The Night 2020 – Creepy Hotels and Psychological Terror

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The Night (2020) is a warping and impressive directorial debut from Kourosh Ahari, director of such shorts as In Passing (2017) and Malaise (2014). While his time in the industry has been short, this promising offering displays a competence and understanding of what makes a truly chilling story, thankfully with enough talent to back up every inch of it.

An Iranian couple living in the US are lost on their way home from a night of drinks at a friend’s house. After arguing by the roadside over how to proceed, they eventually come across the majestic yet eerie Hotel Normandie, and decide to stay the night. What follows are enough spectral shenanigans and psychological trickery to satisfy Stephen King; And although it does tread similar ground to the fantastic 1408 (2007), The Night manages to hit hard in its own stylish and weighty manner. 

Invoking a similar claustrophobic dread to films such as The Borderlands (2013) and perhaps to a lesser extent Grave Encounters (2011); The Night presents us with the feeling that the characters we follow are being tortured to the full extent of their psychological threshold. To the disappointment of some, the film feels perhaps a little too scare-restrained to cross the border from unnerving to fully frightening. What area of the horror spectrum it does fall under, however, it owns to the fullest degree. 

The domestic troubles of lead couple Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) are apparent from the opening scenes, and it’s these demons and their collective secrets they must face if they are to survive their night at Hotel Normandie. Though slow in pace, the film is pulled along with ease by Hosseini and Noor’s compelling and involving performances. Additional characters show their faces now and then to instill some terror, shoving along a plot which keeps the brain whirring up until its revelatory, mind-bending third act.

And the ending…oh, that ending. 

The Night 2020 Horror Movie poster alternative featuring a mans face fading into the background

For a story of personal demons and their manifestations, the inference of real threat is a potent one. Dread builds through long -often hypnotic- camera takes, the slightest facial twitch indicating more than a monologue could ever achieve. The mesmerising effect of this style admittedly left me forgetting my place on more than one occasion, which is brilliantly appropriate. This, along with the heaps of mystery still seemingly looming beneath the surface even as the credits roll, absolutely warrants repeated viewings. The few jumpscares that were included are delivered with impeccable timing and accented with such dreadful musical spikes that I rejoiced at their inclusion, and I haven’t enjoyed a jumpscare since The Ring (2002)

The Night takes its time and strikes when it needs to with uncanny precision. Starting slow (almost deceptively dull), this build-up should be taken as such, and immersion in the world of these brilliantly acted characters is a top priority. This exquisitely-balanced drama/horror blend is a pleasant surprise from Ahari and hopefully a promising look at a bright future in cinema. I felt lost within the Hotel Normandie, which I would say is the highest possible praise for a film with The Night’s intent. 

The Night 2020 Movie Trailer

Mandy – A Phantasmagoric Horror Masterpiece

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Panos Cosmatos creates love letters to cinema. His films are packed with references, flagrant horror conventions and meticulous pairings of sound and imagery to invoke a plethora of emotions, generally soaked in an 80’s styled neon-nightmare of color. The 2018 Horror movieMandy is no exception.

If this style was wholly evident in his 2010 directorial debut Beyond The Black Rainbow then it applies doubly for his following film, 2018’s phantasmagoric horror film masterpiece Mandy. By the time of his sophomore effort, Mandy, Cosmatos had truly found his feet. After witnessing the trailer for Mandy I couldn’t have been more sold. It seemed to scream:  “Yep, this is everything you’ve ever wanted from a film. Look, there’s even a chainsaw fight!”

Armed with a similar scale of plot to his first film (this time stemming from a marathon of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series) and a stellar cast including the likes of Andrea Risebrough and the legendary Nicholas Cage, whose horror credits range from cosmic horror to pure murderous rage is notable here. Mandy gives the impression of coming from a fantasy horror fever dream of uncanny nostalgia.

When a couple’s idyllic woodland existence is targeted by a psychotic pseudo-christian cult and shattered into cosmic terror, Red (Cage) sets out on a bloody rampage of revenge and crushed skulls. 

The film’s opening to King Crimson’s ‘Starless’ and a sweeping, grain-soaked shot over endless pine forests should send chills through any hyper-fan of the VHS age. Like Beyond The Black Rainbow, Mandy takes its time to tell its tale, though its ideas feel more fleshed out, its every frame feels more meticulously planned and its inspirational roots are worn as badges of honor. 

