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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 14

Baby Blood (1990)

Pregnancy is considered a miracle by some people. Of course, in a way, it is. The creation is pretty fucking magical when you think about it. It's also kind of horrifying. Humans are born out a sweaty act, arising out fluids being shot everywhere. Then a woman's body is transformed, hormonally and physically, as another creature grows inside them. This thing is then ejected via pain and blood. And that's not even considering the terror and anxiety associated with parenthood. Unsurprisingly, some horror filmmakers have found inspiration in the subject of childbirth. “Baby Blood” is a French film from 1990. I hadn't heard much about until a few years ago, when it started being recommended to me as a grisly, weirdo hidden gem. Immediately, it went onto my Halloween watch-list.

Yanka lives with her abusive boyfriend as part of a traveling circus. They receive a new shipment of animals from Africa. One of the big cats dies that night, something crawling out of its body. The parasite then crawls into Yanka's body while she's sleeping, taking up residence in her womb. The creature begins to grow inside her, Yanka becoming pregnant with the monster. It psychically communicates with her. Yanka's child demands blood, forcing her to go out and kill various men. As the parasite matures, her birth date drawing closer, Yanka and the creature begin to develop a strange relationship, equal parts resentful and warm.

“Baby Blood” exaggerates the regular pain and fears of pregnancy into something more explicitly horrific. Many mothers feel an immediate bond with their unborn children. The film turns this into a literal form of psychic communication. Embryos are demanding, making their mothers exhausted and demanded strange changes of them. In “Baby Blood,” the fetus' wants include the blood of victims. The parasite alternatively and deliberately causes Yanka pain and pleasure. She resents the intrusion at first but, eventually, develops a bond with the creature. This quickly builds towards a type of body horror. Yanka's skin stretches as the baby grows inside. She has an explicit nightmare about hands burst from her belly. Must pressingly, by making Yanka's child a literal parasite, the film brings the harshest irony of pregnancy – something is growing inside you and stealing from your body – to mind.

“Baby Blood” is also about the different ways men abuse women. Yanka's boyfriend is abusive. After he catches a man – who later attempts to forcefully kiss her – peeping on her changing, he threatens and beats her. Later, he tracks Yanka down at an apartment and attacks her again. After running off to the city, Yanka encounters other abusive behavior. A truck driver picks up a hitchhiking Yanka but later abandons her on the side of the road  A man oogles her wantonly during a quasi-date. After some awkward sex, he proposes to her. Turns out, the guy already has a girlfriend. In the final act, Yanka gets on a bus full of soccer hooligans. They attempt to rape her while the driver just sits back and blames her for what's happening. So the world of “Baby Blood” gives Yanka little reason not to want to murder her male victims. Notably, in the original French version, the parasite has a female voice. In the dub, the voice is male, extending the theme of abusive men even into Yanka's internal life. (In his book, “Horror Films of the 1990s,” John Kenneth Muir claims Gary Oldman provided the parasite's English voice. I can't find any other source for this factoid though.)

Most of “Baby Blood's” cult following is probably owed to its crazy gore. The violence gets more intense as the film goes on. It begins with some simple stabbings and throat slashing. As the film progresses, the violence gets more intense. A slashed man vomits blood directly into the camera. Yanka crushes a man against a wall with a car, his decapitated head flying across the road. She later smashes another guy's head open with a canister of compressed air, a massive amount of blood spirals upwards. Probably the most outrageous death involves a man being inflated with air until he explodes. When the parasite slithers on-screen at the end, it begins to drain its blood directly. Yanka spends most of the movie splattered with blood, until she's completely covered by the end. It's crazy, fucked-up stuff.

