Anthology films are almost by definition a mixed bag, and even when one of their sort garners strong critical acclaim, as the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs did last November, most reactions end up settling into a “this story is better than this story” sort of comparison game. Horror anthologies tend to be even more wildly variant in quality within their individual films, and British production company Amicus Films released a string of them in the ‘60s to mid ‘70s– titles like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, And Now the Screaming Starts, The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum and Tales That Witness Madness were a real hit-or-miss selection, with Amicus scoring highest when they adapted EC Comics stories into their big hits Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the follow-up Vault of Horror (1973).
But probably the best horror anthologies—Dead of Night (1945), an atypically creepy release from Britain’s Ealing Studios, which was much better known for only slightly macabre comedies like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Spirits of the Dead (1968), which gathered three stories by Edgar Allan Poe under its umbrella—are ones that actually capitalize on the potential for variances in tone and approach by employing directors whose styles themselves vary wildly from each other, all the better to see how different shades of oil and vinegar can stick or miss the mark in an attempt to send a shiver down the audience’s spine.
Ealing employed the prolific Alberto Cavalcanti, relatively fresh off the making of the riveting war drama Went the Day Well?, to helm Dead of Night’s most famous sequence, in which ventriloquist Michael Redgrave is tortured and then psychologically consumed by his wooden second half, and house stylists Charles Chricton (The Lavender Hill Mob), Basil Dearden (The League of Gentlemen) and Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets) to fill out the rest of the bill. Twenty-three years later, producers Raymond Eger and Alberto Grimaldi gathered three independently identifiable directors of the time for Spirits of the Dead—Roger Vadim adapted Poe’s “Metzengerstein” with his then-wife Jane Fonda, Louis Malle worked magic with Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot to fashion Poe’s “William Wilson” for the project, and Federico Fellini turned Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” into Fellini’s “Toby Dammit,” with considerable assistance from a bravura turn by Terence Stamp. Of course, both Dead of Night and Spirits of the Dead are classics of the genre, and both are completely susceptible to individual audience member rankings of their favorite segments within each film, just as the Amicus films are.
And now comes The Field Guide to Evil, probably the most ambitious entry into the horror anthology field since Spirits of the Dead, with which it shares an essential characteristic. Like Spirits, the new Field Guide represents a gathering of disparate and geographically far-flung horror visionaries, ostensible directorial specialists in cinematic fear who, in the new collection, bring those visions to bear on eight stories of folkloric demon spirits and evil influences from countries like India, Poland, Greece, Turkey and others. In this regard, Field Guide would seem to have an advantage in that these directors, all known to one degree on another for their achievements in horror films, are well invested in the genre, whereas Vadim, Malle and Fellini were not exactly names one associated with filmed fear, at least as American International Pictures was used to marketing it.
But as worthy as it is of your time, especially if you enjoy seeing modern horror sensibilities employed to tell age-old tales which, depending on what part of the world you reside in, may still seem fresh and freshly horrifying, The Field Guide to Evil is still very much that classical mixed bag horror anthology, only done up with international DNA, a relatively consistent downbeat pulse, and a very European penchant for thwarting the genre fan’s expectation of how a horror tale should be told and concluded with satisfaction. Don’t expect definitive end-of-tale punctuation, or even for the sun to be shining, at the end of any of these storytelling journeys.
Austrian writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who teamed up for the electrifying Goodnight Mommy five years ago, start things off with an elliptical bang with “The Sinful Woman of Hollifal,” a tale of religious repression and retribution in which a young peasant woman’s Sapphic initiation is countered with terrifying late-night visits by a grunting, none-too-seductive succubus. The directors know how to conjure a suffocating atmosphere of fear, but also how to subtly deflate the horror—the ambiguous ending of their tale provides perhaps the only ray of hope for the preservation of an individual character’s humanity to be found on this relatively grim omnibus’s menu.
Turkey’s Can Evrenol (Baskin) serves up rather more conventional torment, albeit with interesting filigrees of movement and fright around the edges and in the backgrounds of his frames, in “Al Karisi, the Childbirth Djinn,” in which a young woman is tormented by a demon determined to take possession of her newborn child. The story is capable of generating a shiver or two, but it also feels a little too familiar as realized here.
