By Adam-Troy Castro
Okay, so we’re only about three months into this magazine and your humble reviewer’s plan to alternate this random obscure movie recommendation column with his other column The Remake Chronicles has already fallen prey to the forces of entropy.
This doesn’t bode as ill as it necessarily seems.
You see, your humble servant has not yet gotten his hands on all the versions of a certain frequently-told tale, filmed four times to date, that he meant to contrast this particular month. (Pity him: the only one he has yet to see is the notoriously awful one. The things he does, so you don’t have to.) But while we await his overview of the two classic films, the one somewhat disappointing one and the one rumored to miss by a mile, his treasure-trove of obscurities remains far from exhausted.
So here we go.
As always, the following movies are not the kind of thing you will find the vast majority of genre-film fans arguing about at ridiculous length, but are available via several platforms and will reward your attention at least as much as, if not significantly more than, any number of better known films where Samuel L. Jackson shows up at the end to draft the leads into the Avengers. There’s even a thematic resonance between them: the end of the world, either in microcosm as it applies to the lives of individuals losing everything that matters to them, or to all of us a species.
First off, we have the deeply odd and disturbing Hansel and Gretel (South Korean, 2007; Directed by Yim Pil-Sung from a screenplay by Yim-Pil-Sung and Kim Min-Sook; 117 minutes), which is simultaneously fairy tale and horror story, nightmare and reassurance that while some people are damned by their circumstances, life can lead to happy places for others who mean well. Not a direct adaptation of the fairy tale, it presents us with the harrowing adventure of traveling salesperson Eun-Soo, whose is on the phone arguing with his pregnant girlfriend when an accident forces his car off the edge of a cliff and leaves him stranded in deep forest, unable to climb back to the road. He soon finds that staple of horror films, the isolated cabin in the woods, occupied by a pleasant if somewhat odd family with no phone that offers him a chance to stay the night.
What are the odds that the family’s secrets are uncanny in the extreme, that he will find it increasingly difficult to leave, and that the mystery hinges on horrific crimes committed in the distant past?
Hansel and Gretel is all about the children, powerful creatures of arrested development who have much invested in getting Eun-Soo to stay, despite the life he wishes to get back to. They exist in a terribly idealized version of the life children think they want, a life of magically indulged whims where every day is always pretty much the same as the day before it and where the happiness of childhood is more a fiction clung to in defiance of the terrible things that have happened, than a reflection of what they as children really need or want. It all boils down to atrocities, alas, but it needs to be said that this is very much a story in the vein of Jerome Bixby’s classic short story and Twilight Zone episode “It’s a GOOD Life,” the one in which a community of terrified adults were forced to indulge an omnipotent brat who doled out horrific punishments when defied; the difference being that Anthony was pretty much selfish and evil from the day he was born and had an entire neighborhood to terrorize, and the three damaged omnipotent creatures of this film have a genuine grievance and one essentially good man who must somehow persuade them that he does not deserve to be the moral scapegoat for all the crimes that bad men commit against children. The result is a horror film that isn’t content to just hammer the message that bad things happen to good people… but one that moves on from there to the all-important question of whether it’s possible to move on from there.
Like so many Korean films, it is dark and it is uncompromising and is also deeply in control of not just how it tells its story, but why. The only caveat I provide is that the film does eventually show you the hideousness that led to the magical occurrences in this particular house and that folks weighted down with trigger-issues might find those scenes particularly difficult to take. In its defense I stress that it’s a journey well worth taking. This is a genuine minor masterpiece.
Similar in theme and sharing some of its effects is Haunter (Canadian, 2013; directed by Vincenzo Natali from a screenplay by Brian King; 97 minutes), which stars Abigail Breslin as a teen girl who seems to be the only person in her family aware that they are all trapped in their family home, re-living the same day over and over. Thanks to the title, it is no real spoiler to reveal what she figures out pretty early, that they are all ghosts haunting the house where they all died; this is, however, not the twist but the essential story problem, as our heroine struggles to free them all from the entity responsible for their deaths, that is determined to keep them trapped in this purgatory forever. It’s not as good a film as Hansel and Gretel, but it is an atmospheric and effective fantasy, well worth the time.
Both of these films represent the effective end of the world for at least some of the people in them, so we might as well move on to other world-ending circumstances. The Wall (Austrian, 2013; written and directed by Julian Polsner, from the novel Die Wand by Marlen Houshofer; 108 minutes) is, make no mistake, by far the least obviously accessible film in this month’s column. It is slow, driven by the extended monologues of a character who might be the last living human being, and concerns itself more with the drudgery of everyday survival by a woman alone than with any intervals of immediate danger. I provide the spoiler that it offers no satisfying explanations, no concessions to hope, and no closure. It is not thrilling, nor is it meant to be.