“Baby Blood” is certainly a flawed film. The tone ricochets wildly between twisted humor and serious horror, without much cohesion. The ending is abrupt. The acting can be pretty ropy at times, though Emmanuelle Escourrou is very good as Yanka. Some of my problems with the film aren't even the filmmaker's fault. The Region 1 DVD of “Baby Blood” is way out of print and being sold for too much. It's not currently available on any streaming services that I could find. So I ended up watching a version on a pretty sketchy website. Most of the movie was dubbed into English but a few lengthy scenes were in unsubtitled French. Luckily, I was still able to follow the story. Amazingly, a sequel called “Lady Blood” was made 2008. Escourrou returned but director Alain Robak didn't. I have no idea if it lives up to the original, a delightfully gross and entertaining cult classic. [7/10]

Prevenge (2017)

If you ask me who Alice Lowe was, I'd probably look at you with mild confusion. If you mentioned her roles in “Hot Fuzz” or “Garth Miringhi's Darkplace,” I'd vaguely know what you were talking about. If you just referred to her as the lady from “Sightseers,” I'd immediately know what you were talking about. She's a hard working British character actress and has been very funny in many things. When Lowe was heavily pregnant, nobody would hire her. So she decided to make her own work. While eight month pregnant, she wrote, directed, and starred in “Prevenge.” That alone is pretty impressive but “Prevenge” also ended up being pretty good.

Lowe plays Ruth. Eight months ago, her boyfriend died in a rock climbing accident. She blames his death on the other people in the climbing party. Her baby blames them as well. The fetus inside Ruth is instructing her to hunt down and murder the people responsible, whispering vague threats at her all hours of the night and day. Ruth doesn't entirely agree with this journey, often arguing with the unborn child inside her. It's October, nearly Halloween, and Ruth's due date is coming soon. Her child is insistent that its revenge must be fulfilled before it is born.

“Prevenge's” premise – a fetus telling its mother to kill – brings “Baby Blood” to mind, which is why I decided this should be a double feature. The only real similarities between the theme is a homicidal, high-pitched voice emanating from a woman's womb. “Baby Blood” is more about how men abuse women. “Prevenge” is more about grief and the anxiety of bringing life into the world. Ruth is haunted by her boyfriend's death. He died when his cord was cut, bringing umbilical cords to mind and connecting his death with Ruth's pregnancy. The fetus taunts Ruth by saying nobody else will ever love her. That she must do what the fetus says. This speaks to her uncertainty about giving birth. At one point, she says he'd trade the baby to have her lover back. Yet she's also deeply protective of the unborn child. After giving birth, Ruth's ambiguity towards the baby doesn't change any. “Prevenge” is a film all about anxieties that surround pregnancy. 

It's also a really funny, extremely dark comedy. Ruth is not an experienced murderer. Her interactions with her potential victims are often very awkward. She haphazardly seduces a guy at a Halloween disco party. After going back to his house, they stumble through some extremely gawky banter, before the guy's senile mom wanders into the room. Even after murdering the man, the elderly woman continues to walk around, confused. At a job interview, the fetus whispers mean-spirited (but darkly funny) comments into Ruth's ear, which she then repeats to the interviewer. One victim is a self-defense trainer, leading to some fisticuffs which then leads to an amusingly terse conversation. Probably my favorite comedic moment involves Ruth making friends with the roommate of one of her targets. After joking around about food, she's then forced to murder the man, which she immediately regrets. This kind of conversational, awkward comedy is very British and won't be to everyone's liking. I can dig it though.

Lowe often balances the film's funny scenes with its overtly horrific ones. These comedic encounters usually happen directly before the murder scenes. The first death scene concludes with a graphic castration. Another cool gag has a throat being slashed onto a glass table, the camera looking up at the blood. There's also a pretty decent eye-gouging. Yet “Prevenge's” death scenes are not its most effective horror element. Instead, Alice Lowe's performance is its most frightening element. Throughout most of the movie, she's dryly hilarious, only occasionally showing an agitated side. Near the conclusion, she confronts the last one responsible for her boyfriend's death. Lowe's convictions are impressive and intense, making you really believe these things.