More successful, and also more deliberately frustrating in its dream logic and ambiguous resolution, is Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s take on a grim tale of feral, bloodthirsty ambition entitled “The Kindler and the Virgin.” Anyone who has seen and appreciated Smoczynska’s bizarre musical The Lure, in which two carnivorous mermaids become nightclub sensations, will find settling into the strangely undulating rhythms of “The Kindler and the Virgin” a natural progression.
Easily the bottom of the barrel is American Cal Reeder’s boneheaded take on some alleged Appalachian folklore called “Beware the Melonheads,” in which a family—Mom, Dad, and son, who behave as if they just met for the first time out by the catering truck before filming began—is terrorized in the most predictable and formulaic B-movie manner by a backwoods conclave of kids with giant skulls whose minds are literally being expanded by an evil guy in a remote cabin, a guy who Reeder hopes will remind us of Michael Anderson, the dwarf who operates Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge. Reeder did the relatively intriguing thriller The Oregonian a few years back, but there’s little evidence of the subversive talent he showed there in this new film. I’m guessing the folklore “Melonheads” is based on has more to do with hills that have eyes, or perhaps the execrable Wrong Turn series in which obnoxious innocents are tormented by mutant hillbillies, than any actual legend. But even if these kids with skulls like upside-down light bulbs are the stuff of whispered lore somewhere in the rural outreaches of this country, that’s no excuse for the lousy short Reeder has fashioned in their honor.
The Field Guide to Evil takes a slight but progressively encouraging uptick in quality with the next segments from Greek director Yannis Veslemes (Norway), involving the emergence of the devil’s jesters onto the streets of a small, but strangely violent village, and India’s Ashim Ahluwalia (Miss Lovely), in which colonial Brits pillory subterranean mutants for P.T. Barnum’s pleasures—these segments represent significantly flawed storytelling, and Ahluwalia’s segment seems to take perverse pleasure in denying its audience the payoff it’s been building toward, but they are ambitious in their way, even if ultimately unsatisfying. Germany’s Katrin Gebbe (Nothing Bad Can Happen), however, ups the omnibus game considerably with Field Guide’s best segment since its first, a flesh-crawlingly somber tale of a brother and sister, poor 19th-century farmers whose cattle, and soon their very own bodies, become the subjects of an invasive demon who takes the form of a harmless barn mouse in order to gain entry to the body in some very unpleasant ways. You haven’t lived until you’ve been made to shudder at the sight of a tiny rodent turning to the camera and hissing, and this segment offers you that very opportunity to, well, embrace life.
But as is often the case with omnibus films, the best is saved for last. Peter Strickland, whose previous films Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy were small-scale art-house sensations (or at least widely sought out by connoisseurs on Netflix), renders his grim fairy tale “Cobbler’s Lot” in silent movie conventions, with intertitles, stylized performances and cluttered interiors seemingly inspired by the wood-carved illustrations of a maniac shuttered in a remote tower, to garnish a tale of two brothers, both in the shoemaking trade, obsessed with securing the romantic attention of a somewhat demanding princess, and the inevitably awful irony of their ultimate fates. This is an exhilarating, daring bit of visual magic, and a perfect cherry to put on top of an unsettling but otherwise unsettled and uneven collection of tales meant to induce gooseflesh which only partially succeeds in the goals of its harvest. The reverberating chills left over from “Cobbler’s Lot” may indeed improve The Field Guide to Evil in the memory, where its less-savory stories can safely fade away to make room for the resonance of the film’s more potent and terrifying demons.
In the Los Angeles area, The Field Guide to Evil is currently playing at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, and is also widely available on a variety of streaming platforms.
Before I go, the first trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been released, and you’ve probably seen it. The movie appears, on evidence of the trailer, to be a wild, Russ Meyer-esque romp, and it makes OUATIH look like it might be as much fun as any movie in which the Tate-La Bianca murders serve as a significant portion of cultural context could be– Margot Robbie is featured in the trailer as the ill-fated Sharon Tate. After having seen this expertly packaged two-minute glimpse into Tarantino’s vision of late-‘60s Hollywood before, during and after Manson (which, by the way, is being released in August, concurrent with the 50th anniversary of that infamous weekend of bloody murder), I’m looking forward to seeing what this not-so-enfant-anymore-terrible has in store.
