The TSL’s Grindhouse: The Haunting of Sharon Tate (dir by Daniel Farrands)


The Haunting of Sharon Tate is a frustrating film to review.

On the one hand, it’s an undeniably well-made horror film.  It’s surprisingly well-paced.  It creates an atmosphere of nonstop dread.  It’s the type of movie that makes you keep an eye on the shadows in the room.  This is the type of movie that makes your heart race and leaves you uneasy about every unexpected noise that you hear.  It’s a dark and disturbing horror film and it features an excellent lead performance from Hillary Duff in the title role.  While watching the film, you care about her and you don’t want anything bad to happen to her.  That makes the film’s shocks and scares all the more frightening.

On the other hand, though, The Haunting of Sharon Tate features a premise that will leave even the most dedicated grindhouse horror fan feeling more than a bit icky.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate is hardly the first horror film to be based on the infamous Manson murders.  In fact, it’s not even the only one to be released this year.  We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Tate murders so last May saw the release of Charlie Says and Quentin Tarantino’s highly-anticipated Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is set to be released in July.  What sets The Haunting of Sharon Tate apart from the other Manson films is that it’s told totally from the point-of-view of Manson’s victims.  Manson is only seen briefly and the other members of his so-called “Family” wander through the movie like dead-eyed zombies.  This is the rare Manson film that doesn’t try to portray that grubby little racist hippie as being some sort of outlaw folk hero and, regardless of what you think of the rest of the film, that’s definitely a good thing.

Instead, this movie focuses on Sharon Tate.  The film opens with a black-and-white recreation of an interview that Sharon gave a year before her murder, in which she discusses whether or not dreams can tell the future.  We then jump forward to August of 1969.  Sharon is 8-months pregnant and staying at 10050 Cielo Drive.  Her husband, Roman Polanski (who is kept off-screen for the entire movie), is in Europe.  Staying with Sharon is her ex-boyfriend, Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett) and her friends, heiress Abigail Folger (played by real-life heiress Lydia Hearst) and Abigail’s boyfriend, Wojciech Frykowsky (Pawel Szajda).  Also on the property is caretaker Steve Parent (Ryan Cargill), who is staying in a trailer and enjoys working on electronics.

(For the most part, the film sticks to the generally established facts when it comes to depicting the friendship between Sharon, Jay, Abigail, and Fykowsky.  However, it takes a lot of liberties with its portrayal of Steve Parent.  As opposed to how he’s portrayed in the film, Parent was actually an 18 year-old friend of the property’s caretaker who, because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, became the first victim of the Tate murders.  By most accounts, he never met Sharon or any of the other inhabitants of the main house.)

In the film, Sharon is haunted by premonitions.  She has dreams in which she sees her friends being murdered by feral human beings.  She gets disturbing phone calls and she hears weird voices talking about someone named Charlie.  Her friends keep telling her that the nightmares are just a result of the stress that she’s under but Sharon is convinced that they’re a warning.  (Oddly, some of the scenes in which her friends dismiss her concerns are reminiscent of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.)  After an hour of build up, the Family finally arrives at Ceilo Drive and, because of her dreams, Sharon is ready for them and able to fight back.  Or is she?  Can history be changed? the film asks, Or has our fate already been determined?

So, here’s the good thing about The Haunting of Sharon Tate:  It’s clearly on Sharon’s side.  It doesn’t glorify Manson and his family.  Hilary Duff gives a touching and, at times, heart-breaking performance as Sharon Tate and the film holds her up as a symbol of hope, optimism, kindness, and everything else that was lost as a result of Manson’s crimes.  The film itself is well-directed and genuinely scary and the final shot is haunting.

Here’s the bad thing about The Haunting of Sharon Tate:  It may be well-made but it’s still exploiting a real-life tragedy, one in which six people lost their lives.  (That’s not counting all of the other murders that Manson ordered.)  To be honest, if the film was called The Haunting of Jessica Smith, I probably wouldn’t have any reservations about recommending it to horror fans.  Instead, it’s called The Haunting of Sharon Tate and that makes it very hard to watch the film with a clear conscience.  Do the film’s technical strengths make up for the film’s inherent ickiness?  That’s the question that every viewer will have to ask and answer for themselves.

I will say this: I do think that The Haunting of Sharon Tate is a thousand times better than something like Wolves At The Door, in which Sharon was portrayed with all the depth of a Friday the 13th summer camp counselor.  The Haunting of Sharon Tate left me feeling feeling frightened, disturbed, and, because of my struggle to reconcile the film’s technical strengths with its morally dubious premise, more than a little annoyed.  It also left me mourning for Sharon Tate and every other victim of Manson and his brainwashed gang of zombies.  Is the film a tribute to Sharon or a crass exploitation of her memory?  At times, it seems to be both which is one reason why it’s such a frustrating film.

