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By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany, 1920)

“I must know everything. I must penetrate his secrets — I must become CALIGARI!”

I don’t know how I managed to get to my advanced age without ever seeing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It’s a horror classic and has remained a genre favourite for 100 years. While I have no aversion to silent films, this one just kept passing me by. Happily, the October Horror Movie Challenge has once again come to the rescue, giving me an excuse to rectify this terrible oversight!

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1

Synopsis

The fair has come to town, bringing murder. It actually takes a little time to get to the murder. First, we meet the unsettlingly weird Dr Caligari, who has applied for a stall at the fair, featuring his spectacular somnambulist, Cesare.

Meanwhile, Francis has convinced his friend Alan to go to the fair, where they attend Dr Caligari’s show. Caligari opens what appears to be a coffin, revealing the still form of a young man. This, he explains, is Cesare, who has spent all 23 years of his life asleep. Caligari is able to awaken him for short periods, allowing him to answer questions from the audience.

Alan steps forward and asks, as you do, when he is going to die. With a needlessly sinister flourish, Cesare announces that Alan will be dead by dawn. And, sure enough, Alan is stabbed to death in his bed that night.

After a brief red herring involving a copycat killer, suspicion falls upon Cesare, who we see stalking through the strangely angled streets of the town by night. But if he is the murderer, what is his motivation?

Everything comes to a head as Cesare sets his sights on Jane, the love of both Francis and Alan’s life. But as the truth behind the crimes comes to light, this only leads to a further series of shocking revelations.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari 2

General Thoughts

A huge part of the appeal of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari lies in its visual design. This is a dream world filled with exaggerated characters in heavy makeup. Huge rooms make adults look like children, lost in nightmares. Almost every item of furniture is the wrong size — clerks perch on impracticably huge stools like hunched vultures. The angles of every wall, door and window are violently askew, constantly undermining our sense of reality. I kept finding myself thinking of the maddening effects of strange angles in Hill House.

Every angle […] is slightly wrong. […] Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. […] Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole.”

– Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, these deviations from true are far more exaggerated and their cumulative effect even more alienating.

The story’s antagonists are equally unsettling. Dr Caligari is a wild, deranged presence from the moment we first see him looming towards the camera. His manic expressions and exaggerated body language should come across as pantomime silliness, but their overall effect is inexplicably sinister. And Cesare is at least as unnerving as his master. His staring eyes, heavy goth makeup and stark black clothing make him look like a huge, angular carrion bird. Dr Caligari even makes him sleep in a crate which more than slightly resembles a coffin.

The relationship between Cesare and Dr Caligari is fascinating and disturbing. While Cesare is the living instrument of murder, he feels like as much of a victim as those he stabs to death. Caligari, as we discover late on in the film, has opportunistically taken ownership of a young man trapped in dreams since infancy, remoulding his mind. While Cesare looks witchy and lurches around like Frankenstein’s monster, there may be a frightened child trapped inside. Cesare is completely at his master’s mercy — incapable even of feeding himself, relying on Caligari to spoon mush into his mouth. This, to me at least, is more nightmarish than any murder.

Given The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘s place in cinematic history, fascinating details abound about its inspirations, production and legacy. The Wikipedia article about the film is unusually detailed and a great starting point if you would like to know more.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari 3

Verdict

I approached watching The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with a little trepidation. It was late at night when I put it on and while I was expecting it to be worthy, I wondered whether it would still be entertaining. Just because a film is a classic doesn’t mean that it’s going to be appealing to modern viewers. I needn’t have worried — the admittedly short 74-minute runtime sped past and I was surprised that it was over so quickly.

The story contains more than enough twists and turns to keep you engaged, although I did worry that the final revelation undermines much of what has built up to it. The performances and camera work are as stagey and artificial as you would expect of a silent film of its time. In this case, however, the stilted presentation works in the film’s favour, adding an extra layer of weirdness. And, of course, the set design and general visual aesthetic are stunning.

