Jyanween: Over the Garden Wall (McHale, 2014)

Though much of the fun of Halloween is the spooks and frights, one of my favorite elements of the holiday is the aesthetic. Fall leaves, pumpkins, the orange of the dying light over withering trees, it’s all an exhilarating part of the experience. “Over the Garden Wall” understand this aesthetic, utilizing it to create a haunting, but weirdly warm atmosphere for their nightmarish fable of a beast, a woodsman, and two boys trying to make their way home.

Children’s media is the current era can easily be accused or losing a bit of the darkness that permeated the medium in the 80s and 90s. Where once we had films like Neverending Story or Goonies, full of wry jokes, dying horses, and horrifying monsters, much of today’s media for kids is more often wiped clean of any such elements,to be replaced by butt  jokes and crass humor. It’s a delight, then, to see that Cartoon Network had, for the many years, been embracing the darker side of children’s’ programming,  with shows like Steven Universe and Adventure Time, shows not afraid to show horrifying moments or characters, and that don’t shy away from more intellectual or high brow storylines. Over the Garden Wall easily falls within these bounds, as this production is full of haunting imagery and smart writing, borrowing as much from Mark Twain as Walt Disney.

The world of Over the Garden Wall is one the type of which we don’t see often. Instead of getting inspiration from the usual spots of Disney, Pixar, or 80s cartoons, this show’s creators pull from older inspirations. It’s obvious from early on that Over the Garden Wall is mostly set within a world stuck in the late 19th to early 20th century, so it’s a delight, for anyone familiar with early animation, to see creations based on the work of luminaries such as Max Fleischer and Winsor McCay, with the exaggerated animation and wild flights of fancy. In particular one episode which a group of people in a pub bears a striking resemblance to other Fleischer shorts, with their stretchy, elastic movement and Betty Boop-ish figures, which is an absolutely delightful watch. Of course, there’s no shortage of homages to early Disney, and even a touch of Cal Arts Style in certain sequences, but it’s a joy to see a show pulling from new inspirations to create something wholly unique.

One never truly knows what to expect from each episode of “Over the Garden Wall”. One episode with be a horror show, full of witches, monsters, and the threat of child-eating, and the next will be a broad, comedic ghost story.  Because the world is so fantastical, practically anything can happen, and creators Patrick McHale fills this world with all manner of intriguing characters, whether they be mainstays like The Woodsman and the Beasts, monsters-of-the-week like the horrifying pumpkin king Enoch, or even characters who spend just a few seconds on the screen, like a Highwaymen who sings about killing and stealing from others to “make ends meet”. Its a credit to the creator that even the smallest of characters has so much personality, that we could watch an entire show for just about anything of them and be entertained.

“Over the Garden Wall” might not be a traditional horror story (it’s more in the vein of a dark fantasy like Labyrinth of The Neverending Story”), but it’s a miniseries absolutely bursting with the soul of Halloween. It’s sure to become a Halloween staple in my house, and is a must for anyone looking for lighter fair among the slashers and haunted house pictures.

JyanWeen: Ghostwatch (Volk, 1992)

Many people call “The Blair Witch Project” the beginning of the found footage craze, but a few years before that film was a little British broadcast on BBC, “Ghostwatch”. Airing in 1992, the faux news program follows a crew as they investigate what’s declared as the “most haunted house in Britain”. What begins as a slow, uneventful wander through this small house, ends in a pulse-pounding horror show of strange voices and ghost apparitions, ramping up in perfect step to create a truly chilling experience.

“Ghostwatch” is presented in the style of a BBC news program, with a host, famed UK Broadcaster Michael Parkinson, commentary of psychologists, even a goofy news crew. There’s even a switchboard (called jokingly the “Witchboard” by one of the producers), where the hosts take calls from viewers (which eventually becomes an important plot in later parts of the show). We follow this crew as they look into the hauntings of a family in their small house in Northolt, Greater London, which has been the site of numerous hauntings over several months. Along the way, we’re introduced to a para-psychologist Dr. Lin Pascoe, who gives a psychological view into the goings-on, with regular appearances from a New York skeptic, who gives his own counterpoints throughout to cast doubt on the findings. Though things start off slow, we’re soon presented with strange bumping and scratching, the wailing of cats, and even brief appearances from the ghost itself. One of the joys of watching the special is trying to catch all of these appearances, which are easily missed by terrifying when actually you catch them. The footage ends in a heart-stopping heat-vision camera scene that ranks as one of the best in the found footage genre, before a shocking, if a tad goofy, finale.

