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Field Guide to Evil

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/10/18 09:05:00

"As you travel, watch out for dangerous flora, fauna, and folklore!"
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Field Guide to Evil" is not a bad horror anthology, really - it probably averages out to something a notch or so above average by the time all eight countries in its world tour of frightening folklore have checked in. It's just that it quite possibly peaks with its first entry, and even some of the better ones that follow never quite live up to how smart and thrilling that one is.

That first one is Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz's "The Sinful Women of Hollfall", a take on an Austrian myth that at least seems to subvert its folkloric roots while still cranking up some tension. It follows Kathi, a young woman (Marlete Hauser) who witnesses another drawing blood so that she can at least temporarily hide her pregnancy by showing stained undergarments when the village women do their laundry; they grow closer, a danger in itself, as Kathi's mother warns that it will draw The Trud out of the woods. Franz & Fiala engage with what makes this fable frightening on a gut level, but also find ways to interrogate and question it, recognizing both its original intent but also the power myth has over a community itself, and how one can fight those forces.

Turkey's Can Evrenol attacks similar material in "The Haunting of Al Karisi the Childbirth Demon", which features Naz Sayiner as another woman less than satisfied with the slot she is expected to fill, in this case a miserable mother-to-be caring for her bedridden mother-in-law, her possibly abusive husband mostly absent, while a dark force calls from the well. Evrenol creates a palpable sense of menace, and Sayiner a compelling anti-heroine, enough to make this an effective little horror story on its own. It's simply hard to miss how traditional its interpretation of the myth is compared to its predecessor, despite this being the one set in the modern day. This becomes more acute in the next segment, "The Kindler and the Virgin", which plays like an attempt to compact its story into ten or fifteen minutes without highlighting any specific aspect; a disappointment considering director Agnieszka Smoczynska made The Lure.

The film then shifts gears for Calvin Reeder's "Beware the Melonheads", and while it's interesting that the entry from the United States takes the form of a contemporary urban legend, it winds up feeling almost out of place, too pointedly grounded in the familiar and B-movie story. It sticks out a bit, as the Melonheads don't have the same sort of resonance the other monsters have, and Reeder has a little bit of trouble balancing them being frightening and kind of goofy. That's something which carries over into Yannis Veslemes's "Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan?", which opens with information about an odd Greek tradition before jumping ahead to 1984 and doing a little more set-up than necessary before what is at least an entertainingly trippy encounter with a hole leading to the world below

"The Palace of Horrors" is in Bengal, and Ashim Ahluwalia's segment feels like it's the one that feels like it could best be expanded to a full feature. It's got the feel of old-school pulp, with a British adventurer (and agent for P.T. Barnum) along with his narrating assistant plunging into the jungle to visit a castle with plentiful freaks, but doesn't take long to shift its sympathies more toward the locals (though not completely). It's an enjoyable-enough nightmare, although one kind of thin on story at times, like Ahluwalia is a bit cautious of overloading something short-length. That's not quite where Katrin Gebbe's "A Nocturnal Breath" lands - this story set in 1780 Bavaria has a similarly strong set-up all around - a brother grasping at straws to keep his sister more or less alive through a brutal winter even if it means she's possessed, with a few squirm-inducing bits to highlight it. It plays a bit too small, though, starting in media res and not built to have a lot of stakes.

The film wraps with "The Cobbler's Lot", with Peter Strickland adapting the Hungarian tale in the style of a silent movie. It's a nasty little tale of commoner brothers who make themselves rivals for the princess's hand, but told with just the right sort of arch detachment that gives the audience room to smirk, though not likely laugh out loud. It's a nifty trick - it's hard to do something silent in 2018 without being self-conscious about it, and Strickland clearly wants to take the inherent cruelty of this story seriously even if it is often exaggerated and absurd - but Strickland's entire history has been one of unconventional films, and he's certainly capable of nailing this down, switching things around after an hour and a half of varied but still relatively conventional approaches.

That one is odd enough that the film almost has to end with it, leaving somewhat limited room to rearrange the others to find a way for the better episodes to have maximum impact. Truth be told, the project is probably too long and inconsistent to be a true-crowd pleaser, though it's not likely that even many genre fans was really clamoring for the makers of art-house horror like "Goodnight Mommy", "The Lure", and "Berberian Sound Studio" to take on some of the world's more obscure folklore. It's still a worthy project, though, and may at least have people returning to favorite segments.

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