Don’t make the mistake I did of spending almost 50 years of watching other horror films before getting around to this one. It is well worth an hour of your time.

And as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is in the public domain, I can legally link to the full film rather than just presenting a trailer. Enjoy!

The October Horror Movie Challenge

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

  • 1 – Baskin (2015)
  • 2 – The Bar (2017)
  • 3 – The Editor (2014)
  • 4 – The Beach House (2019)
  • 5 – The Mummy (1959)
  • 6 – The Wind (2020)
  • 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
  • 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
  • 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
  • 10 – Patrick (1978)
  • 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
  • 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
  • 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
  • 14 – The Hallow (2015)
  • 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
  • 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
  • 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
  • 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
  • 19 – The Battery (2012)
  • 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
  • 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
  • 22 – Evolution (2015)
  • 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
  • 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
  • 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
  • 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
  • 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
  • 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
  • 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
  • 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
  • 31 – In Fabric (2018)

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

A Final Note

If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

The House the at End of Time (Venezuela, 2013)

“We’re just puppets of this house, where time has come to an end”.

After yesterday’s vampire film with no vampires, we come to a haunted house tale with no ghosts. Or maybe that depends on how you define ghosts. From the ambiguous nature of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to the shenanigans of The Old Dark House or Housebound, the genre is packed with houses that aren’t necessarily haunted but might as well be. The Venezuelan horror film The House at the End of Time falls neatly into this camp, offering us a weird and moving ghost story that falls outside normal bounds.

The House at the End of Time 1

Synopsis

The House at the End of Time opens in medias res as Dulce, our protagonist, comes round after being knocked unconscious. She is lying in the remains of a broken mirror, a fresh cut across her face. Once she regains her bearings, Dulce tears through the house, arriving in the cellars. There, she finds the body of her husband, stabbed to death. Her young son, Leopoldo, stands ominously in a darkened doorway. Before Dulce has a chance to do anything, Leopoldo is snatched back into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Dulce is arrested and convicted of the murder of her husband. Thirty years later, she is given a conditional release, kept under house arrest in her former home.

And what a house this is! In some ways, the house is the star of the film. It’s certainly the title character. Built by an English occultist living in Venezuela in the early twentieth century, this is a building filled with eerie secrets. It was designed by a 33rd-degree mason, according to certain principles of sacred geometry, serving some hidden purpose. And, oddly, it has since been made available as free accommodation for families in financial hardship, such as Dulce’s.

From here on, the narrative switches back and forth between Dulce in the present and her entire family living in the house thirty years before. The flashbacks not only lay the groundwork for the tragedy we witnessed at the start but reveal how the family had been assailed by strange presences in the house beforehand.

As Dulce and her family try to understand what is happening to them, they are pushed headlong towards tragedy. But is their future entirely predetermined?

The House at the End of Time 2

General Thoughts

In many ways, The House at the End of Time feels like a Call of Cthulhu scenario. It has occult horrors from the past manifesting in the present. The house itself is a weird location filled with dark secrets; its cellars feel like something Lovecraft might have written about. A sense of doom pervades the film. And the actions of some of the characters, especially the priest who comes to comfort Dulce, feel like the kind of investigation you would see in a typical game.

One very minor frustration is that the occult aspects of the film are largely window dressing. It uses some general ideas and references — especially in relation to sacred geometry — but does no more than namecheck them. To be fair, that suits the purposes of the story just fine. It just would have been nice to see a little more detail.

The House at the End of Time 3

Verdict

The House at the End of Time is an unusual film. As I mentioned in the introduction, it has the trappings of a haunted house tale. Many of the scenes fit this, often to chilling effect. Ultimately, however, the payoff is something very different. This is a film about family ties, about the sacrifices parents make for their children, and about the nature of fate.

Despite this, The House at the End of Time is still a creepy film. From the disorientation of the opening scenes to the atmosphere and shocks of the later haunting, this is a film that knows how to engage and unnerve its audience. The house especially feels gloomy and oppressive, adding a sense of dread to even the most mundane scenes. Unfortunately, the film relies a little too much on cheap tricks like jump scares and characters walking backwards into peril, but not enough to spoil things.

