Stylish Execution

For those who enjoy horror films executed with style and originality, I’ll discuss three fairly recent efforts you may have missed. Two are foreign (Spanish and French); the third is an unexpected spectacle by a distinguished American filmmaker whose previous films-none remotely connected with science-fiction, fantasy or horror-include six Oscar nominations.

Penumbra (2011), written and directed by Spanish brothers Adrián and Ramiro García Bogliano, is set in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some odd people want to rent a rundown apartment from leasing agent Marga (Cristina Brondo), an ambitious Spanish businesswoman.

Marga is classy, svelte and pretty, but not too nice. She hates Argentina and is anxious to get back to Spain, but the chance to rent to these clients, dragging their heels but willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money for the wretched dwelling, is too good to ignore, even as events grow more ominous.

A full eclipse is about to happen, a homeless derelict preaches gloom and doom, odd noises are heard from a locked room, and Marga’s patience is running out-just like her luck.

The Bogliano bros have made several films, solo and together; one notable project was Adrian’s truly chilling Here Comes the Devil. While Penumbra has often been compared to Roman Polański’s The Tenant and Repulsion, as well as Ti West’s The House of the Devil (mostly due to each film’s claustrophobic tone and mounting dread), for me Penumbra most immediately recalled Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, especially in its slow burn and surprise ending.

Despite a spare 90-minute run time, Penumbra seems to lose narrative focus right out of the gate. The first scene features a brutalized character we don’t see again until the end. Viewers may wonder where she went; indeed, we wonder where the movie itself is going. Stick with it; Penumbra reveals its bag of puzzling tricks-gory and otherwise.

In a quite different setting, director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Bugsy, Good Morning, Vietnam and Diner) jabs convincingly at the genre with The Bay (’12), despite his use of the stale “found-footage” ruse. I hate the tactic overdone in The Blair Witch Project, but The Bay, like George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, makes it work.)

Fun fact: Levinson first intended to make a straightforward documentary on the effects of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but decided to turn it into a horror film, thinking the message would be stronger to more viewers. Sadly, The Bay still fell short critically and commercially. One imagines the tourist industries on Maryland’s Western and Eastern Shores were grateful for that. Still, those who see The Bay may reconsider a vacation on the Chesapeake; go to Ocean City instead.

Young TV reporter Donna (Kether Donohue) is making a documentary about a catastrophic eco-disaster that happened three years before, on an annual July Fourth Crab Fest. Secretly, Donna assembles the doc from various sources (police/traffic cams, home video, Skype, newscasts, etc.) to let folks know the real causes of deaths of more than 700 people that weekend.

The government has staged an elaborate cover-up. I know, shocker.

As in more direct genre efforts like Jaws and Piranha, Levinson’s movie has political and social gravity; a pithy horror film. The cast, mostly unknowns and non-pros, increased the realism. The victims’ storylines are neatly woven, shifting to and fro among two marine biologists, a frustrated doctor, a venal mayor, luckless cops and the like.

What’s wrong with the brackish bay? Turns out, a swarm of parasitic crustaceans-“tongue-eating lice”-have mutated, growing terribly large, fueled by a toxic mix of nuclear run-off, fertilizer and chicken shit. (The poultry industry is big in the Old Line State.) Levinson shows the damage with enough goo and gore to please the most depraved horror fan.

The 2016 French film Raw has literally nauseated some viewers; one California theater gave vomit bags to ticket-buyers. The film does have some real stomach-churning scenes-a young woman gnaws her sister’s severed finger-but Raw is quite well-done (pun intended!)

Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s first feature is a real original about two sisters in veterinary school who discover a family taste for raw human flesh. It’s not really what you may expect; no cannibals were involved. Mostly, the new film parallels other original, bizarre and disturbing French horror movies like Marina de Van’s In My Skin (’02) and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (’08).

Not everyone’s cup of tea by any means, each of these films is still a worthy entrant of the horror genre.