“Prevenge” runs a tight 87 minutes and is highly entertaining for most of that run time. It's clear that Lowe didn't have entirely enough material to fill her film, as a couple of scenes meander a bit. However, it's a promising debut. As a comedy, it made me laugh plenty. As a horror film, it's surprisingly potent. As a showcase for Lowe's abilities, it really impresses. Hey, the film also has a pretty cool synth setting. It also makes full use of its October setting, as the final scene takes place during a Halloween parade. Those two factors are enough to make me really like this one. [7/10]

Fear Itself: The Spirit Box

Among the “Masters of Horror” directors, one I most assuredly wouldn't have invited back was Rob Schmit. I liked Schmit's “Wrong Turn” but his “Right to Die” was one of the weakest episodes of the show's second season. Despite this, Schmit would return for “Fear Itself.” “The Spirit Box” follows two teenage girls, Shelby and Becca. While bored on Halloween night, the two decide to make a spirit box. That's a bootleg Ouija board made out of whatever is lying around, which is a pizza box, a cellphone, and some magazines in this case. The two girls seem to contact the spirit of Emily D'Angelo, a classmate who killed herself the previous year. Via the spirit box, Emily tells the girls that she didn't commit suicide. She was murdered. As the girls investigate, they begin to suspect one of their teachers is responsible.

“The Spirit Box” was an early starring role for Anna Kendrick, whose only claim to fame in 2008 would've been the first “Twilight” movie. Kendrick is awfully charming as Shelby, making a likable teenage hero. (Though the script's assertion that Shelby is unpopular with boys is hard to believe, considering she looks like Anna Kendrick.) She has good chemistry with Jessica Parker Kennedy as Becca. Just watching the two of them play off each other, doing goofy teen girl things together, is fun. As a teenage sleuth story, “The Spirit Box” is solid. A scene devoted to Shelby sneaking into the teacher's house is actually somewhat suspenseful. The episode almost plays like an edgier “Nancy Drew” or similar stories, following its girl detectives trying to unravel a mysterious crime. It's kind of fun.

If “The Spirit Box” is mildly entertaining as a sleuthing teens story, it's totally lame as a horror movie. The episode throws several different types of scares at the audience and each one is a joke. Dramatic music blares while the make-shift planchette moves around the home-made spirit box. The girls receive ominous text messages, which are unintentionally funny due to their use of abbreviations. Ghostly hands leap out of the water, always accompany by loud music. A masked figure stalks Kendrick through the school but never becomes threatening. The episode's twist ending, like most of “Fear Itself's” twist endings, is totally asinine. So this is one of those rare cases where a horror story would've been improved by removing the horror elements all together. [5/10]

The Birch (2016)

I have no familiarity with the works of directors Ben Franklin and Anthony Melton. Apparently, some of their horror shorts are quite popular, with “Don't Move” garnering something like a following. While looking into their work, the title “The Birch” caught my eye. It was only four minutes long too. Anyway, the short follows a young boy named Shaun. At school, Shaun is ruthlessly bullied by a thug named Kris. At home, he deals with a sickly grandmother. While on her death bed, his grandmother passes him a book, detailing how to summon a spirit from inside the near-by woods. Soon afterwards, Kris chases Shaun into the forest. There, the bully encounters the Birch.

“The Birch” tells a surprisingly complete story, despite only being four minutes long. There's no narration or gratuitous set-up. Instead, Franklin and Melton leap right into the action. By smartly cross-cutting between Shaun's school and home life, they quickly establish the situation. The Birch, the supernatural entity in the woods, is set up with some speedy visuals. We see a book, an odd symbols in its pages, and next Shaun is building that symbol out of twigs. We understand the story's structure very quickly, which is a good thing when you only have four minutes. We learn about the bully's cruelty and long to see him get his comeuppance. At the same time, the short shows how frightened Shaun is by the powers he controls.

Many internet horror shorts build towards a jump-scare. “The Birch,” instead, builds up to a good look at the titular monster. I don't besmirch the directors for wanting to show the creature. The design is impressive. The creature wears a skirt that is indistinguishable from the skin of an old birch tree. The design can't help but remind me of the old Movie Maniacs Blair Witch figure. It has the same skeletal female face and wreath of branches around its head. Either way, the creature is a memorable special effect. Most attempts to expand horror shorts into features are disappointing. “The Birch” tells its story so compellingly in so little time that a longer version isn't necessary. At the same time, I feel like there's a bigger mythology here that might be worth exploring. [7/10]

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