After the amazingly naturalistic child acting of Tigers Are Not Afraid, the kids in The House at the End of Time come across as, well, acting. They’re not bad by any means, but their scenes feel a little artificial. Similarly, there is a detached, stagey feel to the cinematography that reminds me of 1970s Italian horror, but without the concomitant weirdness.

There is a significant reveal towards the end of the film that many horror fans will probably see coming a long way off. Once I had worked out what was going on, I worried that this would be all the ending had to offer. Happily, I was proved at least party wrong. The House at the End of Time finishes on a wonderfully bittersweet note, with a few surprises that utterly blindsided and delighted me. It’s rare to find a horror film that stirs up such a complex mixture of emotions.

All in all, I heartily recommend The House at the End of Time. While it has some rough edges, it should still grip, surprise and maybe even frighten you.

A Final Note

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

  • 1 – Baskin (2015)
  • 2 – The Bar (2017)
  • 3 – The Editor (2014)
  • 4 – The Beach House (2019)
  • 5 – The Mummy (1959)
  • 6 – The Wind (2020)
  • 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
  • 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
  • 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
  • 10 – Patrick (1978)
  • 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
  • 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
  • 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
  • 14 – The Hallow (2015)
  • 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
  • 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
  • 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
  • 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
  • 19 – The Battery (2012)
  • 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
  • 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
  • 22 – Evolution (2015)
  • 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
  • 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
  • 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
  • 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
  • 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
  • 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
  • 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
  • 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
  • 31 – In Fabric (2018)

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

The Transfiguration (USA, 2016)

“I think it starts with drinking blood.”

Does a vampire film need to have a vampire in it? What is a vampire anyway? Is it an undead monster or simply someone who drinks human blood? These are the kinds of questions that haunt Milo, the protagonist of The Transfiguration. After watching the film, they’re kind of haunting me too.

the transfiguration 1

Synopsis

As the film opens, we encounter Milo in a toilet cubicle, drinking the blood of a man whose throat he has just slashed. This is not the genteel fang-bite and supping of a classic vampire. Blood pulses out of knife wound and Milo slurps it noisily. Later, he vomits it back up.

Milo is an unlikely predator. Short and slightly built for a boy in his late teens, he is entirely unprepossessing. His manner is quiet and affectless, and he speaks in the same matter-of-fact tone whether discussing shopping, his favourite films, or murder. If anyone notices him at all, it is to call him a freak and push him around. Milo has a dark past, possibly involving animal cruelty, and those around him hate him for it. Only his brother Lewis, who he lives with, seems to tolerate Milo, and even their relationship feels fragile.

Milo’s life becomes even more complicated when he meets Sophie, a white girl around his age, who lives in his predominantly black neighbourhood. She is also a social outcast in her own way and is drawn to Milo’s strange, offhand interest in her. When Milo discovers that Sophie cuts herself, his only reaction is to try to suck the wound. While she finds his morbid obsessions repellently weird at times, some invisible bond of shared trauma and tragedy keeps pulling them back together.

Sophie is intrigued by Milo’s obsession with vampires. The two debate over the nature of vampires, with Milo presenting his arguments for “realistic” vampires while Sophie tries to convince him to read Twilight and watch True Blood. Meanwhile, Milo continues his secret hunts.

Everything comes to a head as Sophie stumbles across evidence of Milo’s true nature and Milo pushes himself into acts that scare even himself. The stage is set for blood and tragedy.

the transfiguration 2

General Thoughts

As well as being a potent portrayal of a couple of alienated misfits, The Transfiguration is also a philosophical exploration of vampire lore. Milo keeps journals filled with analyses of classic vampire stories and films. He expounds upon these to Sophie, trying to get to the core of what a vampire actually is. Sophie initially takes all this as the kind of obsessive fandom that fills the lives of teenage boys. Instead, this is Milo trying to understand himself.