Mandy is dense with references; from the demonic bikers The Black Skulls appearing a combination of the cenobites from Hellraiser and a Mad Max-esque road gang to Bill Duke himself appearing to give Red some advice and arm him for his savage quest. The film’s ethos appears to be Heavy Metal (or love’s vengeance, if you like) against religion, or narcissism under religion’s guise, which may seem almost juvenile had it not been for the repeated self-aware references to rock and roll and heavy metal music throughout. (see: the film’s opening quote). 

Mandy Alternative horror movie poster featuring a man with an axe and another with a chainsaw

Music plays as big a part in Mandy as anything, boasting a rich and emotional score from Johan Johannson made all the more morbidly effective by his tragic passing not long after the film’s release. The score is an eclectic mix of heavy retro synth, moving orchestral passages and devastating guitar distortion from drone band Sunn 0)))’s Stephen O Malley which seems to have been written alongside the film’s creation to ensure their optimal convergence into a single cinematic force. 

To use such long, atmospheric takes to portray a story so devastating and emotionally charged requires acting talent. The entire cast of Mandy brings something new to the table, from Nicholas Cage’s halfway-point switch from content affection to savage insanity to Linus Roache’s seedy, delusional portrayal of Cult Leader Jeremiah Sands. It seems as though Cosmatos is content to roll the camera and just let the actors go with it, each scene feeling loosely organic alongside it’s detailed visual planning. Personally I rate this as Nicholas Cage’s best performance, and the one that solidified my place in the “Cage: good or bad?” argument. Though his balls-to-the wall approach is highly entertaining, it won’t be for everyone. 

Mandy is very ‘one man’s vision’ which does not necessarily equate to an accessible film. It’s a bold statement, even in structure where the films titles don’t even appear until around the halfway point, indicating that what you’ve just watched was a mere setup for the madness that is about to begin. 

Mandy is the story of a man who loses everything, allowing the darkness to fully envelop him into a world of brutally violent vengeance. It is a glorious leap from its predecessor and hopefully a preemptive look into a future of darkness from Panos Cosmatos’ mind. Beware the Black Skulls and remember: A psychotic drowns where the mystic swims.

I am Horror and I am Metal

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Horror films and metal music were made for each other, born together in the fiery pits of human suffering as means of expressing its darkest urges and emotions. It can be hard to think of one without the other, and even harder to give credit to either without acknowledging the influence of its counterpart. In the flower-power era of the 1960s where heavy metal began, one of its founding fathers, the mighty Black Sabbath, named after Mario Bava’s 1963 horror anthology, set about bringing a new wave of pessimistic jams that arguably drew out an entire culture from dormancy. 

While both metal and horror are spectrums within themselves, similar sensibilities are needed to enjoy both. It’s hard to be exposed to either entity without coming into contact with themes of death and misanthropy, often reaching levels of depravity that more mainstream art and media wouldn’t touch with a ten foot chainsaw

Metal has evolved alongside horror, thematically and with people’s tolerance for gruesome violence and psychological intensity. While bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden might be perfect cousins of classic horror such as The Devil Rides Out (1968) or House on Haunted Hill (1959), more modern subgenres such as Brutal Death Metal, Goregrind and Grindcore often include heavily morbid, shock-value themes and content in the same vein as old video nasties like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981) or films considered ‘Torture Porn’ such as Hostel (2006). Indeed, these subgenres act as torture porn within themselves, often sporting lo-fi recordings of borderline-unintelligible blast-beats and gutteral screaming decorated with grotesquely gory artwork. 

Necronomicon Evil book Cover from horror movie the Evil Dead

Death Metal has, since the baby steps of Death and Morbid Angel, been a particularly malevolent force in the metal world. Death’s The Sound of Perseverance (1998) and Morbid Angel’s Gateways to Annihilation (2000) both feature artwork of a Lovecraftian cosmic-horror calibre and deal lyrically, as Death Metal often does, with the negatives of mankind in epic and existential passages. Death Metal prominently features post-apocalyptic and subversive themes that draw huge influence from real world political and socio-economic issues and, while frequently fantastical and grandiose, always stays rooted in the nitty-gritty truths of the matter. Horror films most comparable to this include zombie flicks, tales of ancient gods and the balls-to-the-wall chaos of the Evil Dead series. 

