply go back to what he had before whatever darkness he encountered on the farm seeped into his life. He’s leaving everything he loves behind, in the most damaging, tragic way possible. Dang.
Back on the farm, Louise continues to grieve over her brother’s betrayal, and the chaos unfolding in the other room is having an odd effect on the nurse. We’re in the kitchen with Louise when we hear her scream. Louise runs into Papa’s room where we see her bloodied by her knitting needle, which she has plunged into her own stomach. It’s pretty horrifying. She continues to vacillate between religious fervor – whispering to Jesus that she hears him, she praises him, she loves him – and abject horror at the violence she’s inflicting on herself uncontrollably. There are moments where her face reveals her terror over what is happening, and the next that is wiped away by an expression of pure rapture, as if her work is somehow the will of God. Louise watches, horrified. Stab the needle into an eye and scream. Raise a hand up to heaven and praise Jesus. Yank the needle out and stab the other one. Raise both hands up to the heavens and smile widely. Eventually she knocks Louise out by banging her head against the wall while screaming at her to get out of the house. It makes no sense; all is madness. She talks to Jesus some more, holds up her hands as her eyeless sockets leak red rivers, falls to her knees, flops face-down dead. Because she, too, refused to see the wolf for what it was in the end.
We’re down to just Louise now, and she tries, in her father’s final moments, to give him the love he needs, but she only does that after trying to bolt from the house and stumbling down the front steps in her desperation to escape. She’s called back inside by his ragged breathing – but no one in this family has managed to save themselves so far, much less anybody around them, so Louise’s final attempts to rescue her father are futile. She tells him she loves him and he gasps for air; she tries to protect him, to tell him she’ll stay by his side. But it’s too late. He dies. And before we have time to even think about what that means, or what has happened to his soul, we hear Mama singing somewhere in the distance, and then the monster from the first scene pops into frame and snatches Louise away as she screams – which pretty much tells us all we need to know. No souls were saved during the making of this movie.
There’s a lot I didn’t even mention in this long-winded review. Charlie commits suicide after witnessing a bloody vision of Louise and his granddaughter shows up to creepily torment her. There’s a lot of reading from Mama’s journal, many stilted conversations between the siblings, Mama’s singing of religious tunes, her collection of tiny, cheap crosses, a weird makeshift graveyard of Mama’s favorite sheep, doctors who refuse to move Papa to a safer place, and much more I am sure I’ve forgotten. It’s pretty astounding how much misery and detail this movie packs in to its 1 hour and 35 minute runtime, which is part of what contributes to the feeling of despair and utter exhaustion you feel after watching. This movie is relentless in its depiction of grief and desolation. It’s powerful and compelling, but it will wear you out – much as this long-winded review/analysis/whatever you want to call it may have done, and if it did so, I apologize. But I’ve finally spit out my thoughts about this movie a year after watching it for the first time, so I’m going to pat myself on the back regardless.
Watch it, but prepare yourself for a beautiful, miserable ride.
So I haven’t updated since April, and since then I’ve been able to meet up with friends, hang out with my sister, and eat in a few restaurants with Doug. Hallelujah! Except oh wait – this is Texas, after all, and our super-low vaccination rate means the Delta variant of COVID-19 is on the rise in a major way, and Doug and I are back into quarantine mode. I’ll be damned if after committing to avoiding this stupid virus for a year I’m going to turn around and get COVID, even if it most likely wouldn’t be in some serious form since I’m vaccinated, because a bunch of people refuse to do their part and just take the damn shot already. And yes, I have family members and friends who refuse to get vaccinated, and they are all absolutely on my shit list. There’s no way in hell our governor is going to mandate masks, social distancing, or vaccines at this point, so if we’re going to stay healthy AND do our part not to spread the virus (since vaccinated people can carry it asymptomatically) we’re going to stay home. Again. Sigh.