Well-made and problematic to the extreme, The Haunting of Sharon Tate is as close to a modern grindhouse film as we’re going to get in today’s antiseptic age.  Whether or not that’s a good enough reason to sit through it is a question that each viewer will have to decide for themselves.

Film Review: Spirits In The Dark (dir by Jozsef Gallai)


An abandoned building is just inherently creepy.

I mean, think about it.  Unlike a forest or a mountain or a canyon, a building is not something that forms naturally.  People actually have to build buildings.  Plans have to be drawn up.  Materials have to purchased.  Hours of backbreaking labor are required.  Creating a building requires work, resources, and time.  It’s not something that you do on a whim.  It’s something that’s done as a part of a larger plan.  With all of the effort that goes into creating the building, it’s always strange to come across one that has subsequently been abandoned.  You find yourself wondering what could have happened that made the inhabitants or the owners say, “We’d rather have all that hard work be for nothing than remain in this location?”

Walking through an abandoned building, it’s difficult not to think about the fact that, once upon a time, strangers that you’ll probably never meet moved through these now deserted hallways.  People worked in those empty rooms.  For a period of time, the building was probably the center of someone’s life.  Where are those people now?  Do they ever think about the past?  Do they still have memories of things that were said or thought while walking through those now-empty hallways?

Finally, there’s the constant reminders that even an abandoned building isn’t never truly abandoned.  There’s the animals that move in after the people leave.  There’s the plants the continue to grow around and, in some cases, consume the empty structure.  And, of course, there’s the reminders that you might not be the first person to have explored this empty building.  There’s the broken windows or the empty bottles or the crumpled cigarette pack, all of which remind you that others may even consider this building to be their home.  And, of course, there’s the graffiti.  Graffiti and abandoned buildings tend to go hand-in-hand.  For whatever reason, it’s often the graffiti that makes an abandoned building feel especially ominous.  Are those words on the wall a sign of ownership, an act of rebellion, or a warning?

Of course, the only thing more creepy than one abandoned building is when you come across an entire town of abandoned buildings….

And yet, as creepy as an empty building can be, it’s also hard not to be fascinated by them.  You look at them and you wonder why?  Why did everyone leave and how long will the building stand there deserted before it’s either torn down or destroyed by nature?  That’s one reason why ghost towns remains such a popular tourist destination.  They’re a reminder of just how short and fragile life can be.  You can build a home or an office but, once your time is up, it’s just going to be another abandoned building.

That’s something that Gil Spencer, the protagonist of Spirits in the Dark, understands.  Gil (played by the film’s director, Jozsef Gallai) used to love exploring abandoned buildings with his wife.  Ever since his wife’s death, Gil has struggled with being lonely and depressed.  But then, one day, something mysteriously appears on his laptop.  It appears to be a video shot by someone exploring an abandoned military complex.  The person shooting the video comes across a white pendant, one that looks exactly like the one that Gil’s wife used to wear.  While the person holds the pendant, we catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure standing a few feet away, watching.

Intrigued, Gil searches for and manages to track down the deserted complex.  As creepy as the abandoned and graffiti-covered buildings may be, Gil — who films his exploration — informs us that it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.  Even when he spots blood on the wall, he figures that it was probably just someone shooting “an indie horror film.”  But then, he comes across a mask hanging in a corner.  And then his car’s horn starts honking for no reason.  And then, things start to get really creepy!

Spirits in the Dark is a haunting and moody exercise in atmosphere and genuine creepiness.  Wisely, instead of going for easy jump scares, the film takes its time to set up both the location and the situation.  We get to know Gil and, as he makes his way through them, we also get to know the abandoned building and the surrounding wilderness.  Like Gil, we find ourselves looking at every shadow, searching for some sort of explanation.  Just like Gil, we can feel the menacing atmosphere closing in on us and we become aware of every strange noise and every possible movement in the darkness.  When the scares do come, they’re all the more effective because the film has earned the right to frighten us.  It’s a wonderfully effective and creepy movie, one that has an intriguing plot and which is distinguished by the moody cinematography and the ominous score, both of which are credited to Gergo Elekes.

Wild Eye Releasing is going to be releasing Spirits in the Dark via DVD and VOD early in 2020 so keep an eye out for it!

Short Film Review: Fried Barry (dir by Ryan Kruger)


I just watched a three-minute short film called Fried Barry.  Now, you may ask: “How much of a story can you tell in three minutes?”  Well, the answer is that you can tell a lot more than you might think.  For instance, Fried Barry might only last 180 seconds but it tells the story of a lifetime.

