For whatever reason, August tends to be a big month for horror movies. This week finds three of them landing in theaters: Ole Bornedal's The Possession, Doug Aarniokoski's The Day and Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man. All seem like straightforward genre exercises at first glance; none actually are. They're fucked up. Maybe not in the sick, fun this-so-fucked-up-that-it's-gonna-make-me-throw-up way, but fucked up all the same. Here's a breakdown of these deviants of deviant cinema.
What is it, ostensibly? An exorcism movie.
How does it deviate? It's a Jewish exorcism movie. Things go wrong when Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) purchases a wooden box embossed with Hebrew for his daughter Emily (Natasha Calis) at a yard sale. She becomes very fixated on this box that mutters at her like a Gremlin. It's not that she doesn't have friends (although she is kind of weird). This box is, you see, a dibbuk box, a fact that a Jewish professor informs Clyde of in a blasé manner, as though he's referring to something as common as a box that you put your weed in. Before Emily is properly possessed by the dibbuk inside of the dibbuk box, she becomes very possessive of her possession. It's a multiple entendre.
Is it scary? No. It's really obsessed with the tonal effectiveness of large, prehistoric-looking moths. By the fifth time this movie busts them out, you will yawn, unafraid of them flying into your mouth as they do Emily. Speaking of Emily, the most unnerving thing about The Possession is how much the actress playing the bedeviled girl, Natasha Calis, looks like Linda Blair. With nary a drop of pea soup or sex-toy crucifix in sight, though, her performance is bound to disappoint. (It's no tour de force, regardless.)
Is it any good? The Possession is the second best thing a horror movie can be (after scary): hilarious. Nothing cojures overacting like demonic possession and this movie is a series of ugly contorted faces and audible inhalations. My favorite thing that I've see in a movie all month occurs as Emily holds her just-purchased box and looks into the window of its previous owner, an elderly woman whose face is bandaged because the dibbuk made her bang her head against a coffee table. "Nooooo!" moans Mummy lady, outstretching her hand. Her stern caretaker who clearly wants the dibbuk box out of this woman's life glares hopefully at the child. The child looks on with bewilderment in a flopping, white yard-sale hat. And scene!
Also don't miss Emily's frenzied pancake-eating, Kyra Sedgwick (as Emily's mom) mistaking this movie for a potential Oscar nominee (lady, you ain't Ellen Burstyn), a teacher with cinema's most insane eyebrows since Dune's Thufir Hawat, who eventually bleeds out of her eyeballs (and probably eyebrows), an MRI that picks up the face of the demon inside Emily and the fact that when Clyde realizes that the demon taking hostage of his daughter is a Jew demon, he heads straight to Brooklyn. This movie is a good time.
What is it, ostensibly? A post-apocalyptic zombie movie.
How does it deviate? There are no actual zombies – instead, cannibals are the advancing forces coming for our heroes (including scream king Shawn Ashmore, who simply will not be content until he is featured in every cheap, decent-to-great contemporary horror flick). That is to say that The Day deviates in almost the same exact way The Road deviated. Follows the same fork, just a bit further down, well, the road.
Is it scary? Using zombie tropes like a mass of baddies advancing on a boarded-up house (soooo Night of the Living Dead) to express human savagery is effective, but it's not going to keep you up at night. Some people are demented and they will eat you if it comes down to it. You already knew that. Go to bed.
Is it any good? Yeah. It's not great, but Aarniokoski's washed-out, borderline-sepia picture makes this low-budget flick look like at least a million bucks. It's unrelenting and brutal (including a hard-to-watch torture scene in which Ashmore and his homies turn on a member of their group that has already turned on them) up until the deliciously cruel end. Moral questions are handled with the finesse of a meat cleaver, but that seems appropriate given the context. Besides, you already pondered all of this when you read and/or watched The Road.
What is it, ostensibly? A boogie-man flick: The child population of a depressed Washington town keeps falling because of a local kidnapper legend referred to as "the Tall Man."
How does it deviate? I can't tell you that without spoiling the film's several reveals (it twists so much that it's hanging by strings at its finish). But just understand that we aren't dealing with a Freddy Krueger figure here.
Is it scary? Nah, but just like Laugier's previous film, the brilliant Martyrs, this thing hits you in the gut with a perception-altering shock midway through. But The Tall Man doesn't stop there: it takes a mallet to your skull and pokes holes in what you think you understand as you try to wrap your brain around what is unfolding. Frankly, you'll be too exhausted to be scared.
Is it any good? Jessica Biel is the scream queen of her generation. No young actress looks as good under cinematic duress. Beyond that, mum's the word. If I told you more, I'd have to sell you into an underground market, but it would probably be for your own good, so I'll just say: It's OK.
Also of note, the terrific found-footage anthology V/H/S, which we reviewed last month, hits VOD today. That one's better than all of these by a lot.