Ever felt the horror of being in a social situation that suddenly took a turn for the worst? Felt uncomfortable by an off-color comment made in the assumption of like-minded thinking? Tried to be polite in the face of creepily insistent and unwanted attention? If so, then you may relate to the wonderful small films usually lumped under the genre category of mumblegore.
This is, to say the least, a challenging topic to tackle with any depth in a blog. To talk about the sub-sub genre mumbleGore requires an exploration of mumbleCore, the somewhat larger genre from which it was birthed. But trying to go in-depth about mumblecore filmmaking is to dive headfirst down the rabbit hole of guerilla film, low-budget auteur stylistics, post-mumblecore trajectories, and end up all the way back to the French New Wave.
Whew! Time to take a breath and skim over some things before getting down to the meat of the subject. Mumblecore, as many of you film junkies already know, refers to an overall attitude towards filmmaking that started with a group of young directors from the East Coast who emphasized dialogue and character over plot and action, eschewed detailed screenplays and storyboarding, and relied heavily on improvisation by largely non-professional actors. Naturalism was the main theme, with dialogue often overlapping and heavily conversational in a group setting. The fact that many directors usually included in the genre outright reject the term only stirs an already overbubbling pot.
Mumblegore (note the g), more specifically, refers to a handful of directors, many of whom come from the West Coast, who applied the basic elements of mumblecore films to horror and noir-ish themes. The result has been a watershed of wonderful, creative, intelligent films that explore the darkness that surrounds us. What’s perhaps most refreshing to the horror genre is mumblegore’s insistence on respecting the intelligence of its audience. Think of it as art-horror without some of the pretensions. Whether dealing with small group gatherings or isolated individuals, mumblecore films give you the sense of being a fly on the wall at moments that are intimate, private, awkward, and downright terrifying.
A particular theme in the films also coalesce around awkward outsiders and highly awkward social situations. The horror of the personal sets the stage for the larger horrors (whether supernatural or psychotically human) that slowly take over the narrative. This is a genre for everyone who has ever felt not-quite a part-of, those who never had the feeling of fitting in, being smooth and articulate in all situations. In short, a genre to which all but the most narcissistic among us can relate. These films touch us in our most personal inner spaces, reach in and wrench us in a Kafkaesque sense of absurdity and quiet horror.
I’ve put tight restrictions on myself here, only picking four films from this genre that I hope you enjoy. I’ve also limited myself to one director only, otherwise this would turn into a Ti West/Adam Wingard lovefest. And those two marvelous directors deserve much love, so by all means check out their other films. Here are four chillers that you will definitely thank me for watching.
Karyn Kasuma’s film is perhaps the ultimate in West Coast “encounter moment” horror. A man gets a dinner invitation to his ex-wife’s stylishly modern California home and fatefully decides to come, bringing his new girlfriend with him. To say anything more about the film would be a travesty, as the less you know, the better. All I will say is that Kasuma has an incredible talent for finding malevolence in the smallest of details… a glass of wine, a dropped phone call, a torturously endless confession in an awkward situation. This is the one film on my list where I say to go in blind, if you can. Skip the trailer, skip the reviews, and get right to the movie. And yes, I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here. Suffice it to say that this is by far the most amazing film about a supremely uncomfortably social situation I’ve ever seen.
But allow me to linger over the non-essential details. Logan Marshall-Green’s performance as Will is simply spectacular. Playing a man tortured by a horribly tragic event in the past, he is every bit the man consumed by a grief he cannot escape. Emayatzy Corinealdi, playing his girlfriend, finds the perfect touch of incredulity and decisiveness as the horror plays out. So much of the film’s deep structure of economics, race, and cultural division are so deftly touched on that they are almost invisible, ghostly reminders that haunt the privileged dinner party like … well, the unquiet dead hand of history.
E.L. Katz’s Cheap Trills is a visceral and cerebral trip through Hell, laced with subtle commentary on economics and the void separating the haves from the have-nots. The set-up is simple, but steeped in pathos.
Pat Healy plays Craig, a family man with a wife and toddler son who wakes from pleasant dreams to the living nightmare of his life. He’s so far behind on the rent that he finds an eviction notice taped to his front door, then arrives for work and is let go due to the downward spiraling economy. Too ashamed to return home, he stops at a bar to drown the sense that his life is controlled by forces that he can’t even comprehend. There he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), and old high school friend whose life has taken a different turn. Vince is a leg-breaker for a local loan shark. The two old friends share a drink together, and Craig finally opens up about the secrets he’s been keeping. From that moment, everything goes straight to Hell and beyond.