But hey, I did this whole stay-at-home thing for like 14 months already, so I’m good to go. I’m still knitting a LOT, and although I still have much to learn I’ve managed to knit a few decent scarves so far. My plan was to keep knitting scarves until I had several more advanced stitch patterns down – my first full scarf was a basic garter stitch (and that one was a bitch because I bought a light weight yarn that was hard for a newbie like me to work with), then a seed stitch, and then a rib stitch. I tried stockinette with a border but the damn thing still curled up, so I don’t know what I did wrong there.
I was going to move on to a basket stitch when I got the idea to learn how to knit roses – and now I am obsessed. My goal is to knit a shit-ton of roses together to make a blanket, but that’s going to take a while, so in the meantime I thought I could at least get enough made to use in photos. Even that was going to take awhile, so I got the bright idea to just use photoshop to pretend like I’d made a shit-ton of roses. Problem solved!
I just snapped a photo of myself, then stood in the same exact spot and stuck a knitted rose on a knitting needle and held the thing up in all the different positions I wanted it to be, and then layered them all on to the original photo.
These little roses I turned into tea light holders, and they sit in a little silver platter on my office table. I’m pretty pleased with them! I’m currently learning to knit leaves I can add to my roses, but that involves both increasing and decreasing stitches, which is a new skill for me, so I have so far successfully knitted — one. I have a long way to go folks. But thanks to the Delta variant and a plethora of stubborn Southerners who won’t get vaccinated, I have plenty of time now!
*And yes, I realize many, many people cannot get vaccinated for various reasons. I do not fault those people one bit. In fact, the high risk of COVID to people who cannot get vaccinated make me fault the ones who could get it but won’t EVEN MORE.
Anyway, I’m enjoying both the knitting AND how I am finding ways to incorporate it into my photography – or knitography, as I have taken to calling it. I feel like there is loads of potential here to take both activities in some fun new directions.
Aside from this, my summer has been light. I have put on some weight again, and tried to taper off my Lexapro since I dropped 20 pounds the last time I stopped taking it, but emotionally I couldn’t handle it. I finally realized it was ridiculous to put myself through the wringer mentally to lose a few pounds, so I went back on it and am trying to get the weight down without having to lose my peace of mind in the process. It ain’t easy, but at this point I have at least stopped the weight gain, which was really starting to climb. Haven’t lost any yet, but am no longer putting it on, so that’s a start.
Our old girl Penny had a rough June. She has vestibular disease, which is common in old dogs. It’s essentially when small blood vessels burst in the inner ear, and the symptoms can be scary because they mimic a stroke, but vestibular is much less serious in the long run as dogs generally recover from them 100%. Penny has had three vestibular “events’ as we call them, where she gets major vertigo and struggles to walk and stand. Initially she also gets so nauseous that she throws up, but now that we’ve dealt with this before we have medication on hand that helps her with both the dizziness and the nausea. Mid-June, she had another bout of this; she was lying down on a beanbag chair when all of a sudden she rolled off it and started shaking her head around. We knew right away what it was, and tried to get medicine in her before she threw it up. It was unpleasant night as she couldn’t walk well enough to go outside, so she peed and pooped in her dog bed for about 24 hours before things kicked in enough for her to be able to walk with our assistance.
We bought a harness like the one pictured above, and it was a real lifesaver once Penny regained enough balance to be able to walk outside. She was still terribly dizzy, but she COULD walk, and with this harness we were able to help her keep her balance. Her recovery took a while this time – it’s been a little over a month now and it’s just been in the past few days that she’s been completely back to normal. We still keep the back harness on her all day and use it when she goes out, as her back leg strength still isn’t as good as it used to be and it allows us to help her stay upright when she goes to the bathroom. But she’s finally back to walking around the house on her own, and even being able to sleep on the bed with us again – although she still needs help with the stairs that get her up there. For the first three weeks, when she couldn’t get up on the bed, I actually slept on the floor in my office right next to her, which was not good for my back let me tell you, but it was good for my heart. After losing Sprocket in December, we are both even more sensitive towards any pet that gets sick right now. Even after so much time has passed, we still miss that old boy something terrible.
That’s all for now, although I do have a bit more Knitography to process. So maybe we’ll be speaking again soon!