Indie Horror Month: Adam Barnick’s Top Five Lesser Known Indie Horror Flicks
Writer/director Adam Barnick made his first impression on genre fans back in 2007 with his surrealistic vision of conformity, Mainstream, a short film that was released as part of Fangoria’s Blood Drive II. After Mainstream, Barnick went on to produce some of the most masterful behind-the-scenes featurettes for other indie favorites including Grace and Frozen and is now currently working on his documentary What is Scary? as well as a music video for singer/songwriter Rivulets.
We recently caught up with Barnick who gave us a look at some of his favorite independent horror flicks that may not be on the radar of a lot of genre fans out there.
1. HABIT (1997)
I saw this film at the best or worst time, depending on how you look at it. Having recently moved to New York City after struggling to return there post-school, I lost my job and my girlfriend in the span of two weeks, as the Halloween season was rolling in. Which easily puts you in the proper headspace to meet Habit’s Sam (star/director Larry Fessenden), a charismatic NYC drunk reeling from the loss of his father and girlfriend, who’s crying out for help underneath his missing-teeth smile. Sam rebounds from his recent troubles with more alcohol, and with an enigmatic woman who has a fetish for biting and blood games, all conducted in the middle of the night… is she crazy? Is Sam crazy? Or could she really be a creature we only thought existed in movies?
Blending the realism of a Cassavetes film with the visual panache and in-camera effects of early genre filmmaking, Habit is terrific visual storytelling and a grimy 16mm portrait of an early 90’s New York City that got spit-and-polished into conformity in the 2000s. It’s a horror film that’s deeply personal, deeply sad, scary as hell at times, and an indie triumph. Fessenden won the IFP West’s ‘Someone to Watch’ award for new artists for this film, even though he’d been toiling in the independent and underground scenes in New York (including directing the disturbing, underrated animal rights horror film No Telling in 1993) since the mid-80’s. Larry’s name is certainly well-known to proper genre fans by now, but you’re missing out if you don’t hunt down this perfect, slimy little tale of loneliness and addiction, and the creepy truth that you can never really know or understand someone else’s demons; no matter if they belong to your best friend or your lover.
2. CLEAN, SHAVEN (1995)
Director Lodge Kerrigan’s debut film grew out of his dissatisfaction of the glib, “mad genius” way the mentally ill were portrayed in films, and he came out of the low-budget filmmaking gate with guns blazing. The minimalist plot involves Peter (Peter Greene of Pulp Fiction and The Mask), a recently released schizophrenic who returns to his hometown to find the daughter that was taken from him. A detective who believes Peter may be linked to the murder of another child is hot on his case despite being ill equipped to deal with this or any situation…
A bit buried in the indie boom of the 90’s, Shaven was thankfully a film festival favorite that got a limited theatrical release in 1995. I’d heard of this film and the ‘dare to watch it’ quote on the poster was certainly inviting..but it’s not a ‘fun’ film by any means. Peter may be fascinating at first, but when he starts digging at his head with a scissor in order to remove the implanted “transmitter” that he feels is clouding his thoughts(all of which you’re hearing), you might think twice about going further. Nearly all of the film is buried in layers of audio static, voices and noise, putting you squarely in Peter’s hallucinating head with no chance of escape…but it’s never rendered in an exploitative or typical way. Oddly enough the first time I saw it, Peter terrified me and I just wanted him to get caught and put away. It was one of the few times I’ve come out of a film shaking with anxiety. Later viewings shifted my sympathies TO Peter, after realizing what an incompetent, callow detective was doing to stop him and that Peter is probably only ‘guilty’ of leaving the care of the facility he may have been at. And indeed, director Kerrigan does play with an audience member’s initial bias and media-led assumptions toward someone who suffers from this condition. Criterion recently put out a terrific DVD of this film (in which you can actually download the sound design for your iPod!) in case you want a clearer window into a truly haunted human being.
3. THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1970)
This movie starts and stays strange. Produced independently but distributed by Columbia, I’d never even heard of it until a friend gave it to me as a gift, after he’d been looking for it since seeing it on TV as a child. After an abstract opening where a kid’s toy tank seems to grow to life-size, crushing a car with family inside, we meet a family who discovers the wreck and drives into the nearby town to report it. Immediately they are besieged by terrified townsfolk rushing from their homes to accost the family…and the local law enforcement seems as panicked and trigger-happy as its residents. Fleeing the scene, their car is run off the road by a phantom child and wrecked. That doesn’t stop them from attempting to flee again..which results in their daughter going missing. Before this we meet an elderly couple arriving at what looks like a dinner party for seniors, but it’s fronted by men in black hooded robes bearing candles; and several children are hidden in a back room atop altars, under a mysterious hypnotic influence…
Its structure feels like scenes or entire reels may be missing initially, but this actually works for the film where the viewer is kept largely in the dark for the first hour, just like the protagonists. We discover nobody has been able to leave the town for days, children are disappearing, and many residents (mainly parents of said missing kids) have been killed. The local priest determines the inexplicable events are the result of “a coven (he pronounces it COH-vinn like Mark in American Movie) of witches” who are collecting the children for some sinister purpose. Naturally, he’s right. The senior citizens are classic Devil worshippers, who intend to transfer their souls into the town’s children, giving them in essence eternal life!