As with the first Paranormal Activity, or the best moments of the Blair With Project, “Ghostwatch” proves that some of the best horror stories are told with the smallest of budgets. The special doesn’t rely on big special effects or heavy post-production, but instead, with little more than a basic TV film crew, some sound effects, and some superb child actors, they create a heavy, haunting atmosphere. Like most of the best found footage films, the scares come from the basics of the technology, such as when the boom mic picks up strange noises that normal ears would not have heard, or a mounted camera shows us something that we wouldn’t have caught otherwise. Indeed, the broadcast format also acts as a tool for scares, as tape replays itself or a stream is lost, leading to even more frights. One of the best scares in the piece comes from the sudden glimpse of the ghost’s face in a blast of static near the end of the piece, which could only have come from this kind of presentation.

Much like the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, “Ghostwatch” caused no small amount of controversy upon its release. Though it was aired as part of a drama series, there were reports of individuals believing that they were watching a real news program, which not only resulted in thousands of angry phone calls, but unfortunately also resulted in the suicide of a young man five days after the special’s airing, and there were many reports of children being psychological scarred by the experience (which was not helped by the fact that one of the stars was the host of a popular children’s program at the time). The special was never re-aired in Britain, and had been rarely seen, before the streaming service Shudder saw fit to make this enjoyable bit of ghosty goodness available for viewers in the US. For fans of found footage, or haunted house films in general, it’s a must-see.

Jyanween: Angel’s Egg (Oshii, 1985)

There are few films in this year’s Jyanween that may not always feel like horror films, but are so bizarre that they defy categorization. Anyone who watches Angel’s Egg will see, it is certainly one such film. Even if it doesn’t quite scare you, there’s an unnerving obscurity and uncertainty that you just can’t shake. Though most of Mamoru Oshii films could be considered hard to follow, Angel’s Egg, his collaboration with acclaimed character designer Yoshitaka Amano, pushes this bafflement to entirely new levels, becoming so confusing that it would almost take a viewing guide and a series of essays even to begin to make sense of what’s on screen (so frankly, you shouldn’t expect that here, and also be ready for me to get some things MAJORLY wrong).

The first you’ll notice about Angel’s Egg is how gorgeous it is. The way Oshii and Amano play with light and shadow is stunning, and their use of bright whites to burst through the frame catches our attention and demands our attention in several key moments. This beauty makes some of the slower scenes a much easier sit. In one scene in particular, we watch what is basically a static scene: one of our characters is sleeping, the other sitting by her bed, as a fire dies in the foreground. This is so well rendered it could be hung in a gallery, and the way the director, and animators slightly adjust the scene as the as the light becomes dimmer is incredibly impressive. There were multiple moments in the film where I had to stop and just take in the beauty of a particular scene, and there are so many shots in the film that I wish I could hang on my wall.

All this is enhanced by Yoshihiro Kanno’s sumptuous score. Whether it’s the more futuristic synth lines in the beginning of the piece, or the gentle harp and choral orchestrations in the film’s later scenes, the film creates an aural tapestry that one can get lost in. In a film with so little dialog, the music is forced to do a lot of heavy lifting, and in these cases sometimes they film can fall into manipulation, but Kanno’s music here is keen to set the mood, while never truly telling its audience how they should feel. When combined with the film’s excellent sound design, so full of falling rain and wind-blown grasses that it must be a joy to ASMR fans, an overwhelming soundscape is created that leaves it audience breathless.

It may seem like I’m dancing around the plot of this film, but that’s mostly because there’s not much there (or, conversely, way too much). Early in the film, we’re introduced to a mysterious girl carrying an egg. She wanders a nearly deserted city, where she meets a man, just as mysterious, carrying a weapon that has more than a passing resemblance to a cross. They two wander together, spouting slightly off-base biblical stories and learning secrets about the egg, and where it may have come from. Along the way, there are a number of trippy, bizarre sequences, including a scene in which a group of fishermen, running around with the ferocity of soldiers, throw harpoons at shadow fish, in the process destroying the city around; and several in which a large, round ship with a single eye, filled with statues of women, appears on, and subsequently leaves, the city. If these sound perplexing on paper, I can assure you, these scenes only make slightly more sense in the actual film.

Angel’s Egg is a hard one to crack, confounding to the point of near impenetrability, but it’s without a doubt a gorgeous ride, and with the fantastic soundtrack carrying you along, it will more than likely be a journey you won’t regret taking. Just be sure you’ve had your coffee, as the calming nature of the sound design and slow pacing create the perfect atmosphere for a short nap if you’re not prepared.