What we get from it instead is the unenviable plight of the unnamed protagonist (played by one Martina Gredech, in a performance of unbroken melancholy), who happens to be spending the night alone, in an isolated cabin when the forested region she inhabits is cut off behind some kind of invisible force field. Her hosts, who she last saw heading to town, are somewhere on the other side and will not be returning. The couple of human beings she can see on the other side of the wall are immobile and, in all likelihood, dead. She is completely cut off from civilization, with no company but a dog and any animals she can collect, and wholly dependent on herself for survival. Using her limited supply of paper, she writes an extended memoir about her isolation, while living her life as a hunter/gatherer/subsistence farmer, for what amounts to years. She writes about all of this from the point of view of someone who has already lived it, and who therefore lets us know that the death of her only companion, the dog, is coming. Her memoir ends only because she has run out of her dwindling supply of paper, and by then we know all we need to know about how she will survive, and what she is forced to do to live.
And… that’s it. Loss and despair and loneliness.
That might not be enough for you. It most likely isn’t. This movie will never be anybody’s fast food happy meal. It’s just the story of a woman cut off from all meaning, who has to find it in survival, and it’s so slow it’s practically fossilized, and if I recommended it many of you would never, ever forgive me. Hell, I’m secure that there’s a sizeable contingent among you who checked out for good as soon as you found out about the death of the dog. I offer no apologies. What you get if you decide to investigate is a movie about one human being who is stripped by circumstances to her bare essence, who is offered no way out at any point, not even at the end.
It’s about endurance. Hope doesn’t enter into it at all.
If you want hope, even if it comes after the most nightmarish of ordeals, you’re going to have to take the Spanish-language The Last Days (Spanish, 2013; written and directed by David Pastor and Alex Pastor; 117 minutes), in which a psychological plague of sorts has afflicted the civilized nations of the world with what can only be described as fatal agoraphobia. Stuck in whatever buildings they happened to be in when afflicted, sufferers cannot venture outside for more than a couple of seconds without asphyxiating — not just hyperventilating, but actually dying.
We join our hero, Marc, after three months imprisoned in the office building where he and his co-workers have been subsisting on the goods from the lobby coffee kiosk; but after a heroic effort involving weeks of hard labor they have now succeeded in digging their way to the nearest subway tunnel, and it is now possible to attempt the difficult trip across town to where Marc last saw his girlfriend after a bitter argument.
So what you have here is a character-based survival story following the downfall of civilization, marked with moments of unexpected physical beauty, and the desperation of characters inhabiting enclosed spaces built by a civilization that is no longer capable of sustaining itself. There are some pretty terrific action set-pieces, including the defense of a besieged supermarket by defenders fighting off outsiders who have gone feral from starvation, but this is not to be mistaken for an action movie; indeed, most of the film is about the adversarial partnership that develops between Marc and his fellow survivor, the corporate ax-man who was, before all this, preparing to fire him.
There’s a monster, of sorts. I report that it isn’t a zombie and it isn’t a mutant and though it emerges from darkness in the least likely of places, it is not a creature out of fantasy or myth; it is in fact one that exists on our planet now, and its arrival serves as the italicized lesson that civilization has gone the way of wide ties. Its arrival is pretty much genius. You’ll know it when you see it.
Two other points. One, unlike The Wall, this one eventually arrives at a place of hope — if not for the vast majority of imperiled humanity, then at least for the guy whose fate we care about, and for our future as a species. Just so you know. Two, the crumbling modern metropolis suffering this post-apocalyptic scenario is not one like New York or Los Angeles or even London, that has been the setting for any number of prior end-of-the-world movies. It is Barcelona. That’s enough to make this movie stand out as unique, all by itself.
Finally, with the column approaching its end, I call your attention to one last personal apocalypse: Jug Face (USA, 2013; written and directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle; 81 minutes), a highly eccentric character-based horror film about a backwoods family mired in incest and poverty, and in particular about the fate of Ada, a teen girl who has been marked for death by the supernatural entity they worship who requires sacrifices from time to time. It’s a little like Winter’s Bone, if that movie had been conceived by H.P. Lovecraft, and it’s a lot smarter and more heartfelt than you would normally expect of any movie fitting that basic plot description. It’s worth investigation.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.