Seriously bizarre but never descending into parody or camp, we get kid’s toys coming to life and bloodily dispatching anyone who gets in the way, elderly mobs tearing apart elderly non-believers, and finally a ritual involving mutual slayings with fiery swords..and this film is PG! The film’s got a great use of widescreen, and its over-the-top performances are balanced by LQ Jones’ sheriff(also the writer and co-producer) and Strother Martin(!) as the kindly town doctor, who’s hiding fire behind his eyes..having been revealed early on to the audience as the coven’s leader. The ending doesn’t go the way you’d expect; and if you can roll with the film’s offbeat tone, it’s worth it.
4. HOUR OF THE WOLF (VARGTIMMEN) (1968)
There’s no way to condense the depth of what Ingmar Bergman explored in his work into a few books, let alone paragraphs; and there’s no shortage of psychological turmoil or dread to be found if you’re looking for it. Hour of The Wolf is the closest Bergman came to a full-on horror movie. Numerous elements of traditional gothic horror are blended into his depiction of the mental disintegration of a painter (Johan, played by Max Von Sydow) and the toll his personality takes on his wife, Alma(Liv Ullman). As threatening as the mysterious “demons” that continually appear to them seem to be, the film’s bigger threat seems to be losing one’s self when matched with a partner whose identity, even if crumbling, is powerful and all-consuming.
99% of the horror in this film is conveyed in the human reactions we see. With actors this talented, simple gestures and looks convey volumes of information. We’re treated to one idyllic scene with our couple in the opening, as they settle on a remote island for the summer so Johan can work. From then on, their relationship continues to quietly fracture and unravel. If I had to encapsulate the word “haunted” in a human face, it’s Von Sydow in this film, and Ullman’s as the picture progresses. As his insomnia and drinking increase, Johan’s past trauma(both real and possibly imagined) bubbles to the surface. Both of them, starting with Johan, are repeatedly visited by emotionally vampiric, decadent aristocrats who live in a castle on the island’s far side. Alternately taunting, cajoling, probing and finally humiliating Johan, Alma seems to be the only one who can clearly see their intentions. Whether these people are literal or imagined, shared hallucinations, or mental demons made flesh, is up to the viewer.
Any suffering artist(or partner of one) will probably recognize elements of the couple’s relationship. Eerily calm and quiet for the most part, the film’s emotional and physical violence simmers below the surface and occasionally bursts out in shocking ways. The beautiful black and white imagery remains visually understated before going for full-on overt surrealism in its last 30 minutes. Not for all tastes, but it unnerves me more each time I watch it. The more I see it, the more I see in it.
5. PAPERHOUSE (1988)
Based on a successful children’s book Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, Paperhouse alternates between Phantasm and The French Connection as my favorite film. I still can’t believe it seems a well-kept secret, despite its director (Bernard Rose of Immortal Beloved and Candyman making his feature debut) and cult movie reputation, even if that following seems to be a small but devoted one.
A young, rebellious 12 year old girl named Anna falls ill at school, and then repeatedly thereafter. Beginning to draw around the same time the illness surfaces, she finds she can enter the world of her drawings each time she dreams. Starting with a simple, solitary house in a field, she creates a world piece by piece that she can inhabit nightly. Eventually she creates herself a companion, a young boy named Mark, who initially resists her friendship but eventually becomes a love interest in a way; things take an interesting turn when her visiting doctor reveals she’s treating a young patient named Mark who seems eerily similar. Things take a turn for the worse in both worlds as Anna and Mark become sicker and she begins to confront her absent father figure in real life and in her dream landscape, which is becoming more distorted and malevolent with each visit…
As much a horror film as a sweet, coming-of-age drama, Paperhouse really seems to have its finger on what would disturb and give joy to a child, both in dreams and real life. While tough to compare to any other film I can think of (I remember the original VHS called it “The thinking person’s Nightmare On Elm Street”), I’d relate the tone to stories like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone. Fascinating and touching; there’s just a magic to this movie I haven’t seen elsewhere. The imagery is unique, alternately gorgeous and disturbing. Simple abstract images such as a disembodied pair of wooden legs on a staircase and a blackened silhouette calling to Anna from a darkened hill carry a power I rarely see matched. Some moments make me jump straight out of my chair to this day while others are completely heartwarming. There’s a great-looking British DVD of it, though in the US VHS tapes are still the only way to get your hands on it. Seek it out.
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