Fried Barry tells the story of Barry (Gary Green), a man who has obviously fallen on hard times.  When we first see him, he’s dirty, he’s scruffy, he’s twitching, and he’s wandering around in what appears to be a deserted warehouse.  His eyes appear to be full of madness as they dart from one side of the warehouse to the other.  A series of quick cuts, taking us from extreme close-ups of Barry to medium shots back into Barry’s face (and potentially his mind), keep us just as disorientated as he is.  The soundtrack is full of the sounds of the chaos that is erupting in Barry’s mind and we wonder if Barry is insane or maybe if we’ve just entered someone else’s dream.  It’s when we see the spoon and the hypodermic needle that we come to understand that Barry is a heroin addict.

When he shoots up, the short film just gets more chaotic.  Shots of Barry looking somewhat blissful are followed by shots of Barry looking even more pissed off.  Occasionally, a peaceful image appears but the sounds of chaos continue to erupt in the background.  By the time Barry is using his tongue to catch flies like a frog, we find ourselves wondering once again if we’re watching Barry from the outside or if we’ve entered his head.

Looking over the notes that I jotted down while watching Fried Barry, I see that I originally wrote that Barry was “a crazy dude in a warehouse.”  That’s probably not entirely fair to Barry.  When you see someone at a certain point in their life, you never fully understand how they reached that point.  That’s true of the desperate people that we see everyday and certainly, that’s true of someone like Barry.  Who knows who Barry was before he became “a crazy dude in a warehouse.”  The film is full of hints but it’s up to us, as the viewer, to put them together.

David Lynch once describes Eraserhead as being “a dream of dark and disturbing things,” and I think the same description applies to this 3-minute film.  It’s a film that will definitely stick with you.  iHorror released it this week so check it out.

The short film Fried Barry has been adapted into a feature film, which has just completed post-production and should be coming out at the end of 2019.

Film Review: The Cleaning Lady (dir by Jon Knautz)


The Cleaning Lady opens with a close-up of several mice in a box.  A hand reaches down and scoops up the mice, one-by-one.  The mice are dropped into a blender.  We watch as a finger turns the blender on.  Now, before anyone panics, we don’t actually see the mice get turned into puree or anything like that.  (Indeed, if we had, I would have stopped watching the movie right at that moment.)  Still, just the sound of that blender coming to life was enough to make me cringe.

It’s also a signal of the type of film that The Cleaning Lady is going to be.  This is a dark horror movie about some seriously damaged individuals.  If you think that things can’t get any darker than mice being dropped in a blender, just you wait.

The film opens with the travails of Alice (Alexis Kendra), who has a nice apartment and a married boyfriend.  The problem with having a married boyfriend is that, no matter how much you love him, you still have to deal with the guilt of being a homewrecker.  Unfortunately, Alice is “addicted to love” and she simply cannot seem to resist the urge to call Michael (Stelio Savante) and ask him to come over to her place.  Not even attending a support group seems to help.  (Of course, Michael does invite her to to go to Italy with him and, seriously, who could resist a free trip to Italy?)

As for Alice’s apartment, it’s nice and big but what’s the point if you can’t keep it clean and neat?  Fortunately, Shelly (Rachel Alig) is here to help!  Shelly is the cleaning lady and she has a habit of mysteriously materializing in Alice’s apartment.  At first, Alice is a little bit nervous around the heavily scarred and withdrawn Shelly.  However, Alice soon comes to appreciate Alice’s ability to unplug a drain and dispose of dead rodents.  Soon, Alice is making Shelly dinner and inviting her to stay over and watch movies.  Alice even drives Shelly home one night and is shocked to discover that Shelly apparently lives out in the middle-of-nowhere.

Now, admittedly, Alice’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic.  There’s a hint of elitism to Alice’s attempts to be nice to “the help.”  Even more importantly, spending time with Shelly gives Alice something to do other than calling up Michael.  Alice is using Shelly to break her addiction.

What Alice doesn’t realize is that 1) Shelly’s become a bit addicted to her company and 2) Shelly is willing to do just about anything to get closer to Alice.  I’m not going to spoil things by discussing just how far Shelly goes but let’s just say that things do a get a bit extreme.  And that’s even before the knives and the axes come out!

The Cleaning Lady is hardly the first horror film to be made about obsession, nor will it be the last.  That said, it’s still an effectively creepy film.  By making Alice as obsessed with Michael as Shelly is with Alice, the film brings a few unexpected wrinkles to its plot and both Alexis Kendra and Rachel Alig do a good job bringing their characters to life, with Alig even managing to generate some sympathy for poor, scarred Shelly.  Alig especially deserves credit for underplaying a few key scenes, as opposed to going full psycho.  The fact that Shelly rarely speaks above a whisper actually makes her far more intimidating than she would have been if she had spent the entire movie screaming at her prey.

All in all, this is an effective indie horror film.  Of course, after seeing the film, it’s possible that you might never look at a blender the same way again….

