Ginger Nuts of Horror
Dir. Andreas Marschall, Germany, 112 min
This week we're going to be taking a second dip into the work of Andreas Marschall, an exciting German director whose work has propelled him to being one of my favourites. And, different from the other movies of his I have seen, this one is not an anthology movie – Masks is a single storyline and follows the strange goings-on at a remote acting school in the heart of Germany.
And yes, before you say it, there is more than a hint of Giallo here – in fact Masks does pay more than a little homage to Suspiria, in particular. However, even with that in mind, there's plenty here that feels fresh and interesting, as well as enough quality in the production to make it a great watch in its own right.
Our lead character is Stella, a young aspiring actress who doesn't seem to be getting terribly far when she is handed a flyer for an acting school. At first she'd dubious – as well she might be – but so determined is she to pursue her dream that she ultimately decides to go, leaving her boyfriend behind and meeting the strange brand of folks currently inhabiting the school. Naturally she doesn't fit in at first, and it takes a while for her to find a friend – who transpires to be a bit more than a friend – in the shape of Cecile.
In the background of this plays another story entirely, with rumours of a strange technique once taught by the previous tutor of the school, Mateusz Gdula. These stories of extreme methods to encourage students to access all kinds of buried emotions and bring them to their performance – to bring something much more real than acting – hang over the establishment like a pall, and are often whispered of among the students. Inevitably, Stella is eventually offered the chance to go to the part of the school that is usually shut off to most students and learn this method to enhance her skills. And it's here that we go from rumours to stark reality...
Like I've already said, there's no particular secret where this movie draws its inspiration from – it's a giallo through and through, but it also happens to be a very good one, with some decent modern touches. The atmosphere is laid on thick, but remains effective, and the colour scheme is well-chosen and pays a fine homage to its predecessors. The central concept is interesting – offering something of an echo to Marschall's previous movie, Tears of Kali – and is explored in a way that gives some interesting visuals as well as great tense scenes. There's one moment where the silence just goes on and on while you wait for something terrible to happen that becomes almost unbearable. And the finale – in true giallo style – is distinctly bonkers, featuring an excellent but twisted confrontation and some truly unexpected moments.
Regular readers here at Film Gutter will know I've always been partial to German extreme cinema, and it certainly had a very fine pedigree behind it with the likes of Jorg Buttgereit, Marian Dora and many more besides. Andreas Marschall certainly stands out as one of the most exciting names in the current generation, and while Masks may not be his most extreme work it certainly has some pretty bleak moments and keeps much of what has become his trademark in my eyes. The capacity to develop and keep breathless tension remains a powerful feature in his movies, and this tribute to the masters of Giallo is a worthy entry into the canon.
RATING: 8.5/10. The first full-length story I've seen from this director thankfully has all the assets I've enjoyed from his work on anthology movies, and is a movie that delivers in atmosphere, unsettling visuals and interesting character dynamics. The performances also hold up well, and it has a sense of energy and also skill behind it. I wouldn't honestly consider myself the biggest fan of Giallo, but when it's done well it can be fantastic – and I think Masks is certainly the form being done well.
Dir. Andreas Marschall, Germany, 106 min
Director Andreas Marschall certainly announced himself on my ‘talent to watch’ list with his fantastic instalment of German Angst, an excellent anthology film from 2015 in which his closing segment ‘Alraune’ was a real standout. It’s one of this bits of film with still lives in my head to this day, so I was coming to Tears of Kali with high expectations, if no real preset idea of what to expect.
I was not surprised and nor was I disappointed to find this was another anthology film, although in this case all three chapters were directed by Marschall. The trio of stories are held together by a linking thread of an extreme psychological experiment carried out in India, looking to delve deep into the human psyche. While that turned out not to be a real historical basis, it certainly felt pretty real and believable. The ‘linking’ sections feature another pretty creepy performance from German veteran Peter Martell (also known for Marian Dora’s deeply disturbing Melancholie Der Engel) and are ultimately pretty light-touch.
Each story also has a pretty strong link to religion, and whilst I enjoyed all three, I think the opener was my very favourite. ‘Shakti’ sees a reporter visiting a convicted murderer who was part of the Taylor-Eriksson 'cult' in an effort to get a fresh take on the events of that time. The chemistry between the two actresses in this portion is really great, and the final reveal – despite one slightly cheesy effect – did genuinely get to me. I don’t remember the last time I actually held my breath during a horror film, but that was the exact effect here.
Our second instalment, ‘Devi’, sees a young man on remand from prison attending sessions with a psychologist who studied under the Taylor-Eriksson group. It’s immediately apparent that the method will be unusual, but it soon comes to light exactly how extreme the method will be in order to save the patient from his own demons. It’s done without being gratuitous, and while the cast is again limited the two, the interaction there feels more than strong enough to carry the relatively simple story.