JyanWeen: Idle Hands (Flender, 1999)

There are certain films that act as a snapshot for a certain moment in time. Just one look at Taxi Driver tells everything we want to know about 70s New York; Smithereens gives you a warts and all look at punk life in the 80s; the 40s noir is soaked in the LA of their era. In a similar vein, Idle Hands bleeds late nineties from every pore, whether it’s the stoner culture, the fashion, the music, or the sexual politics. For better or for worse, the film could not have been made during any other time.

The premise of Idle Hands is simple: Devon Sowa’s Anton discovers that the string of murders happening throughout this town can be linked to him, or, more accurately, his hand. He begins to lose control of his hand, leading to the deaths of not only his parents, but his two best friends (don’t know worry, the friends get better). What follows is a ludicrous journey, which includes zombies, a demon fighting Vivica A. Fox, an intense chase through a high school from a sentient hand, and a live performance by none other than 90s icons The Offspring.

It’s the kind ludicrous setup that can lead to hilarity, and indeed there’s plenty of fun to be had here. In particular, a scene in which Anton’s possessed hand keeps changing the television channel to ominous films about hands (who knew such films existed) brings the laughs with its offbeat sensibility, and Sowa shows some impressive comedic abilities as he controls the possessed hand. However, it’s also a film full of the dumb stoner humor the era is known for, and though Seth Green and Elden Hansen are talented actors in their own right, this script gives them very little to do (though the moments when Hansen is nothing but a sentient hand do have a certain charm). Add to this a rather flat performance from a young Jessica Alba, and it’s hard to give the film’s humor a passing grade in the end.

For most of the movie, the action takes place within a single block radius, and this gives the action a kind of chamber piece feel that is intriguing. It’s obvious that much of this was due to budget’s sake, but keeping the action tight helps us to emphasize with this small group of characters and the world they inhabit. In fact, it’s when the scope is widened that film begins to fall apart. When the action is confined to a single house, there’s more opportunities for clever set pieces, but when you have the entirety of a school at your disposal, it’s a little easier to be lazy and fall on cliches.

For a time with less-than-progressive sexual politics, Idle Hands is relatively low in regards to problematic material, especially considering its premise. The groping and fondling is kept to a minimum, though there is the token gratuitous nudity shot that seems to be in every horror movie of this time period. Most of the other sexual activity, as surprisingly little as there is, is consensual and welcomed. Considering the politics at play in other films from the era, like American Pie or Can’t Hardly Wait, it’s a surprise that this film rarely goes for the easy sex joke or playful groping gags (though they do get the one). Of course, we can’t let the film completely off the hook, since nearly every woman in the film is dressed in the most skimpy outfit or costume possible.

Idle Hands is not a perfect film. Far from it in fact, but as a snapshot of life in the nineties, it works, and its absurd premise leads to some great comedic bits, even if many of the performances are lacking. It’s fun to put on in between some heavier hitters to lighten the mood, or if you need something to have on while getting decorations ready for a party.

Anything Can Happen on Jyan-ween: The Devil (Zulawski, 1972)

Andrej Zulawski is a filmmaker like no other. Now, we say that about a lot of directors, but the moment you begin watching a Zulawski film, you’ll know there’s no other way to describe him. His most famous film, a Lovecraftian freak out called ‘Possession” could be summed up by some as “Sam Neill yelling for two hours” (that’s a feature, not a bug), and after watching The Devil, one begins to wonder if that’s not his aesthetic. Zulawski films are an vigorous experience on a good day, but when put us in the middle of the Prussian invasion of Poland during the 18th century, you create something truly transcendent.

From the opening shots of the film, it’s obvious Zulawski is nothing going to hold anything back. We’re met by blasting music, along with screams of pain, blood of everything and the angry whinnying of horses. Following this is a truly horrifying scene, as we’re taken through the halls of a monastery full of wailing nuns, driven mad by the horrible treatments they’ve been treated to at the hands of foreign soldiers and madmen, as well as the screaming of the Polish soldiers held in their prisons. Don’t for a moment think this is just a bit of shock value to start he film, as the film holds at this level for a majority of its running time, never really providing an respite or relief from the bleakness and ferocity.

Soon into the devil, we’re introduced to Jakub, a war prisoner accused of trying to kill the king, who is set free by a mysterious figure, and sent, along with a horrified nun, to head back to his home. When he arrives, he finds everything destroyed. His wife has been married off to another man, his father has killed himself and set their house on fire, his sister has gone mad, and his mother has been forced into prostitution. As he discovers all this, we see his slow descent into madness, as he soon takes a razor blade and begins a dark plunge into the darkest parts of the human psyche.