Ultimately, Milo is a serial killer, not a vampire. While he has wrapped himself in comforting lore, creating rituals for himself, the hints at his backstory suggest a history of animal cruelty and troubling behaviour that suggest a very human kind of monstrousness. Maybe pretending to be a vampire allows him to justify these impulses to himself, or maybe he is genuinely delusional. I suspect the former, given his degree of self-analysis.

For all his strange mannerisms and murderous nature, Milo is an oddly sympathetic monster. While The Transfiguration never attempts to excuse or downplay the things he does, he seems gripped by compulsions he tries to fight. More importantly, his relationship with Sophie and the way he tries to care for her in his own broken way humanises him, defying us to care for him too.

The ambiguity of people who think themselves vampires is not a new theme in either cinema or fiction. The Transfiguration is canny enough to namecheck George Romero’s classic Martin, a film whose protagonist exists in a similar grey area. Perhaps less well-known is Elizabeth Engstrom’s remarkable novel, Black Ambrosia, about a troubled young woman who seems to will herself into vampirehood, or maybe just into psychosis.

the transfiguration 3

Verdict

The Transfiguration takes its time drawing the viewer in. People looking for a traditional horror film may be disappointed. Apart from the bloody opening scene, the first hour of the film is fairly slow, with lots of static shots of characters talking. The majority of these scenes are awkward conversations between Milo and either Sophie or Lewis, skirting around the horrors that define Milo’s existence. While they build a sense of dread, they sometimes feel coy.

When violence erupts, however, The Transfiguration does not hold back. This is not cathartic bloodshed or anything the viewer can take pleasure in. It is realistic and uncomfortable, in keeping with the rest of the film.

Happily, the final act rewards the viewer’s patience. While it never bursts into dynamic action, it pulls together its strands nicely as Milo is forced to reconsider what he truly is. The resolution is emotionally complex and completely satisfying.

And, ultimately, The Transfiguration probably shouldn’t be judged as a traditional horror film. It is a character study, revealing the darkness and vulnerability lying within a very human monster. While it may not scare you enough to make you sleep with the lights on, you may still be awake at 3 AM, thinking about some of the questions it raises. And that’s a lot more than most horror films can offer.

A Final Note

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

  • 1 – Baskin (2015)
  • 2 – The Bar (2017)
  • 3 – The Editor (2014)
  • 4 – The Beach House (2019)
  • 5 – The Mummy (1959)
  • 6 – The Wind (2020)
  • 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
  • 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
  • 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
  • 10 – Patrick (1978)
  • 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
  • 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
  • 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
  • 14 – The Hallow (2015)
  • 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
  • 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
  • 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
  • 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
  • 19 – The Battery (2012)
  • 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
  • 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
  • 22 – Evolution (2015)
  • 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
  • 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
  • 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
  • 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
  • 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
  • 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
  • 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
  • 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
  • 31 – In Fabric (2018)

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Patrick (Australia, 1978)

“Well I think Patrick and I are going to get along just… Argh!”

I have a soft spot for odd horror films, the kind that don’t fit neatly into any particular category. Today’s pick for the challenge is definitely such a film. Patrick is a blackly humorous thriller with a creepy antagonist who never gets out of bed.

Patrick 1

Synopsis

We open with a short but frenzied opening scene in which Patrick, an intense young man with even more intense eyes, kills his mother and her lover by tossing an electric heater into their bath. The two play a deadly game of catch with the heater, punctuated by screams and serious burns. In the end, however, the heater wins.

The film then jumps forwards a few years. English nurse Kathie Jacquard is trying to rebuild her life following the breakdown of her marriage to her Australian husband. She takes a position at the Roget Clinic, a private hospital in Melbourne, where she is put in charge of caring for the now-comatose Patrick.