Bloody Good Show: Robert Quarry as COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (AIP 1970)


cracked rear viewer

Robert Quarry’s screen career wasn’t really going anywhere by 1970. He had a good part in 1956’s soapy noir A KISS BEFORE DYING , but mostly he was relegated to uncredited bits in movies and guest shots on episodic TV. Quarry kept busy on the stage, until being approached by producer/actor Michael Macready to star in THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, originally envisioned as a soft core porn flick with horror elements. The actor said he would accept the job but only if it were turned into a straight modern-day vampire tale, and thus was born COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, launching Quarry into a new phase as a 70’s horror movie icon.

The plot is an updated version of Stoker’s DRACULA, with a few changes. Here, the Bulgarian-born Count Yorga is a recent transplant to California, and we first meet him conducting a séance on behalf of Donna, whose late…

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Film Review: The Curse of La Llorona (dir by Michael Chaves)


The Curse of La Llorona is a boring film about a scary legend.

The legend of La Llorona is a well-known one in Mexico and the southwestern half of the United States.  It’s a story that I was told by both my mom and my aunts and, as a result, I never went off with a stranger while I was growing up.  Of course, I also had some pretty intense nightmares but that’s kind of the point.  If someone tells you the story of La Llorona and you don’t end up having a nightmare about being drowned by a weeping woman, they didn’t tell the story correctly.

La Llorona was originally named Maria.  She lived, in a rural village, with her family and she was famous for both her beauty and her virtue.  When a wealthy nobleman saw her and immediately proposed to her, Maria accepted.  However, the nobleman’s father was upset that his son was marrying into a poor family and he refused to accept Maria as his daughter-in-law.  Maria and her husband ended up having two sons and living in a house by the river.  Maria’s husband doted on their sons but he ignored her and eventually, Maria learned that he was having an affair.

In a fit of blind rage, Maria drowned her children in the river.  After realizing what she had done, Maria died of grief.  However, when she arrived at the gates of Heaven, she was asked why her children were not with her.  When Maria explained that she had lost them, she was told that she would not be allowed to enter Heaven until she found them.  Now, known as La Llorona (or “the weeping woman”), she wanders the Earth, crying and looking for her children.

Where does one find La Llorona?  It depends on who is telling the story.  Some stories say that you’ll only see her near a body of water.  My mom used to tell me that La Llorona could be anywhere, including under my bed or in the bedroom closet.  Regardless of where you might find her, La Llorona is always wearing her wedding dress and she’s always sobbing.  Approach her and she’ll grab you and either kidnap you or drown you, all the while begging for forgiveness.  Many have seen La Llorona but few have survived to tell the story.

“And that is why we do not talk to strangers,” my mother would say while I looked out the bedroom window, searching for the sight of La Llorona walking through the Texas night….

Unfortunately, The Curse of La Llorona never comes close to being as scary as the stories that I used to hear when I was growing up.  Instead, the film is a standard Conjuring-Insidious-Paranormal Activity type of film, with La Llorona continually popping up out of the shadows to frighten a social worker and widow named Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini), and her two children.  The film has a few jump scenes but it never creates enough atmosphere to be consistently scary and, even worse, it reduces La Llorona to just being a typically malevolent spirit in a wedding dress.  In the end, the film itself doesn’t seem to really understand what La Llorona wants nor does it have a clear idea of what she can or cannot do.  As such, the whole movie has a slapdash feel to it that makes it difficult to really maintain any suspense.

Technically, The Curse of La Llorona is a part of the Conjuring Universe.  Not only does the film take place in the 70s (which was apparently the decade when all the ghosts and spirits went crazy) but there’s also very brief flashback featuring that ugly Annabelle doll.  However, neither Patrick Wilson nor Vera Farmiga puts in an appearance, which is a shame because The Conjuring films really only work because of their chemistry.  Instead, Raymond Cruz shows up as an exorcist named Rafael.  Cruz gives a likable performance but, again, one gets the feeling that the film wasn’t sure what exactly it wanted to do with him.

Anyway, The Curse of La Llorona is a disappointment.  Fortunately, there’s a lot of good and genuinely frightening Mexican horror films about La Llorona.  I recommend checking out 2006’s Kilometer 31.

The Weeping Woman (1937, Pablo Picasso)

Here’s The Trailer For Spirits In the Dark!


AGCK!

I don’t know anything about this film but this trailer is super creepy and dream-like!

According to the imdb, this is a Hungarian film that was directed by, written by, and stars József Gallai.  The imdb plot description reads: A lonely widower finds a mysterious video on his computer that leads him to an abandoned town occupied by an ominous entity.  The film is listed as having a 70-minute running time.  That may sound short but that’s actually kind of a good sign.  Some of the best horror films are quick and efficient.

The film was released in Hungary earlier this year and, whenever it’s available here in the U.S., I’ll be sure to watch and share my review!