Early Black Metal bands of Norway seemed intent on bringing horror into the real world. Much of the subgenre is sadly nowadays tainted by stories of neo-naziism, church burnings and suicides, primiarily regarding the band Mayhem and the usage of a photograph of one member’s suicide as a bootleg album cover by another member. Those who do Black Metal well can invoke layer upon layer of suffocating auditory darkness; modern Black Metal bands such as Sxuperion and Darkspace match the cold vast of space in their harsh soundscapes while others stick to sounding as if they were recorded on an 8-track in a graveyard. Many urban legends have surfaced and rotated regarding Black Metal but one thing is for certain, the scene is a breeding ground for questionable moral frameworks and should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Black Sabbath Album Cover with monsters and humans all in red

Sludge and Doom metal, while sonically similar in their abrasive walls of guitar fuzz and pounding drums, generally steer in far different directions of negativity. Sludge, regarding bands such as Grief and Resent generally keeps things in the real world, acting as the lethargically hateful younger brother of punk and expressing grounded societal fears and anguish, themes of war, famine and global disgust. Doom Metal shares in Sludge’s love for the overdriven riff, though it’s themes settle more in echoing the early days of Black Sabbath and its contemporaries. A classic Doom Metal album without sounds of church bells and wind howling, and artwork depicting graveyards and cult sacrifices, would be a rare find indeed. 

One of the best chances to bring horror films into the metal world is through music videos. Bands like Meshuggah and Tool create unsettling stop-motion and live-action videos of almost Hellraiser-level creativity, with ambiguity reflecting the uncanny and eerie nature of their music. More extreme bands such as Aborted and Cattle Decapitation naturally lean towards more extreme music videos, often featuring levels of gore that would make Olaf Ittenbach blush. Many smaller, heavier bands have used the music video as an excuse for their own miniature horror movies, often with some of the best soundtracks. 

While a wide range of horror films feature metal music, including Paganini Horror (1989), The Gate (1987), Black Roses (1988), Deathgasm (2015), Resident Evil (2002) and Dracula 2000 (2000), recent years see the inclusion of metal musicians in the creation of original soundtracks and even sound design within the films. The Devil’s Candy (2017) and Mandy (2018) both feature musician Stephen O’ Malley of Sunn 0))) (pronounced ‘sun’) in their heavy drone soundtracks, while he also provided the demonic voices circling the head of The Devil’s Candy’s lead antagonist. Indeed both of these films, along with the likes of Deathgasm can be seen as love-letters to metal in return for all of its generous tributes over the years. 

The bond between metal and horror will only strengthen in our exploration of both areas. As long as there is negativity in the world, metal and horror will be there to comment, subvert and disgust where needs be.

In Search of Darkness – A Must See Horror Documentary Series

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When I came across CreatorVC Studios’ In Search of Darkness (2019) and it’s sequel my mind instantly split itself into two warring factions. While one side revelled in the idea of two documentaries totalling around nine hours of in-depth exploration of 80s horror films, the other side focused more on the fact that it hadn’t hitherto sat through more than the ninety-or-so minutes of Blackfish (2013) or Jesus Camp (2006). To the latter side, this was an intimidating feat, though a pure love of the horror genre prevailed and to the joy and reconciliation of both sides I sat glued to the screen for the entire duration of both parts. 

A documentary this lengthy has to be informative and, equally as importantly, entertaining. In Search of Darkness: Part II (2021) boasts a wide array of guests from all corners of the horror world, some returning from Part 1, others seemingly jumping on board after its success. From pace-breaking spotlights on gore-effects legend Tom Savini to insights from the nightmare-mongering Robert Englund and the prolific Barbara Crampton to name a few, stories from backstage tidbits to production revelations lurk around every corner. A variety of perspectives are included on most matters ensuring diversity and political correctness throughout, along with some very interesting and thought-provoking takes on different events and (the many) controversies of 80s horror production. 

In search of Darkness Movie poster featuring a child watching 80s horror movies

While paying respectful tribute to the stars and the brains behind each picture, In Search Of Darkness 2 offers detailed, chronological and spoiler-free looks into a positive maelstrom of b-movies, video nasties, cult classics and creature features. The sheer volume of films I had previously glimpsed but never deemed worth my time, only to have In Search of Darkness instantly sell me on is astounding. Not only are films featured and referenced but they are explored equally on a social and ethical level, which is often surreal when such films as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (1981) are made subject. Not only did I, as expected, add many titles to my IMDB watchlist throughout, I also had my perspective widened on more than one occasion. 

In Search of Darkness Indiegogo Trailer

Creator VC Studios built this epic series through the use of crowd funding and fan support. VC studies are self described as. “An independent producer of community-powered entertainment: long-form factual content that is funded, inspired, and shaped by a dedicated community of fans.”

