Things that brought me delight in April, 2022:
Ruth Wilson just absolutely kills it in the lead role in the BBC's 2006 production of Jane Eyre. She's actually quite obviously a beautiful woman, but she really knows how to sell "Plain Jane," choosing expressions that are unflattering. So much nuance. I think she's one of the best actresses out there at the moment. The rest of the cast manages to hold their own, bur she's a force of nature. I've seen many an adaptation of Jane Eyre, and I'd say this is among my favorites.
One of the cruelest things about getting older is losing your sense of wonderment. Even new works that want to off-the-wall or transgressive can feel dulled by the excesses we've already seen, already experienced. But every so often a film comes along that is so unlike anything you have ever seen before that it feels like being struck by lightning. I don't even know where to begin with describing Titane to do it justice; body horror, serial murder, the overwhelming abyss of grief, and the delusions we cling to when all hope is lost are all part of the mix. It isn't seamless, and it makes no attempt to explain its own underlying logic, but in the end its endearingly affective.
Molly Pohlig, The Unsuitable
Going into Molly Pohlig's The Unsuitable, all I knew about it was that the main character is haunted or possessed by the ghost of her mother--who died giving birth to her. On the surface, that sounds like an extremely Gothic premise, so I definitely was not expecting that the clash between the protagonist's spectral mother and hateful father would result in a dark comedy of errors. It's a funny novel, until it isn't.
And that's the trick of The Unsuitable. It softens you up, coaxes you into feeling quite warmly for its awkward, hapless heroine. And then it rips your heart out.
It was interesting to watch Censor after Titane, since they both deal with the extreme lengths people will go to fill the hole left behind by an absent loved one. Even without that context, however, Censor would have been worth seeing. The movie is about a woman working at the British Board of Film Classification as a censor during the height of the "video nasty" hysteria; her sister went missing at a young age--a trauma she's never fully dealt with. When she becomes convinced that her sister is being exploited as an actress by perverse filmmakers in their gruesome little shockers, she strays further and further from reality and descends into the fantasy that if we edit the media that surrounds us into wholesome conformity, our lives will become smooth and frictionless. Of course, there is a price to be paid for paradise. Quite a strong debut film!
Clive Barker, Books of Blood, Vol. III
My long-overdue reread of Clive Barker's Books of Blood continued in April, though I did go out of order by tackling vol. III before vol. II. In retrospect, it's interesting that Barker's "Rawhead Rex" doesn't factor more prominently in discussions of the folk horror revival, as I suspect it's a sort of missing link that kept folk horror's ideas current at a time when they weren't a dominant flavor of horror. And obviously you just have to love the sheet ghost gag of "Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud," but even eerier in 2022 is the way it presaged the idea of character assassination as motivating incident in a pre-internet era. But for my money, it's "Scape-Goats" that might be the most effective chiller in the entire anthology.
Shelley dares to ask the question: what if a baby had an extremely bad vibe? When a woman agrees to be the surrogate for the childless couple she works for at their isolated rural cabin, things go quite badly for everyone involved. What sets Shelley apart from other entries in the monstrous pregnancy and monstrous baby subgenres is that there is no clear instigator of the evil that falls over the household. This is more of a mood or atmosphere piece than a horror movie with big bloody action or creeping dread, but I found it pretty effective at what it was attempting.
Darkher, Realms, The Kingdom Field, The Buried Storm
Attention Chelsea Wolfe fans: you will find much to love in Darkher! Darkher's catalog won't be metal enough for some ears; there are swaths of Gothic etherealness here, bits of dark folk, and an inclination toward arty melancholy. But when the dying sun dips below the horizon, things get outright doomy. These records are all about the textures leading up to the crushing crescendo.
Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Bridgit Connell, Michelle Madsen, Lady Baltimore: The Witch Queens
There are days when I'm convinced that I enjoy the Baltimore series even more than I do Hellboy. Lady Baltimore continue the former's storyline after the death of its titular character, following Lord Baltimore's wife as she takes on the mantle of hunting monsters in his memory. Lady Baltimore doesn't reach the highest pinnacles set by the best Baltimore arcs, but it's a decent romp with swashbuckling, magic, and swordplay. If anything, I wish the story was a little less compressed; I really think this kind of Gothic adventure does benefit from being a bit more drawn out to give the characterization room to breath.
Andrzej Sapkowshi, The Lady of the Lake
Alas, I've reached the end of the road with the Witcher series! Which means, of course, that another episode of Valley of Plenty is headed your way in the near future. Taken as a whole, the Witcher saga is quite strange; at the outset, it's really all about Geralt's adventures, but by the end it almost feels like Geralt has all but disappeared from the story. Perhaps somebody in the marketing division didn't think this would sell as well as the Ciri Saga? But then, even that might be a stretch as she's missing in action for big stretches of this weighty tome too!
