Darling: Mickey Keating keeps playing in other people’s sandboxes with this black-and-white tribute to artsy ’60s horror in the mold of Roman Polanski. Prefaced by a warning about seizure-inducing flashes (always a good sign in my experience), Darling watches the young caretaker of a New York City townhouse go nuts as she succumbs to the home’s insidious influence. Jump scare-inducing quick cuts, the culprits behind potential seizures, are offset by a lingering camera the rest of the time, which occasionally finds unique ways to frame the townhouse where the majority of the action happens. Laura Ashley Carter makes a strong case for sitting through its slow 78-minutes, falling faster and faster into wide-eyed, twitchy madness, until her masterpiece of reaction at whatever it is hiding in the home’s forbidden room. Keating is consistent this time around, and this is a strong exercise in atmosphere and style, but it still doesn’t escape the shadow of his influences.
Baskin: A richly lit globule of gory self-brinkmanship, this Turkish psychological horror follows a squad of boorish police officers into the bowels of an abandoned building where a vaguely satanist cult has taken up residence. It lives by the philosophy that if the first thing doesn’t gross them out, the next thing will, continuously throwing pointless violence onscreen between scenes of its captured young protagonist retreating into a dream-state to confer with his mentor about how to escape his predicament. Its sluggish pace and luxurious inhalation of onscreen depravity make it a particularly tedious watch, and its company of foul-mouthed night shift cops are hardly the most sympathetic bunch. The singularly creepy Mehmet Cerrahoglu makes for a memorable villain, but one could argue that exploiting his rare condition as a natural special effect is another lazy trick pulled from writer-director Can Evrenol’s grab bag. Build a mood it does, but some specificity would have done wonders for its flailing onslaught of nastiness. As it is, this gaudy assortment of creative kills and ritual blood orgy imagery may as well be called Hostel of Doom.
XX: Karyn Kusama and Jovanka Vuckovic have the strongest outings in this four-film anthology by female directors. Vuckovic’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s Matheson-esque “The Box” gets by on cold ominousness, following a woman who loses her grip on her family after her son catches a glimpse inside a fellow subway passenger’s gift box. One by one the rest of the family go limp on her as the son shares his secret, and the only thing more curious than his whispers is who is preparing the family’s giant dinners every night, and what the hell is happening to the leftovers. Meanwhile, Kusama pieces together an imagined followup to a classic occult horror movie about a destitute mother trying to keep her sadistic teenage son in check with striking emotional results. St. Vincent subverts the anthology’s overall dour tone and grue with a darkly comic outlier about a rich mom hosting her daughter’s birthday party, and Roxanne Benjamin goes for broke on a dumb-hikers-invade-sacred-grounds monster flick that’s fun while it lasts but ends too abruptly. Maternal anxiety dominates this collection, and its wildly varying styles don’t go unnoticed. If there’s one statement this anthology wants to make beyond saying girls can play dirty too, it’s that you can’t reduce their output to one Female Voice, which some people apparently still need to realize.
Hush: Plenty of horror movies conclude in a showdown of pluck versus arrogance, racing from one set piece to another while an underdog hero works to outwit and weaken an indomitable foe. Hush may not be so different, but it innovates on the idea, giving us a deaf-mute heroine (Kate Siegel) who does her best to keep a random thrill killer in sight at all times, and it’s socially conscious, unmasking its villain (John Gallagher, Jr.) almost immediately to show us his true face, and lo and behold, he’s just some smug asshole, the likes of which pretty much anyone has met and dealt with. Writer-director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Siegel fully develop Gallagher’s cowardly predator so that his own fear shows through, and make it clear that his condescension is his greatest flaw. That doesn’t make it any less of a nerve-wracking and grueling process. The central gimmick opens Flanagan up to interesting shots and realistic uses of technology, too, and his disciplined direction and use of sound keep the tension high throughout.