We never learn why Patrick is in a coma, but this is not important. He now spends his days in bed, eyes open wide, staring into space. The doctors believe he is braindead, but Jacquard starts to believe otherwise, especially once he starts psychically commandeering the electric typewriter she uses to write her reports. His missives quickly turn to declarations of love.

Outside work, Jacquard has become romantically involved with a doctor and reconnected with her estranged husband. This does not please Patrick one bit.

Despite being bedridden and apparently comatose, Patrick proves quite an adept stalker. He is able to project his consciousness outside his body and use psychokinesis to torment his romantic rivals in increasingly vicious ways.

At the same time, Dr Roget begins to carry out experiments on Patrick, exploring the middle ground between life and death. Matron Cassiday becomes convinced that Patrick poses a danger to all around him and must be stopped. And Nurse Jacquard finds herself caught in the middle of it all as the situation turns deadly.

Patrick 2

General Thoughts

The 1970s were a weird, heady time for horror cinema. Changing social mores and relaxed censorship allowed nastier stuff on the screen than ever before. Independent production companies were springing up and even the larger studios were willing to take creative risks that seem insane these days. And some of the most exciting horror came out of Australia.

The movement that became known as Ozploitation birthed low-budget, sometimes seedy films of all sorts of genres, including, most notably, the Mad Max franchise. A number of memorable horror films also came out of the movement, including Wake in Fright, Long Weekend, Thirst and, of course, Patrick.

Going into Patrick, I had no idea what to expect. While I had some basic idea of the premise, I had conflated it with a British horror film from the same year called The Medusa Touch, in which Richard Burton also plays a bitter misanthrope with telekinesis. Although Patrick is unarguably a horror film, it was a very different kind than I’d anticipated.

While you would be hard-pressed to call Patrick a comedy, it has a sardonic wit that makes it a joy to watch. Many of the supporting characters are delightfully eccentric, falling just short of being caricatures. Matron Cassiday’s clipped spitefulness and ranting monologues are a highpoint, inviting us to hate her even when we know she is the only person to see Patrick for what he is.

Considering he does not have a single line of dialogue and barely moves at all, it is amazing how much Robert Thompson dominates this film. Barring a little action in the opening scene, his performance as Patrick largely involves lying still and staring into space. His large, protuberant eyes and the rigid, menacing cast of his face are absolutely magnetic. He radiates malign energy.

Patrick 3

Verdict

Patrick is a nasty little gem of a film. While it has a straightforward premise and an obviously low budget, it abounds with imagination. Every scene has something to commend it, and while there are no great twists or revelations, Patrick never fails to engage.

If you’re looking for something frightening for Halloween, however, Patrick may not be it. While it builds tension nicely and manages a few shocks, it is not a particularly scary film. There are a few gory scenes, and Patrick himself is a creepy presence, but the tone is more low-key than modern horror fans may expect. Regardless, Patrick is still an enormously entertaining film and well worth your attention.

A Final Note

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

  • 1 – Baskin (2015)
  • 2 – The Bar (2017)
  • 3 – The Editor (2014)
  • 4 – The Beach House (2019)
  • 5 – The Mummy (1959)
  • 6 – The Wind (2020)
  • 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
  • 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
  • 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
  • 10 – Patrick (1978)
  • 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
  • 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
  • 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
  • 14 – The Hallow (2015)
  • 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
  • 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
  • 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
  • 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
  • 19 – The Battery (2012)
  • 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
  • 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
  • 22 – Evolution (2015)
  • 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
  • 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
  • 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
  • 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
  • 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
  • 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
  • 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
  • 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
  • 31 – In Fabric (2018)

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Dearest Sister (Laos, 2016)

“In my village, we believe that when you lose one sense you sometimes gain another.”

I’m always excited to watch horror films from countries I know little about. Unfamiliar locations and cultural differences can make even the most overused ideas seem renewed. So when I noticed a horror film from Laos on Shudder, I knew I had to give it a try. Unfortunately, the freshness of its setting is not quite enough to save Dearest Sister from being average.