Clyde Robert Bula, The Ghost of Windy Hill
I found this book for younger readers at a local flea market. The story concerns a Victorian era art teacher who takes his family to live in the supposedly haunted house at Windy Hill in order to prove that it isn't really inhabited by a fearsome ghost. The story is quite fun, but the real star here is the moody black and white ink illustrations by Don Bolognese.
I went into The Northman knowing very little about it. I knew it was about vikings and was directed by Robert Eggers, but other than that I was primed to be surprised and delighted by the film. I had no idea it would be bringing in proto-Hamlet story arcs or Russian fairy tales. There's really nothing I didn't like about it! The atmosphere is appropriately gritty and grim, the performances are strong, there are some pretty gross murders, the mystical imagery works, and Anya Taylor Joy is nice to look at throughout. If you see one movie in which Bjork plays a Norse seer this year, let The Northman be it.
Nick Tapalansky and Anissa Espinosa, Cast No Shadow
Ah, Cast No Shadow has one of my favorite conventions: a boy falls in love with a dead girl! That's honestly the least of his problems; he's also trying to get over his mother's death, trying to reconcile himself to the fact that his father's new partner is moving into their house, trying to navigate his best friend becoming the girlfriend of a guy he finds highly annoying, and oh yeah his shadow is a malevolent entity that acts on its own. Cast No Shadow is more "cartoonish" than what I usually go for, but overall this was a pretty fun read.
Spectral Wound, Infernal Decadence and A Diabolic Thirst
Spectral Wound specializes in the old-school, second wave black metal sound, but that doens't make either Infernal Decadence or A Diabolic Thirst mere nostalgia trips. Dripping with atmosphere and unyielding rage, these two albums earn a place in your black metal collection.
Rarely have I seen a promotional image mis-sell a movie quite as badly as the one to the right! Looking at it, you would be excused for thinking that Agnes is an entry in the ever-growing "nun horror" subgenre, but that wouldn't be further off the mark. While the movie does begin with a situation involving demonic possession, this is really more of a drama about crises of faith, disappointments, and where we look for guidance and salvation. Forget the bleeding from the eyes, the upside-down crucifix, and the "Face your demons" tagline, this one is a character-driven study about trauma that can't be left by the wayside. It wasn't what I expected, but all the more stronger for that.
Andre Bjerk, The Lake of the Dead
The Lake of the Dead is an acclaimed Norwegian horror-thriller, recently brought to an English-speaking audience by the efforts of Valancourt Books. The titular lake has a legend of death attached to it, and when an idle man takes residence in the nearby cabin it seems like the legend has tragically repeated itself, which sends his sister and his friends to the supposedly haunted lake in search of answers. The final bit reminds me of Psycho quite a bit, as a psychoanalyst puts all the pieces together for the reader's edification.
Sloane Leong and Anna Bowles, Graveneye
I can't believe how negative some of the reviews of Graveneye I've read have been. My suspicion is that some readers don't know what to think about the comic because it just doesn't tick the boxes of conventions, style, and theme usually found in modern horror comics. Told from the perspective of the house where the action centers, Graveneye is the tale of a maid in an abusive marriage who comes to work for a strange, hungry woman. As in the various tellings of Bluebeard, there is a room that is forbidden to her. She wants to find a place, a sense of belonging, but any safety attached to that urge is an illusion. The spare palette of blacks, white, grays, and the occasional startling splash of red, emphasizes the ways Graveneye dwells on hidden savagery and bloody desire. Hunger is red, after all.
Lake of the Dead
After reading Andre Bjerke's The Lake of the Dead, I decided to check out the movie version from the 1950s. As far as adaptations go, the plot remains faithful to that of the novel, though some things are simplified for the sake of an easier to navigate narrative. I definitely recommend Lake of the Dead for when you're in the mood for a light horror-thriller that doesn't go particularly hard on the thrills and chills. Interestingly, Andre Bjerke and his wife both have roles in this!
Semblant, Vermilion Eclipse
Semblant's Vermilion Eclipse has a hell of an album cover to live up to, but in my opinion it definitely succeeds. Semblant marry goth electronic and symphonic flourishes, heavy riffs, and the "Beauty and the Beast" style vocals. At times, the amount of sounds and ideas they're working with can feel a little overwhelming, but I'd always rather feel overwhelmed than underwhelmed. Generally, though, this is the good excess.
Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray-Man, Vols. 10-12
Lots of battles in these volumes of D.Gray-Man, but although several prominent characters appear to have died I'm doubtful that we've seen the last of them. Unfortunately, because these volumes are mostly lengthy battle sequences, there isn't much of a sense of the narrative moving forward. Also, maybe this sounds better in the original Japanese, but powers like "crown clown" and "clown belt" really don't hit my ear right in English; there's a very real lack of gravitas there for abilities that I think we're supposed to take seriously.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
It's easy to see why Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is considered a classic. Bette Davis's over-the-top delusional villainy is well known from the movie, but I reckon that Joan Crawford's more understated performance also deserves a revisit.