I had originally conceived of this as a one-shot blog post about an underrated movement in horror films, but an unexpected deluge of reader requests prompted me to do a second installment. Sticking with my original self-imposed limit of one film per director, here are four more wonderfully twisted and perversely beautiful mumblegore films for Halloween.
Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon is a film that creates a disquieting effect on viewers. It’s cinematically gorgeous and meticulously composed, while also a brutally taboo-crossing exercise in body horror and paranoia. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway play Bea and Paul, a young couple embarking on their honeymoon in a remote woodland cabin. Leslie and Treadaway manage to create fully-realized and engaging characters, and the quiet moments in their new relationship are charming. Like West’s The Inkeepers, Honeymoon takes its time setting its audience up for the horrors to come by presenting realistic characters who are flat out interesting to watch. The beginning of their honeymoon is romantic, sometimes funny, and honestly sweet. I found myself so taken by their story that for a moment, I somewhat forgot I was watching a horror film, which speaks to Janiak’s talent as a filmmaker.
When things begin to go wrong, my guard was already mostly down. Strange lights appear in the woods at night. Bea and Paul have a Kafkaesque encounter with the owners of a local restaurant. Bea begins sleepwalking, then suffers odd moments of functional memory loss and gradual changes to her personality. And things only get worse from there. There’s a moment of extreme body horror between Bea and Paul that I won’t give away, but I will say that I’ll never get that cinematic moment out of my head.
At its core, Honeymoon is a film about the quiet horror of discovering that the person you initially fell in love with may be more complicated that you originally saw through the eyes of new love. It speaks to the dangers of idealization and the willful blindness with which many of us enter new relationships. That personal, quiet, relational horror is at the core of mumblegore films, and Honeymoon is one of the best.
Jay and Mark Duplass’ Baghead is one of the earliest mumblgore films, and to this day it has a polarizing effect on audiences. Some find it a refreshing break from the conventions of studio horror, others claim it is a waste of celluloid—nothing more than a group of people with a camera and no idea what to do once it’s rolling. Clearly, I fall into the first category. For me this film was a breath of fresh air trying to find an audience in the wake of the big budget but largely soulless remake-heavy year of 2007 (Saw 4,The Hills Have Eyes 2, and Hostel 2).
Baghead is so much less about plot and special effects than it is about character. Four aspiring film actors/directors head off to a cabin in the woods to hole up and write a film that they can write, direct, and act in as a group. One of the group (mumblegore favorite Gretta Gerwig) has a nightmare about being menaced by a man with a paper bag over his face, which provides the seed of an idea that they try to write a script around. Unfortunately, the ideas don’t come. Then odd things begin to happen. The cars are vandalized. People begin seeing a bag-headed figure in the woods. Is it all a prank? Is someone stalking them? We don’t know until the conclusion, but we also don’t care. What’s really in the spotlight here are the secret (and not-so-secret) desires and insecurities of the characters. Resentment and desire make for strange bedfellows, and that is what lies at the core of this micro-budget film. This is a horror film for cinephiles everywhere. Sometimes, as an artist, the most frightening thing isn’t a masked maniac with a bag over his head, but the realization that you are out of ideas, or even worse that you never had the good ideas to begin with.
Joe Swanberg is a bit of an oddity on this list. A Midwesterner who began making micro-budget mumblecore films in 2005, his strongest mumblegore credits come from his performances in You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die, V/H/S, and The Sacrament. But his 2011 psychological thriller Silver Bullets is a classic of its kind.
Silver Bullets tells the emotionally claustrophobic story of a director named Ethan (Swanberg) whose girlfriend Claire (Kate Lynn Sheil) takes a role in a werewolf horror film directed by Ben, one of his competitors (played by mumblegore director Ti West). Ethan is perversely jealous of Claire’s involvement in the film and out of spite casts her best friend in his own highly sexual film. Tensions and simmering jealousies fester and eventually erupt, and Claire begins having odd fantasies/hallucinations that mirror the plot of the werewolf film in which she’s acting.
What I like best about this film is how Swanberg takes the archetypal figure of the werewolf ( a figure often representing the barely submerged inner beast in us) and uses it to weave a tale of obsession, pathological narcissism, and psychotic possessivism. This is perhaps the most excruciatingly inward-looking horror film on my list. Watching it is like undergoing the most painful psychoanalysis. It’s not pleasant at the time, but in plumbing the depths of our collective neuroses, it offers the hope for growth and transcendence.
It took much inner wrestling to come up with only one film from Jeremy Saulnier for this list. Green Room was astounding for its punk ethos and aesthetics as it told a gripping tale of a punk band who witnesses a crime at a Nazi club where they are billed. Hold the Dark, Saulnier’s latest film makes use of the themes of violence, revenge, and trauma common to his body of work, but adds a mythic quality to the gritty realities of his films. But ultimately, I decided on Blue Ruin, an earlier film that is lacking a single wrong note in its painful depiction of the old adage that resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person dies.
Blue Ruin tells the story of Dwight (the wonderful Macon Blair), a homeless man who gets word that the man who murdered his parents when he was a child, is about to be released from prison. The news shakes him out of his isolated existence living in his car on the beach and prompts him to take revenge on the man who sent him spiraling into a life utterly ruled by untreated trauma. What would, in other hands, be a conventional revenge-thriller, becomes something very different in Saulnier’s film. There is violence, make no mistake about that. But Saulnier goes far deeper in examining the prison-house of masculinity in our culture, the cyclic nature of violence, and the impossibility of exacting a satisfying revenge. Plans unravel, assumptions pile up and blow back on characters, and the bonds of family that supposedly bind us end up imprisoning us unless somehow broken. This may well be the bleakest film I’ve seen that ends on the very real hope for redemption.