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John’s Horror Corner: The Field Guide to Evil (2018), a horror anthology about folklore and mythology from around the world.

March 31, 2019

MY CALL: Not a bad way to spend two hours. Of course, there are better anthologies out there with better production value and tighter themes. But the exposure to lesser-known folklore fauna is something I find titillating and the very reason I go crazy for films like Trollhunter (2010), Thale (2012) and The Ritual (2017). With a theme so interesting, how you could you not want to see this regardless of the reviews? Of all the horror stories told a dozen times on screen, I vote for the mythology I’ve never heard of for my anthology.

MORE HORROR ANTHOLOGIES: Dead of Night (1945), Black Sabbath (1963), Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973), The Uncanny (1977), Creepshow (1982), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye (1985), Deadtime Stories (1986), Creepshow 2 (1987), After Midnight (1989), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Two Evil Eyes (1990), Grimm Prairie Tales (1990), The Willies (1990), Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993), Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), Campfire Tales (1997), 3 Extremes (2004), Creepshow 3 (2006), Trick ‘r Treat (2007), Chillerama (2011), Little Deaths (2011), V/H/S (2012), The Theater Bizarre (2012), The ABCs of Death (2013), V/H/S 2 (2013), The Profane Exhibit (2013), The ABCs of Death 2 (2014), V/H/S Viral (2014), Southbound (2015), Tales of Halloween (2015), A Christmas Horror Story (2015), The ABCs of Death 2.5 (2016), Holidays (2016), Terrified (2017; aka Aterrados, which is a pseudo-anthology), Oats Studios, Vol. 1 (2017), Ghost Stories (2017) and XX (2017).

This is not a big budget feature, and it shows (forgivably in some segments, less so in others). The opening credits feature dark Renaissance scoring and animation in the illustrative style of centuries-old theological texts hinting at the content of the eight short films to come. The tone is murderous yet festive, evoking a somewhat playful mood. Folklore, legends, myths; such are the origin of our most ancient dreams… and even nightmares. And that is the theme of this anthology: eight pieces of folklore from eight different directors representing eight countries.

There really is no wraparound story. After the opening credits introduce us to our Field Guide to Evil book, each story is introduced with a brief description of the folklore in question (e.g., an explanation of a type of evil spirit) and the country of origin.

Like any multi-filmmaker anthology (e.g., V/H/S, The ABCs of Death), the quality of the eight stories vary wildly. I’d consider the first three segments worthy of adaptation into 30 to 90-minute films. Some take place in present day, but many are more folky. Journeying through this anthology we’ll find goblins, spirits, mutants and monsters. There are some rather viscerally gory images and disturbing imagery, whereas other stories are lighter in atmosphere.

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The Sinful Women of Hollfall, aka Die Trud (Austria)—Writing and directing team Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (The Lodge, Goodnight Mommy) are strikingly effective storytellers. Theirs is the myth of the nighttime-visiting monsters (Truds) born of guilt. With wardrobes and antiquated superstition clearly depicting a folk horror period (e.g., The Witch, Apostle), this God-fearing story literally depicts desperate attempts to “wash” and “scrub” away one’s sins. Gorgeous woodland shots and general photography remind me of The Hallow (2015) and Hole in the Ground (2019), with the moss and cloverleaf greens aglow in pristine lighting. But some disturbing imagery contrasts this beauty. An excellent segment.

Haunted by Al Karisi, the Childbirth Djinn (Turkey)—Director Can Evrenol (Baskin, Housewife) delivers this gory, bloody, unnerving tale of the Al karisi—a child-stealing demon assuming the form of an old woman, cat or goat. As a young mother tends to her demented grandmother, we question the absence of the father, a strange wound on the mute old woman’s neck, and the young mother’s visions which bring her to fear for the life of her baby. Another very strong segment.

The Kindler and The Virgin (Poland)—Director Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure) spins a cautionary folk tale of the cost of the desire of wisdom which opens smacking of a much more seriously approached Viy (2014). A mystical (and perhaps undead) witch whispers the secrets of knowledge to a common man, who must eat the hearts of the recently deceased to claim his magical boon. While decently made, this is a less impressive segment that feels like a flashback vignette from The Brothers Grimm (2005).

Beware the Melonheads (United States)—After reading the opening caption, all you can think about is Wrong Turn (2003) or The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Director Calvin Lee Reeder (The Rambler) explores the classic trope of northern woodland violent mongoloid people with large heads and a possible taste for cannibalism. Unfortunately the general writing is garbage, the revelation of the antagonist falls flat on its boring face, and the special effects (the melonhead latex work) are just plain stupid. This might be the worst segment of the anthology and, if I’m being honest, I find the bulbous heads laughable yet unforgivable.

What Ever Happened to Panagas the Pagan? (Greece)—Director Yannis Veslemes (Norway) spins the tale of the Kallikantzaros—the Devil’s trickster offspring and lowly goblin underground dwellers who thrive among humans during the Christmas season. Sadly, this is another weak entry with poor writing and execution. It’s odd, actually, how I found myself sympathizing with the so-called evil goblin. If the goal of the film was to reveal how they are misunderstood, I’d say it failed. And if not, it failed all the same.

Palace of Horrors (India)—Like an Indian iteration of Freaks (1932), director Ashim Ahluwalia (Daddy, Miss Lovely) brings us a tale of a crumbling palace filled with deformed human curiosities in the early 1900s. Average “meh” style writing, weak photography and camerawork, but a neat concept presented just well enough to keep my interest until its hokey ending. But as one short story of eight, this was appropriately entertaining.

A Nocturnal Breath (Germany)—Director Katrin Gebbe (Nothing Bad Can Happen) provides a 1700s case study of the drude—an evil Bavarian spirit that possesses victims and spreads disease. Another case of a neat story that didn’t translate well to screen in its current presentation. The filmmaking was decent, I guess. It felt like a Masters of Horror series installation.

The Cobblers’ Lot (Hungary)—Based on the folktale The Princess’ Curse, two brothers compete for the affection of the princess. Director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) employs a child’s storytelling whimsy through captions rather than dialogue. This lower budget entry manages to amuse more in the style of live theater than cinema, and feels like a poor man’s Tim Burton meets Grimm’s Bacchan fantasy. Kinda fun, but kinda more dumb; kinda hokey, but kinda okay with that.

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All told, this isn’t a horrible way to spend two hours. But clearly there are better anthologies out there with better overall production value and/or tighter themes (e.g., Trick ‘r Treat). Sure, I’d have wished that the first three segments were spread out so the higher quality films wouldn’t be so front-heavy. But it was just so interesting for me to be exposed to lesser-known folklore fauna (like the Jötunn in The Ritual). With a theme so interesting, how you could you not want to see this? Of all the horror stories told a dozen times on screen, I vote for the mythology I’ve never heard of for my anthology.

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