Everything about In Search of Darkness is packaged brilliantly, from it’s neon look to its atmospheric synth soundtrack that combine to draw viewers into the hyper-nostalgic glow of the 80s, perfectly embodying a full decade of filmmaking. All bases are covered, from the Italian ‘Giallo’ pictures of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci to full dives into longer series such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday 13th. Though rather than simply acting as a grisly encyclopedic list it treats viewers to several actor spotlights, squashings of undesirable misnomers such as the reductive ‘scream queen’ moniker and conversations into several of horror’s dirtier and more questionable past avenues. Where Part 1 began the discussion, Part 2 picks up right where it left off and proves that ‘more of the same’ is not always a bad thing. 

In Search of Darkness proves unequivocally that I need to make more time for documentaries; I only hope that others can summon the same electrical interest that these two did for me. One thing is for sure: other documentaries will have to wait for the extensive list of eighties horror movies I now have on my plate. 

In Search Of Darkness Part 3

In search of Darkness part 3 coming soon poster with a skeleton and dark graveyard imagery

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The Head Hunter (2019) – A Dark Fantasy

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The Head Hunter (2019) is the first feature film from director Jordan Downey, following a number of short projects including Critters: Bounty Hunter (2014) and Techno Western (2016), the cult hit Thankskilling (2009) and the Kickstarter-breaking Thankskilling 3 (2012)

How far would you go to avenge the death of someone you loved?

The Head Hunter 2019

Compared to these The Head Hunter is a far more serious, ambitious and rather understated exercise in dread and atmosphere. Downey takes the age-old concept of revenge and tries to make from it something of-itself and flavorful, something in some ways very unique. The trailer suggests a slow burner dark fantasy to me instantly, though its themes and setting might fool some into thinking this will be an action-packed monster slaying adventure. Admittedly, I expected to see a bit of sword swinging myself and had to quickly acclimate to what did lay in store. 

Puzzle Box Horror Rating – The Headhunter 2019

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Head Hunter Festival Poster Featuring a warrior standing on a pile of skeletons

IMDB : 4.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% Fresh out of 100
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hr 12 min
Starring: Christopher Rygh, Cora Kaufman, and Aisha Ricketts

Christopher Rygh, though a little restrained at times, does well in his first feature film role to communicate the desperation of a grieving father, and the obsession of a man bent on vengeance. As the unnamed patriarch he carries out contracts delivered (by arrow) that order the deaths of monsters sighted in the castle’s surrounding forest. One of these creatures took his daughter and it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to guess where this brief (clocking at merely 72 minutes) ordeal will climax. 

While minimal in plot, the film is focused enough to portray its few ideas with some effect. This is aided greatly by some impressive cinematography and elevates itself above its budget by employing quality costumes and set pieces, as well as a grim visual filter which helps immerse the viewer in its medieval darkness. Much of the monster fighting is unfortunately off-screen, which makes sense for the budget, though I am very glad the good sense was used to employ practical effects whenever one of those horrors was on display. Some juvenile part of me really wanted to see this guy crack some goblin skulls, though the tense climax involving the genuinely unsettling arch-antagonist did just about enough to satiate my bloodlust. 

..The Head Hunter is rapidly gaining a cult reputation, and that’s well-deserved; this is an atmospheric, well-shot and artfully conceived number which looks great in its first UK blu-ray release..

Eddie Harrison – film-authority.com

The Head Hunter operates almost as a dark-medieval Blue Ruin (2013) with its careful drip-feed of information that keeps each snail-pace scene all the more engaging for attentive viewers. That being said, the feeling can’t be ignored that there is fat that could be cut and perhaps this particular tale would have worked better as a short film. While just scraping a feature film duration it feels as though a few ideas went underdeveloped and, although the slow pace works in its favor, a part of me persists in thinking that the third act of The Head Hunter could have been a halfway point, leading onto some obscenely violent madness. Though that could just be the idealist in me.

The Head Hunter is a tightly executed creature-feature with ambiguous implications of deep lore and hideous evil. It uses subtle foreshadowing and claustrophobic scenery to invoke palpable dread, though sadly fails to deliver enough of its promises and runs the risk of leaving viewers wanting much more. I only hope that Downey feels the same and that a similar, denser project could be on the cards. 

EXCERPTS:

The Head Hunter takes the age-old concept of revenge and tries to make from it something of-itself and flavourful, something in some ways very unique.

The feeling can’t be ignored that there is fat that could be cut and perhaps this particular tale would have worked better as a short film. While just scraping a feature film duration it feels as though a few ideas went underdeveloped and the third act of The Head Hunter could have been a halfway point.

Head Hunter 2019 Trailer