While they were booked before last Sunday’s passing of legendary horror-film director Wes Craven, a pair of films showing this week at St. Anthony Main cinema give his legacy a double salute.
Each sets out to activate our most basic dreads. “We Are Still Here” is a self-aware supernatural thriller that would tickle Craven’s razor-fingered villain Freddy Krueger. “Queen of Earth,” which might be best called an emotional slasher film, has a creative heft akin to the more mainstream dramas he sometimes ventured into. Though they follow widely separate paths, each is ingenious and unsettling.
Almost subliminally upsetting, “Queen of Earth” touches viewers’ primal fears by continually messing with worries embedded in our subconscious. It doesn’t require a chainsaw or a machete to trigger our anxieties. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry prefers a unique weapon: the hostility of personal relations.
The opening scene exploits universal human apprehension without a moment of jump-scares or threatened violence. Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) holds center screen in a long uncut close-up, the flaming anger in her eyes surrounded by dark smears of tear-soaked mascara. Weeping, screaming, hurling guilt at someone we can’t see, she blames him for pain beyond description. She blames him for her father’s death, her family’s breakdown, and the collapse of their relationship.
Appearing fleetingly on camera, her partner, James (Kentucker Audley), seems as calm and cool as she is disturbed. Is he trying to soothe her or mocking her feelings? The opening scene draws us into a world where people conceal under the surface of their speech the motives of every malicious exchange.
The female-dominated story unfolds like a coldblooded mystery. Catherine travels to an isolated lake retreat where she’s hosted by her close friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). She’s staying out of town to cope with James moving away from their New York City home, and from the recent death of her father, a renowned sculptor. She is dealing with punishing grief in both cases. James is leaving her for an affair; her father — “the clichéd, tortured, suicidal artist,” as one cruelly describes him — may have killed himself. Even Virginia’s bond of friendship has frayed, mistreating Catherine with hostile conversation.
There are further levels of intimidation in the film’s stylized visuals and sound design. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams moves his camera so subtly we can hardly tell, implying an observer spying in secrecy. Composer Keegan DeWitt provides a soundtrack evoking the eerie suspense of 1970s psychological chillers. Robert Greene’s editing guides through the single setting where the action occurs with hypnotic control. In this film, even a passing shot of the sizable ceiling fans look like whirling guillotines.
Steering clear of a standard plot, Perry expects our attention and earns it. We realize the story is hopping between Catherine’s current crisis and the previous summer, when she ignored Virginia, then deep in her own suffering. Flashbacks of Catherine’s happy relationship with James echo Virginia’s current affair with her smug neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit). The film doesn’t invest in exposition to highlight those parallels. It trusts its complete command of tone to spotlight the narcissism, sadness, loss and resignation that can’t be said in dialogue.
A house in the country
“We Are Still Here” has a long, slow fuse that sets off a wallop of a climax. It starts out with a resonance to Lifetime Movie Network weepies about anguished parents mourning a lost child, all sorrowful slow shots and solemn acting. Then it builds into a wild, over-the-top little creeper about four times better than you’d expect. By the time the final credits roll, you completely understand why those normal folks in the four main roles were played by a quartet best known for acting in standout horror movies.
It’s the story of a married couple moving to rural New England to begin a new life. An accident killed their mid-20s son, and they want to be as far from the site of those memories as possible. It’s intended as a shot in the arm for the parents, Anne Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton, a longtime scream queen from “Re-Animator” and “Chopping Mall”) and her husband, Paul (Andrew Sensenig, of “Terror Trap” and many more). Naturally they were attracted by the big old house that was put on the market at a low, low, unusually low price.
Beginning in first gear, the film moves through some familiar territory. The locals seem rather withdrawn. The boiler down in the big old basement keeps making their home unpleasantly hot even though it’s midwinter. And was it a gust of wind that knocked over and broke their son’s portrait? There’s even a subtle nod to H.P. Lovecraft, the region’s weird author.
Needing some company to keep their spirits up, Anne invites a pair of distant friends. She believes that her spiritualist adviser May (Lisa Marie, who played alluring monsters in her boyfriend Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” “Mars Attacks!” and “Planet of the Apes”) can read the odd signs. And her hubby, Jacob (Larry Fessenden from “I Sell the Dead” and countless more), is just the aging stoner to keep Paul company while the girls do a séance. Several members of the supporting cast are notable veterans of “Star Trek” TV spinoffs, too.
While the movie builds up a modest head of dramatic tension, cast members play their roles straight and capably, as if they were doing a knockoff of those “Amityville” haunted house movies about bad New England real estate. Then the pace quickens, that slow-sputtering fuse finally reaches the pyrotechnics, and we are blown off our psychic heels.
Ted Geoghegan, who both wrote and directed, is a sly dog indeed, leading us to expect the traditional payoffs for this kind of story before dope-slapping us silly. The movie left me punch-happy as it moved from over the top to stratospheric levels of madness. The horror genre has been enjoying a mini-revival in the past couple of years, but few entries have been this wickedly entertaining.