.Toil and Trouble: Our Halloween fright-flick sampler

We’re swimming in a tidal wave of horror movies right now. Entertainment-industry watchers evidently agree that horror—the perennial favorite genre of the young and eccentric—is now the magic formula to rescue empty theaters and harvest more eyeballs for streaming content as we—hopefully—enter the pandemic’s waning months. How to choose a fright flick? Be brave, trust the nose and take some chances. Here’s a quick list for our Halloween trial-by-ordeal: 

Possession, a 1981 French-German co-prod by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski, thrusts us into one of the most nightmarish male-female relationships imaginable. It slaps us in the face with naked, raw emotion, worlds away from most light-on-characterization contemporary shockers. Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill star as Anna and Mark, a married couple who seemingly live to torment each other with great ingenuity, in a queasy-making ebb and flow of grotesque, psychologically agitated violence.

Their playground is the old, divided Berlin, a place where antagonism takes bizarre forms. Mark’s flat is right across the street from the Wall, and the movie never lets us forget the symbolism. Businessman Mark returns from a trip to find Anna has been seeing another lover—Heinz Bennent as a metrosexual martial artist—and matters deteriorate from there. An electric carving knife. The oozing blob. Multiple maniacs. Bodily fluids. Anna’s show-stopping subway freakout—Adjani won several acting awards for this one. Anna has a doppelganger, a schoolteacher named Helen, who is as mild and submissive as Anna is unhinged. And let’s not forget about Anna and Mark’s son, unwilling witness to their atrocities.

No one does psycho-horror like filmmakers from the old Warsaw Pact. Quite apart from his feud with Polish censors, Zulawski seems to be trying to give Roman Polanski some competition in the “unhappy home” department. Rainer Werner Fassbinder–stalwart Margit Carstensen appears as Anna’s hapless best friend. There are no stunt doubles. Blood flows freely. Weak-stomached viewers, beware!

Possession had 45 minutes cut out of its first U.S. release. That footage was restored for this 4K restoration, currently entering its fourth week at San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema.

Vampirism is just another New Orleans social problem in director Maritte Lee Go’s indie drive-in-style humbug Black as Night, with Asjha Cooper and Mason Beauchamp as a pair of Black twentysomethings unafraid to investigate supernatural events at a low-income housing community in that city. Sherman Payne’s screenplay also spends time on NOLA’s racial inequality, homelessness, the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Katrina and the sad legacy of slavery, 150 years later. But mostly, eerie characters jump out of the bushes and go “Boo!” every five minutes. Apart from its clichéd, electronic-belch sound cues, Black as Night is a solid entry in the Blumhouse catalog of midnight movies.

From Iceland, via director Valdimar Jóhannsson and novelist Sjón, Lamb is undoubtedly the only shaggy-sheep story you’ll see at the movies this year. If we’re lucky. Maria (Noomi Rapace from the Dragon Tattoo series) and her sheep-raising husband, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guđnason), get the surprise of their lives when the newborn lamb at their outback farm arrives equipped with a half-set of human features. Thankfully, no one in the story goes near that old joke about sheep and horny hired hands. The lone supporting actor—Björn Hylnur Harraldsson as Ingvar’s untrustworthy brother—manages to keep a straight face through all potential religious/moral/allegorical wrinkles. Beautifully photographed by Eli Arenson.

There is too much electronic “scary” music and not enough truly gothic elements in Demigod, a labored-yet-cheap-looking mock-Euro folktale about the Master of the Forest Creatures, set in Germany’s Black Forest, but actually shot in Mississippi by co-scenarist/producer/director Miles Doleac. This movie has a writing problem and is too slowly paced for its weight. The witches seem more like angry hippies in buckskin. Other than that, it’s a routine piece of seasonal work.

“Possession” is showing at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco; “Black as Night” is streaming on Amazon Prime; “Lamb” is in theaters and “Demigod” is streaming on various platforms.
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