But there’s another movie out there which you may encounter at your Redbox or on your iTunes menu that is most decidedly not Tarantino’s picture, though its makers probably wouldn’t mind if you had a bit of momentary confusion or curiosity and rented it as a placeholder until OUATIH makes its summer premiere. That movie is called The Haunting of Sharon Tate, written and directed by Daniel Farrands, the guy who brought you His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th, The Crystal Lake Massacres Revisited and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, and it’s about as repellent and pointless as any gutter-level horror movie I’ve ever seen. Hilary Duff stars here as Sharon Tate, and while she’s much closer to a ringer for Tate than Robbie is, she’s also a terrible actress, albeit being one stuck in a project where talent seems irrelevant, one from which there is simply no way out for an actor’s dignity.
The movie posits (with no plea whatsoever that the position has any validity where the record is concerned) that in the week before the grisly murder of Tate, three of her friends, and an unfortunate young man who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, Tate had psychic premonitions about being slaughtered, premonitions which, conveniently enough, take shape almost exactly along the lines described in Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. What follows is the ugliest sort of striptease, a foreboding build-up to inevitable events which are anticipated with a sociopath’s relish, and since Tate’s visions are recurring, the movie treats the audience to the same heavily fictionalized massacre twice. I say “heavily ficitionalized” because in the movie’s second sequence of assault, its template of morphing this real-life tragedy into something more palatable for the Netflix-and-chill horror crowd is realized by turning Sharon Tate into the first Final Girl, in a fantastical jump-scare-infected reimagining of the Tate murders as an ‘80s-era slasher flick in which all five victims emerge bloodied but triumphant, having turned the tables on their assailants. The Haunting of Sharon Tate is just incoherent enough that by its end (which I was more than thankful for) the audience can’t be sure whether what they just experienced is just a gory wallow followed by some Inglourious Basterds-inflected wish fulfillment, or whether something even more insidiously insensitive is at play here. (My guess is that Sharon Tate’s sister might say both, and thanks to its tone-deaf intercutting throughout of actual footage from Tate’s wedding to Roman Polanski, as well as interview footage from the likes of Susan Atkins, so might you.)
Just on a basic level, the movie is a master class in terrible acting and even worse writing—the dialogue wobbles with metronomic regularity between high school-level exposition (early on friend and future victim Jay Sebring says to Tate, “You’re the one who left me for another man, remember?”, to which the actress conveniently replies, thus reminding the audience all they’ll ever know about Sebring, “Well, you didn’t become stylist to the stars by just running your fingers through your clients’ hair”) to the most outrageous instances of foreshadowing. My “favorites” include this one from Sharon: “Don’t you ever think about how our smallest decisions can somehow change the course of everything?”; or Abigail Folger’s declaration that “We can all look back at the choices we’ve made, the roads taken and not taken, and wonder if this is all that life has in store for us, but as for you, Sharon Tate, well, I think life is working out exactly how it’s supposed to.” And if hearing that sort of tin-eared babble come out of the mouths of these two doomed figures doesn’t make you terminally depressed, well, you’re probably smack-dab in the eye of this sickly-stupid movie’s demographic wheelhouse.
In the end, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, perhaps the first but surely not the last project this year designed to exploit the anniversary of a genuinely awful moment in cultural history, is probably best considered as a first-strike against any claims of bad taste or insensitivity that might eventually be leveled against Tarantino’s as-yet-unseen film. But any real consideration of The Haunting of Sharon Tate would presumably have to include an actual viewing of the film, an undertaking which I cannot in good conscience recommend. As for the presence of any potential audience, this god-awful exercise in pointlessness may be only the opening volley of a possible cottage industry—according to IMDb, the next film from the artist who inflicted this misery upon an already miserable world is, and I wish I was kidding, The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, in the interest, surely, of sweet dreams for us all.