Tuesday 20 August 2019

November (Rainer Sarnet, 2017)

Rainer Sarnet's film, produced with support from the Netherlands Film Fund and the Netherlands Film Production Incentive, is an ambitious work which sits somewhere between Hard to Be a God and the work of David Lynch.  A folk tale set in the 19th century, November centres on the stories of poor farm girl Liina (Rea Lest) and fellow peasant Hans (Jörgen Liik).  Although she's promised to a grotesque farmer, Liina has romantic designs on Hans, who in turn only has eyes for the somnambulist daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of a German aristocrat (Dieter Laser, familiar from Tom Six's Human Centipede trilogy).  Both Hans and Liina are stretching for a love which seems out of reach, yet with superstition and magic seemingly all around the village (despite - or because of - the presence of the Church), the pair resort to other, darker means in order to capture the hearts of those they desire.

One way in which magic manifests itself is in the form of kratt, creatures who live to work and are usually made up of tools and other pieces of wood and metal; these oddities only come to life when they're furnished with a soul, which their masters obtain via a bargain with the devil (Satan is personified here, and always meets those looking to animate a kratt at, quite appropriately, a deserted crossroads).  Some try to dupe the devil by signing his book in berry juice instead of their blood, but it's a trick he soon becomes wise to.  If all this wasn't enough, the villagers also have to contend with werewolves (which Liina may know a little something about) and the plague which, amusingly, takes the form of a goat.  

All Souls' Day, which occurs during the month of the film's title, features in the story in a rather novel way: rather than the dead simply being remembered, here they actually come back for the day, and return to their families and homes; the eerie nocturnal sequence in which the villagers collect the departed from the graveyard is both highly effective and rather moving.  The treatment of All Souls' Day is a good marker of how the villagers view, and deal with, Christianity (communion wafers are coughed up to be used as bullets for hunting - the logic being that Jesus can fell any animal).  Christ's teachings exist as just one of the belief systems in place, with paganism also playing a prominent role here; it's as if these venal villagers take a pick 'n' mix approach to religion, borrowing bits of different philosophies in order to attain their selfish goals.

While much of the film takes on a very serious tone, there a number of laugh-out-loud moments, the bulk of which come courtesy of the kratt, which stand as the most bizarre entities glimpsed on a screen since the manifestation of the Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks: The Return.  Watching a kratt move (and talk) is as funny as it is disconcerting, and the quiver of a misery whip which tops a pile of newly-disassembled kratt parts is a comic highlight.  The kratt are also capable of eliciting other emotions, too: the film's menacing opening sequence sees one of the creatures stealing a very worried cow, while there's a real melancholy to the scenes between the lovelorn Hans and his snowman kratt (by far the least utilitarian of the creatures featured here, but you'll miss him when he's gone).

It would be wrong to review November and not mention what is undoubtedly the film's strongest suit: the cinematography.  Mart Taniel's lensing really is a joy to behold, and the stark, icy monochrome images are little short of incredible. Taniel contributes so much to the film's rich atmosphere, and his work means that the film is never dull, even if the story can be best described as fitfully engaging.  While the film could use a bit of tightening up in places, it throws around enough in the way of interesting ideas to ensure that viewer concentration never wanders; a lively and fitting score also does much to help move things along.  

Darren Arnold

Images: Eureka Video

Sunday 11 August 2019

The Hole in the Ground (Lee Cronin, 2019)

Recently released on DVD, The Hole in the Ground is a promising first feature from director Lee Cronin, and for the most part it's an admirable exercise in low-key horror, one which is only slightly let down by a disappointing final reel - but, let's be honest, that's the sort of - ahem - hole that many a film from the genre has fallen into.  It's a well-crafted work which boasts both excellent cinematography and fine acting, and there's enough here to suggest that a steady career in features awaits its director.  Cronin had made several TV ads and short films before making a splash with the 17-minute Ghost Train, which scooped a prestigious award from the Brussels-based European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation (EFFFF).  The Hole in the Ground is a Belgian co-production, and, like Ghost Train, also received funding from Finland - which presumably explains the surprising, welcome casting of Aki Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen.

Sarah (Seána Kerslake) and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) have fled to a house in the countryside, presumably to escape Sarah's abusive ex.  Their new home is certainly remote, and it's surrounded by a forest in which there's a huge, strange sinkhole - the hole in the ground of the title.  While this crater makes for a rather unsettling sight, Sarah doesn't have too much time to dwell on the oddity as she sets about establishing the new family abode.  While driving close to home, Sarah nearly runs over an elderly, clearly disturbed woman (Outinen) who is standing in the middle of the road; later on, Sarah sees the woman, whose name is Noreen, and her husband Des (James Cosmo), and Noreen tells Sarah that Chris is not her son.

Soon after this unpleasant incident, Noreen is found murdered with her head buried in the earth, and Sarah attends the funeral, where Des gives a little more information about his wife's troubled existence: Noreen firmly believed that their son, James, had been taken away and replaced by a doppelgänger, and she could tell the difference when the carbon copy stood in front of a mirror.  Even allowing for the upheaval Chris has experienced over the past few months, Sarah feels her son's behaviour is atypical, and she entertains thoughts similar to those which troubled Noreen for many years.  Predictably enough, a medical examination turns up no major problems with Chris.

The film then proceeds to pull off an impressive balancing act, leaving us guessing: is there actually something wrong with Chris, or is it Sarah who's unravelling?  While there's nothing especially new in this basic concept, the treatment of it is sufficiently skilful to make The Hole in the Ground an enjoyably spooky experience, and Cronin demonstrates a good eye for folk horror as he fully taps into the creepiness of the isolated, bucolic surroundings.  It is only when we reach the film's aforementioned latter stages that the director loses his grip - and his nerve - as measured psychological horror gives way to gloopy FX.  Cronin does manage to right the ship somewhat with a satisfying coda, but it's a pity that one of the more intriguing horror films of recent times loses its way so close to its conclusion.  Still, this is a generally solid film with some nice flourishes, and it will be interesting to see how Lee Cronin builds on this most assured debut.

Darren Arnold

Image: WildCard Distribution