Dearest Sister 1

Synopsis

Nok is a young woman from a small village in Laos. She is hired as a companion by her cousin Ana, who lives in Vientiane, the capital city. Ana has a degenerative illness that is steadily robbing her of her sight. Jakob, Ana’s Estonian husband, is caught up in trying to save his rather suspect business from the scrutiny of the authorities, so it falls to Nok to help Ana with the everyday challenges of going blind.

Ana’s condition is more than a medical one, however. As the world around her fades, she starts to see gruesome apparitions. Ana tries her hardest to avoid these spirits, with mixed success.

Whenever one of the spirits breaks through Ana’s defences, she finds herself repeating strings of numbers. Nok decides to try a set of these numbers on the lottery and is rewarded with a significant payout. From this point on, Nok, who has promised to send money home to her family, starts to push Ana into more ghostly encounters. This escalates as Nok is tempted by the material excitements of city life, leading her into financial turmoil.

Alongside all this, the domestic staff resent the privileges afforded to Nok, driving them to cruelty. Jakob’s business dealings threaten to drag everyone into legal trouble and maybe worse. And as Nok becomes more and more opportunistic, the stage is set for tragedy.

Dearest Sister 2

General Thoughts

Dearest Sister is the second feature film from Mattie Do, a Laotian-American director who stands out as being both the only female filmmaker in Laos and the only person making horror films there. Her husband, Christian Larsen, is the screenwriter on all her projects.

From some cursory reading, it seems that Do and Larsen draw heavily upon the folklore, culture and religious beliefs of Laos in their work. The spirits in Dearest Sister are no exception. Their need to reveal winning lottery numbers apparently comes from local folklore. As an outsider, I found this jarringly odd — so much so that it came close to spoiling the film for me. I just simply could not suspend my disbelief that spirits would manifest to pass on such a mundane and impersonal message.

Learning a little about the folklore behind this film did warm me towards it, however. It also raises an interesting point about how much a film should assume people know of its cultural references when released in an international market. While unfamiliarity with the connection between spirits and lottery numbers in Laos won’t stop anyone from understanding Dearest Sister, it may make it harder for them to connect with the film. There’s an interesting parallel to my first pick of the month, Baskin, which is also enriched by a knowledge of local folklore and religious beliefs.

Dearest Sister 3

Verdict

Dearest Sister is a well-crafted film, if a little slow and ponderous. I was largely engaged throughout and appreciated the escalation in its final act and the uncompromising resolution. The earlier parts of the film did drag at times, however, and I found myself growing impatient more than once.

While the elements of Laos folklore and culture elevate the supernatural aspects of the film, they still feel a little generic. The basic premise echoes the 2002 Hong Kong film, The Eye, and the appearance of the spirits could come from any one of a hundred similar films. Their bloody appearance offers some mild creeps but they are nothing special in the end.

Most of Dearest Sister‘s strengths lie in its mundane aspects, with the ghostly intrusions largely plot devices to drive conflict amongst the living. For all its ghosts, cruelty and violence, Dearest Sister barely feels like a horror film. This is more of a drama with spooky trappings.

At the very least, Dearest Sister has interested me in watching more of Mattie Do’s work. Given the talent on show here, I can imagine that she is capable of producing something quite remarkable. Sadly, Dearest Sister falls just short of being that film.

A Final Note

Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.

If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:

  • 1 – Baskin (2015)
  • 2 – The Bar (2017)
  • 3 – The Editor (2014)
  • 4 – The Beach House (2019)
  • 5 – The Mummy (1959)
  • 6 – The Wind (2020)
  • 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
  • 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
  • 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
  • 10 – Patrick (1978)
  • 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
  • 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
  • 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
  • 14 – The Hallow (2015)
  • 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
  • 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
  • 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
  • 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
  • 19 – The Battery (2012)
  • 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
  • 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
  • 22 – Evolution (2015)
  • 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
  • 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
  • 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
  • 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
  • 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
  • 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
  • 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
  • 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
  • 31 – In Fabric (2018)

Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.

If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!