The two characters represent opposite strains of masculinity in the early 21stcentury: the struggling (and failing) writer forced to do oil changes at a local garage, a living death of paycheck to paycheck that can’t even begin to support his family. Vince is a man of violence who forces those in debt to pay up with his fists, while his nameless boss takes most of the profits without getting his own hands dirty. Vince hides his intelligence and compassion behind a wall of violence; Craig hides his pride by keeping secrets, hoping for a miracle to pull him out of his crisis.
The miracle comes in the form of a wealthy couple (Sara Paxton and David Koechner) slumming it in the dive bar. They invite Craig and Vince over for a drink, and then the games begin.
And games they are. What starts out as a simple series of bets orchestrated by Koechner ($50 for whoever downs his shot first, $100 for whoever can get the woman at the bar to slap him in the face) soon turns darker, then completely black (think “how much money would it take to sever a part of your body with a meat cleaver?”). Koechner and Paxton get their kicks from making wagers with the working poor to do dangerous, embarrassing, and increasingly humiliating things. And as the wagers escalate in severity and financial payoff, Craig and Vince find out just how far they’ll go to crawl out of their financial holes.
The violence in the film is underscored by the subtextual friendship between Vince and Craig, but the most important relationship always comes back to money. A wonderful allegory of the haves and the have-nots, on class warfare (the wealthy keeping the workers fighting amongst each other to shore up their economic structure of power), and ultimately on friendship and family. The film may be called Cheap Thrills, but the thrills come at a high price, indeed.
Adam Wingard’s You’re Next is probably the best-known film on this list, having caused a major splash upon its release. The film took the festival circuit by storm and became a minor crossover hit, deservedly so.
Set in the isolated vacation mansion of a very large and very wealthy family, the film sets off as a “this is your life in Hell” version of a family reunion. Unspoken resentments and tensions simmer from the get-go and quickly boil over at a tense dinner scene that is interrupted by an explosion of violence from outsiders intent on killing everyone in the house. The group of assailants, all wearing odd and disturbing animal masks, seem to have no motive other than to kill for the sake of killing.
As chaos break out and panic rules the day in the house, secrets are slowly revealed to show how no one is really who they seem to be, and the ultimate threat is not from the outside, but from within.
In case you haven’t seen this one, I won’t reveal more. Suffice it to say that the twists in this story are original and well-structured. Wingard has a knack for underscoring the violence in his films with a quirky sense of humor that rides the line between torture-horror and black comedy without tipping fully one way or the other. This matches the film’s subtext of greed, privilege, and the arrogance of economic self-confidence, resulting in a gripping thriller with direct parallels to class and gender games in contemporary American culture. For God’s sake, watch this film if you haven’t seen it yet!
Ti West, another enfant terrible in the mumblegore ensamble, is best known for his wonderful 2009 House of the Devil. He followed that film with my personal favorite in his portfolio. The eerie, touching, and definitively quirky The Inkeepers.
A less-than-fashionable Boston hotel on the last day before closing for the season is the setting for one of the best ghost stories in years. The hotel, now only housing two guests and staffed by two workers (Pat Healy and Sara Paxton of Cheap Thrills again), has a reputation of being haunted by the ghost of a 19thcentury bride who hung herself in one of the rooms after being jilted at the altar. Legend has it that the owners hid her body in the basement to avoid scandal, and her spirit remains trapped in the building. Paxton and Healy are amateur (very, very amateur) ghost hunters convinced that if they capture her ghost on video, their ghost hunting website will become famous.
Although the ghost story is marvelously (and terrifyingly) played out, what struck me most about the film were the honest, engrossing, and so deeply real performances by Healy and Paxton. Their relationship is complex and loaded with subtle shadings of their repressed feelings, self-doubts, and general sense of not having a place in the world around them. In fact, if this were a straight indie drama without the ghost story, I would have been equally engrossed.
But ghosts are more than just spirits of the dead. A ghost can also be a metaphor for something that is present when it should be (or is wished to be) absent. Memories, feelings, desires, and all of the things that make up that heady Freudian stew we call the unconscious have a way of returning when ignored or repressed. It’s at that intersection of the real and metaphorical ghosts where this film shines. It also lingers in the mind, like a ghost itself, to haunt the viewer.
If you haven’t crossed the cinematic bridge to the weird, witty, and wonderful land of mumblegore films, do yourself a favor and check out these films and other similar spooky, emotionally-wrenching, and deliciously quirky horror gems.