Director Mike Flanagan had a pretty good hit on his hands with 2014’s Oculus, that year’s surprise springtime horror sensation. But for whatever reason his very next feature, Hush, arrived with barely a whisper, playing film festivals briefly before being dumped on Netflix earlier this year. And that’s… weird, to say the least, because Hush just as good as (arguably better than) Oculus.*
Hush is kind of like a stripped down You’re Next, or maybe a feature length version of the opening scene from Scream. For the most part, it’s one girl versus one masked killer. But the twist, if you want to call it that, is the girl is deaf. It’s one long high stakes standoff/battle in which the hero is at a severe disadvantage, and not just because the bad guy is wearing a scary mask.
The best part about Oculus to me was how logical the characters behaved in their battle against the mirror. Hush has kind of the same thing going on. Both hero and villain alike tend to take the most obvious and logical measures and countermeasures first, minimizing the “don’t do THAT” effect that most slashers have. It doesn’t entirely succeed in that endeavor though. Once it becomes clear that the only way out of the situation alive is to face the killer head on, our hero frustratingly fails to take wide open attack opportunities. Like, a few times. Too many times.
Still, Hush is a film school lesson in tightening and loosening suspense in the most satisfying rhythm. Because of the deafness angle, sound becomes an enemy, and keen eyesight a necessity. Flanagan keeps the killer in frame often, but when he’s not in frame you can’t help but tense up. It’s easy to imagine yourself in such a vulnerable position. It works well, even though slashers have never moved the needle much for me in the fear department. Something about a single, identifiably human threat doesn’t exactly keep me up at night. But if that sort of thing does get you going, this is a must-see.
*Another weird thing; Mike Flanagan has TWO other horror films coming out later this year: Before I Wake and – ugh – Ouija: Origin of Evil. Busy dude.
This film will make you feel dirty. That really can’t be overstated. The naturally grimy 70’s cinematography (1980 to be specific) is one thing, the extremely graphic depictions of rape and evisceration of human bodies is another, but what takes it over the top is the genuine animal deaths shown on screen. That makes the film not just physically disturbing but morally, emotionally so. The scene where a turtle gets torn to shreds was so horrible I wish I hadn’t seen it. Fuck Deodato (the director) for making those decisions.
All that controversy aside, Cannibal Holocaust is an important, shocking contribution to exploitation cinema and horror in general. It’s easy to see why. Movies made this long ago that still affect you this viscerally are super rare. Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist are the only other two films from this general era that spring to mind as still retaining their shock value. But this one tops them both, in that one sense alone.
Not only that, but the second half of the film ends up being kind of a proto found footage piece, before “found footage” was even a thing. The first half is about an attempted rescue mission to retrieve four documentary filmmakers who disappeared in the Amazonian jungle while filming native tribes, and the second is mostly a presentation of the recovered footage they shot, since the filmmakers themselves were… you know, devoured.
The strange choice this film makes is the revelation that the murdered filmmakers actually turned out to be total monsters. Their recovered footage reveals that at least three of them were legit psychopaths, torturing, murdering, and raping natives for the sake of their stupid documentary. Perhaps this was done to make their ultimate fate seem less bleak and cruel? To me it had the opposite effect: cruelty begetting cruelty does not equal satisfaction here. It’s just civilized monsters versus uncivilized ones. The de facto main character pays lip service to that theme in the end of the movie – “Who are the real cannibals?”
Cannibal Holocaust is a movie you watch only once.
Here’s a semi-shameful but honest little fun fact about these Summer of Horror marathons: Every year there are movies on the list I’m excited to watch, and movies I consider “homework”. I’ve been disappointed by the former and surprised by latter on multiple occasions, but I’m also often right in my instincts. Black Sunday seemed like a “homework” entry, and sadly, I turned out to be right.
Say what you will about modern audiences having no attention spans, about modern movies beating you over the head with bombast and loud sound effects and quick cuts, or about younger generations not having the sophistication to appreciate older cinema. The truth is, older movies, and especially older horror, can be hard to watch. It’s not just that takes are long or the pace is slow – when those long quiet stretches are building tension they’re never boring – it’s that older horror is sometimes kind of like a good book with all the punctuation taken out. All the content is there and solid, but there’s a lack of rhythm, a lack of build and release, and moments meant to be frightening or shocking can just happen without any emphasis, making them feel confusing.
Black Sunday feels very much like the 1930’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies kind of mashed together. I suppose it’s a vampire movie? The monster is referred to as a witch throughout, but she exhibits almost all the classic “rules” and abilities of a vampire, including drinking blood, avoiding the crucifix, vulnerability to staking, and the ability to turn other people into the undead. Like the classic Dracula, the monster doesn’t actually do all that much, and relies on enchanting others to do her bidding.
The opening scene, a ceremonial witch burning involving hammering an iron mask lined with spikes into the witch’s face BEFORE immolation, is excellent (and ends with a title card of the film’s original, much better title, The Mask of Satan). It promises a more groundbreaking and original film than is actually delivered. With all that being said however, Black Sunday is definitely a good movie. It may feel like a genderswapped Dracula retread at time, but the atmosphere is engrossing, classical gothic horror. This is a great film to put on in the background of a Halloween party (I feel like I say that a lot…), and it will admirably help set the proper mood. Actually sitting down and watching it cover to cover just may challenge modern viewers.