For those unfamiliar with Zulawski’s work, the style can take some adjustment. Emotions in this film are writ large, and characters are often seen convulsing and going into hysterics early and often. Though in most films that would seen over-the-top, in light of the horrifying things we see happen, or that have been implied to have happened, would be enough to drive anyone over the edge. Those familiar with Isabel Adjani’s infamous tunnel freak out in Possession will find similar scenes here, only at times writ larger. It’s a riveting style, but not one for all tastes. The subject matter can also be a bit for some audiences, as the film reaches into dangerous territory, including implications of rape and incest (though thankfully none of this is shown). We see plenty of whippings, stabbings, shootings, and throat slashing, though, as well as an attempted crucifixion. It’s definitely not a film for the weak of heart.

Though I did thoroughly appreciate the film, I find it difficult to recommend for a number of reasons. For one, it’s impossible to find. I had to whip out my region-free DVD player to a DVD from the UK, the only extant English-language version of the film available (though the wonderful folks at Mondo Vision list it as “In Production”, so one can hope we’ll see at least a use DVD or Bluray release sometime within the next few years). It’s also one of the bleakest, harshest, and most dour films I’ve ever seen, presenting a world of such horrifying depression that it can stick with you for some time. It is, however, incredibly accomplished filmmaking, with a strong script, incredible direction, and some astonishing acting. For anyone with the stomach, and the ability, this is well worth a watch, just make sure to have something fun ready to rinse the taste out of your mouth.

JyanWeenV: Anything Can Happen on JyanWeen: Ginger Snaps

Welcome to Anything Can Happen on Ryan-ween, where I watch (at least) 31 horror/thriller films in October, and chronicle my thoughts on them here. These be can be anything from horror comedies, slashers, Blumhouse-style 21st Century jump scare horror, Italian giallo, melancholy European horror, Japanese acid horror, and anything in between. Hopefully you guys will find something new explore here, and feel free to throw out a recommendation for something fun I haven’t seen.

The opening salvo, as  it is for every Jyanween, is one of my absolute favorite horror films, the wildly underrated werewolf film/sisterhood drama, Ginger Snaps. It’s a simple tale of two morbid, outcast sisters, Brigitte and Ginger, tormented by school bullies and angry at the world. One day, when walking home, they come across a terrible creature, which attacks and injures Ginger. Soon after, Ginger begins going through changes. THE changes. Weird hair. Strange pains. Parts of her body changing.

Yes, that’s right, this werewolf movie also happens to be a film about PUBERTY. The werewolf metaphor has always been about masculine urges for so long, that’s it’s refreshing to see that writers Karen Walton and John Fawcett have coopted it into something so inherently feminine. Linking the horrors of growing up with the horrors of become a creature of the night is a clever twist, and that the writers, and Fawcett as director, are able to find the horror-humor balance so well is really an accomplishment. That Ginger at one point grows a tail is quite funny; that we find her later, attempting to cut it off, is absolutely horrifying.

Much of the success of Ginger Snaps lies in the performances of its leads. They each bring that healthy blast of angst that early 2000s films were known for , but it’s underlined with a flowing chord of pain. These are two girls who have obviously been bullied most of their lives, and their best way of defending themselves is to go interior and lash out at the world around them. Emily Perkins in particular carries this well, as her nervous, awkward energy is riveting to watch, as she rushes off when someone tries to start a conversation, and even has trouble meeting people’s eyes.

It’s balanced perfectly with Katherine Isabel’s rebel spirit, who, even before going through the change, would be the first to confront her bullies, even getting physical on more than one occasion. Once she does get bit, watching her transformation becomes one of the films highlights. Not only do we get to see her grow a tail and fangs, but also watch as Ginger uses that raw anger and refines into a sharp, demonic weapon. Isabel turns from angry teen to slinky femme fatale with gusto, and that wild ride is a joy to take in.

Though the two do fine work individually, it’s their chemistry that really makes the movie. Though there is very little physical similarity, you never doubt these two are sisters, as they exhibit that kind of friendly but biting relationship that you often see among siblings. They drive each other crazy, but you know they would do anything for each other (even damning themselves, as we find out by film’s end). Their two energies play in perfect harmony, even when Ginger hits the hardest parts of her transformation, and we see that even as Ginger becomes a monster, the bond between sisters is inescapable.

I can say with some certainty that Ginger Snaps is one of my favorite horror movies. It’s one of only about four movies I will see every year, and it has become a tradition to open every October with the film. If you haven’t seen it, I envy you the journey, and if it’s been a while, go ahead and give it a spin: you may find treasures here you hadn’t on first watch.

Stay tuned tomorrow for something completely different, as we take an intense look at murder and war in 18th Centry Poland, lensed by one of the most unique voices in horror cinema.