Tales of Terror Retold

Modern horror myths at the multiplex and streaming at home.

Horror movies are our modern mythology. No other medium or genre can rival their primordial timelessness, which might explain why the horror film is one of the safest bets in the world for producers.

In certain cases, entire movies have become myths, while in others iconic characters are passed like batons from one generation to the next. I barely remember what was released in the theaters last week, but films like William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” are everlasting, rich in symbols that can accommodate any school of psychology, any political identity or neurosis.

As September arrives, it occurs to me that a startling number of our pop cultural myths—Dracula, Frankenstein, “The Shining,” “The Exorcist”—have been worked over by upstart artists recently. Here’s a brief roundup of movies new to theaters and streaming alike, before spooky season properly commences.

“Bad Things” (Stewart Thorndike)

Kubrick’s “The Shining” is a genre onto itself by this point. As much as it has been discussed and copied, the chief source of its fascination is often overlooked: its brightness. The film is a nightmare gothic set predominantly in shrill daylight that should theoretically banish evil, yet doesn’t. You feel as if you can see everything in Kubrick’s vast symmetrical images—yet something remains unreachable. This feeling of utter clarity and un-canniness at once is the film’s most profound achievement, and Stewart Thorndike attempts to mine it in “Bad Things.”

Thorndike’s project here is to take an intensely male film, concerned with abuse and made in what are rumored to be abusive conditions, and redefine it for gay women and non-binary people. Very little fuss is made over the identities of the four friends who find themselves in an abandoned motel for a weekend, and that’s to the film’s credit. Men are not the focus here, and that is simply a given; they aren’t even the source of the evil haunting the motel.

The problem is that Thorndike offers no further re-contextualization: there are no memorable images in “Bad Things,” even those that are frequently cribbed from “The Shining.” The characters are as thinly conceived as stick figures from any slasher movie, and the atmospherics are on the level of a student film, forcing us to wait impatiently for something to happen. There’s no sense of escalation, the varying horror tropes don’t mesh, and the punchline isn’t worth the wait. Cheers to Thorndike for taking on big game, though it ultimately eludes her.

“Bad Things” is now available to stream on Shudder.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” (Julius Avery)

I’m not sure there’s anything more tedious in the horror genre than “Exorcist” cash-ins. The tropes have calcified into karaoke: funny voices, spider walks, blasphemous profanity, as well as the highly questionable assertion that the Catholic Church must have unchecked power in matters of demonic tomfoolery. If you take them too seriously, it’s easy to find exorcism movies offensive, especially “The Pope’s Exorcist,” which pardons the Church of the Spanish Inquisition. Satan did it! Thank, well, God.

It’s not worth taking “The Pope’s Exorcist” that seriously though. I don’t even have it in me to summarize the plot. Possessed child, imperiled family, exotic setting, timeless evil boilerplate—you get it. The wild card is Russell Crowe as a jolly, portly exorcist on a tiny motorbike who’s high on his own harmless insolence. Crowe has reached the upper-middle-aged decadence that set into actors like Richard Burton and George C. Scott at similar points in their lives.

A long dry streak in his career has ripened Crowe, imbuing him with playfulness. Yes, you see him working at it, but toss him a few more hambones like this one and he’ll probably loosen up even more. If Crowe could channel this spirit in a real movie, he’d have a comeback on his hands. Sadly, director Julius Avery doesn’t have a similar sense of play, his stolid, dutiful direction entrapping Crowe and everyone else. After coming and going in the theaters, “The Pope’s Exorcist” is now a hit on Netflix, probably because people are expecting a campy riot. Alas, no.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” is currently streaming on Netflix.

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” (André Øvredal)

Not a bad idea: a full movie based on the one chapter in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” that follows Drac as he wreaks havoc on the shipping vessel transporting him and his coffins from Carpathia to England. Director André Øvredal, of “Trollhunter” and “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” isn’t a hack, as he bothers to build a relatively heady steam of foggy-boat atmosphere, showing a vessel that’s riven with rats, lingering on the livestock that’s kept for food, and so on. For a few moments, you might think that you are on the verge of discovering an unjustly ignored horror film in the foreboding tradition of the old Hammer movies. But, to say it again: Alas, no.

Here, Dracula is a series of CGI monster tricks. When he resembles Nosferatu, he’s reasonably creepy, but in other shots he bears a regrettable resemblance to an ash-gray Gumby. The characters and the gore are well-matched in their mutual mediocrity. This one also recently came and went in theaters, and will probably find new life on streaming. “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” and “The Pope’s Exorcist” offer the same lesson: Hollywood, stop taking your dreck so seriously. Have fun, let the blood flow.

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is now available to rent on various streamers.

“Birth/Rebirth” (Laura Moss)

Imagine Victor Frankenstein and one of the assistants that pop culture has subsequently granted him over the years—whether it’s Fritz, Igor, or another—as single mothers caught in a precarious co-parenting situation and you’ve got an idea of how boldly director Laura Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien have brought Frankenstein into the present day. Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland) is a morgue technician who steals body parts, and who inseminates herself artificially so as to harvest fetuses for ongoing research in cellular regeneration. Rose shares with Shelley’s protagonist a determination to cheat the death that surrounds her, though she also appears determined to leech mothering of its maternal qualities. Moss homes in on a wealth of uncomfortable topics—we see placentas taken from corpses, and fetuses removed in self-abortions— staging these moments with the chilly sobriety of David Cronenberg.

Unlike Thorndike, then, Moss has given thoughts to the nuts and bolts of reimagining a classic from a different perspective. Rose and her assistant of sorts, Celi (Judy Reyes), are not reduced to symbols. They are real, palpably damaged people, whose actions stem from recognizable needs. Their laboratory is a small apartment, and their creature doesn’t warrant spoiling, except to say that the classic horror short story “The Monkey’s Paw” has also been considered. Moss renders the notion of resurrection on realistic terms, considering the emotional, financial, and political implications. Along with “Talk to Me,” “Birth/Rebirth” is the horror film you should see before summer closes.

“Birth/Rebirth” is in theaters and can soon be streamed on Shudder.


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