The final act of our movie is ‘Kali’, which features a man and a woman trapped with some sort of creature that they are trying to escape from. While it might start out as pretty standard fare, again the connection to the cult and its dark psychology does become apparent. Whilst there were elements to like here, I thought this was the weakest link of the three, not helped by a distinctly cliché finale.
Tears of Kali feels pretty tight and well-constructed, and it’s fair to say that the whole 105 minute runtime really shot by, to the extent when I was slightly surprised when the credits rolled – always a compliment to a movie when you barely notice time passing at all. What impressed me most about Marschall’s Alraune – and held true again here – was just how this director is able to build and then hold tension. The first part of that equation is not easy, but the second is even more difficult. There were moments where if you’d snuck up on me or rung my phone I would have absolutely jumped out of my skin, because I was waiting so much for something to happen. Marschall stretches tension like an elastic band and only lets it go when the band is on the very verge of snapping – there’s no desire for jumpscares even when lazier directors would pile them on.
Add to that some very solid acting performances, a strong mythology behind it – part of me was itching to dive onto the internet and read more about it, only to find it was never a real thing! – and some fine scares and it adds up to a pretty memorable film. My only criticism would be that a few of the effects don’t look all that great, but that’s simply a side effect of filmmaking on a budget, and you can bet you’ve seen plenty worse to boot. If you don’t like anthologies, you might want to steer clear, but other than I’d recommend this one to anyone who likes indy horror and extreme horror.
RATING: 9/10. Film Gutter’s jaunts to Germany have often paid dividends, and Tears of Kali is no different at all. A fascinating example of the anthology film, this single-director movie dips nicely into Hinduism and draws out some impactful threads. It’s nicely shot, and keeps things simple and low-key to great effect all the way. The minimal cast all perform well in their roles, and each section of the movie has good ideas and generally very strong execution. As such, it has to be a highly commendable 9/10 from me.
By Alex Davis
Dir. Joe Maggio, USA, 95 min
Since we're just past the festive season, let's talk about food, shall we?
Eating and food seems to be a pretty popular theme in extreme horror. We of course have Blood Feast (original and pending remake), Feast and its two sequels, Eat, Gnaw, Bite and many more besides. Of course many of those movies touch on cannibalism – Eat played particularly well with the theme of self-cannibalism – but here is a movie that is far more about food in its wider sense. It's also a withering condemnation of the role of the critic and the reviewer, so I'd best tread a little carefully with what I say...
The movie follows two main protagonists, pretentious chef Peter Grey – who constantly espouses the virtue of local, natural ingredients on his TV show and at his restaurant – and marginally less pretentious food critic JT Franks, who writes a food blog called Gastropunk that evidently wields enough influence for his bad review of Grey's restaurant Feast to get Peter fired from it. With Peter's life falling apart and JT's life falling apart simultaneously, the two are about to cross paths in a very dark way...
What follows is a what many would call a 'torture porn' set up (although I genuinely despise the term) with Grey capturing Franks and dragging him to his cabin in the middle of nowhere to tackle a range of food challenges. With each failure, he suffers a brutal and often strange punishment from his captor. It's more interesting than I could have been for my money – starting with ducking the cannibal angle that I was absolutely ready for all the way through – as the characters aren't really clear-cut black and white or good guy and bad guy. It's hard to really root for either of them at any stage, which makes for a dynamic I personally didn't mind but many people might not find to their tastes. It's only when Franks's partner gets drawn into things there's a real clear good and bad delineation.
The other complaint I had with this film – and it's rare I pin things to one character or actor – is Larry Fessenden's turn as a private detective here. It simply drags the plot and his character is so cliché it's almost unbearable – with some good character dynamics elsewhere that whole part of things just feels unnecessary, almost padding in some places.
On the whole it's OK – it's perfectly watchable but doesn't really excel itself or differ enough from many similar films to be very distinctive, but there are some interesting ideas and as a reviewer it was quite fun to see an exploration at that, and the thread of 'creators' vs 'destroyers' than informed things was followed pretty well. The acting was generally decent as well, which helped things along, so overall it wasn't bad but a bit middling and also a little predictable – I've never been that great at guessing the endings to things but in this case I had it figured out from pretty early on.
RATING: 6/10. I can't really lay any heavy criticism at the door of Bitter Feast, but equally it's a movie that's hard to get hugely excited about. It does the subgenre decently enough, and hits all of its main beats well, but doesn't really depart as much as it could or do anything terribly startling to pull itself apart. To continue the food analogy, it's a decent pub meal rather then cordon bleu cuisine, so I'm happy to award this one 6/10.