Movies like Archons, In the Earth, Pines, and Psycho Goreman reflect these damnable times
Written and Directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj, Cinematography by Cameron Tremblay
Starring Josh Collins, Rob Raco, Samantha Carly, Parmiss Sehat
The first film on this list is a bit of a cheat, considering it was initially premiered in The Before Times, way back in 2018, and didn’t see wider release until 2020. But since 2016, time has reverted to a nonlinear state—or our social model has frozen it in stasis, depending on your own point of view—and I only discovered it in the last few months. It is a follow-up to the excellent Black Mountain Side, which is equal parts low-budget The Thing and early Laird Barron, and is absolutely worth your time.
In Archons, alternative rock group Sled Dog is on the verge of a personal and professional breakup years after its only major hit record. As a last-ditch effort to reclaim their inspiration, they head into the Canadian wilderness on a canoe trip with a bag of strange psychedelics. This setup is the quintessential “drugs invite supernatural horror” motif which is and always will be catnip for someone like me.
What makes the film interesting are the matter-of-fact, nonsensical high strange events that begin to increase in frequency and intensity as the band moves deeper into the forest. Gorgeous landscape shots help to situate the proceedings in a context of beauty, wonder, and paranoia. Many of us have turned to outdoor activities as a way to escape the uncertainty of pandemic infection, seeking refuge in nature, far from people. The spiritual and personal crises of the band reflects this impulse, but the dishonesty and lack of communication at the heart of the journey’s true purpose inevitably leads to tragedy.
It is worth noting that this is a very low-budget production, and the film asks you to take several things seriously that won’t land for all audiences. The primary antagonists in this film are actors in rubber monster suits that look like incomplete special effects prototypes, and several of the shots featuring these creatures are in simple shots with good lighting, which does not do the costumes any favors. This did not, however, bother me in the slightest, as the film treating the presence of these creatures as something that it never intended to truly hide is a risk that I feel pays off in terms of establishing an unreality to the proceedings. These weird alien-monster things are out in the woods, messing with the campsite, killing people, messing with time—okay, weird. Want to keep going? Yeah, of course I do.
The creatures—the film tips its hand by the title Archons—grab people from the trees and somehow are related to a few remarkable, Alien-esque gore effects that are used sparingly but to great effect. Many of the film’s high strange events go unexplained but are somehow connected to the machinations of these non-human intelligences. There’s an implication of design behind the bizarre, off-kilter horrors that unfold, but the motives of the titular archons are well beyond human (and audience) understanding. The theme of the powerful having the ability to prevent pain, suffering, and death but choose not to for their own inscrutable, selfish ends is more relevant than ever.
By the end of the film, the context expands a bit, and time itself is recontextualized. The ending is initially baffling but does make a strange sort of non-sense in retrospect, inspiring repeat viewings for those who, like myself, don’t mind the low-budget cheesiness of people in costumes terrorizing campers. I suspect the history of our own period will be likewise hard to categorize and define, considering the myriad, preventable horrors that will make a bleak sort of sense only in retrospect.
In the Earth (2021)
Directed by Ben Wheatley, Cinematography by Nick Gillespie
Starring Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires
A synthesis of Kneale’s The Stone Tape and Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wheatley’s return to full-on horror is one of his strongest films yet. The movie opens with a scientist seeking to connect with a former research partner (who is also, incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, a former lover) who has been working deep within an ancient forest in the UK on a possible solution to an unspecified global pandemic.
Much like in Archons, the forest is an oppressive, omnipresent force. The opening scenes showcase a ritualistic decontamination of the protagonist. One gets the impression that he is entering a holy place, and must be made pure before entering the temple.
This idea is only amplified by the plot’s explicit theme of searching for solutions to our present civilizational and technological crises in the church of the natural. The film is, after a fashion, literally about hoping for a god to emerge to save us from the self-imposed calamities of our global economic system. As the scientist and his park ranger guide head deeper into the forest, however, what they discover instead are competing religious-ideological frameworks on how to encounter the divine and beg for salvation. It is this conflict—diametrically opposed human beliefs, not the pandemic or even the presence within the woods—that drives the intense physical and existential horrors of the film.
I’ve spoken to several people who don’t understand the ending, and the best explanation I can offer is that it is a Saul on the road to Damascus moment. Incomprehensible in scale and terror; life-changing and soul-frying in effect. Saul become Paul, who built an empire with an awfully mixed track record.
What horrors might these new prophets usher in?
Pines (aka The Gnashing) (2021)
Starring and Directed by Una Blade, starring Ronnie Gene Blevins, Michael Parks
Claire, an end of life caregiver, enters into a literal and figurative underworld in pursuit of her boyfriend Jack, who has made a terrible bargain with dark forces. It is clear from the outset that Jack and Claire have made some pretty bad choices—Jack’s association with menacing criminals and powers beyond; Claire for following Jack into this self-made hell.
The film is comparable to Wheatley’s Kill List and the rural crime drama Winter’s Bone, but at a much smaller scale. The actors with speaking roles are all excellent, especially the late Michael Parks, whose reflections on youth, age, life, and death represent the film’s melancholy humanity laid bare. Claire hears his confessions and encouragements as we do, a vibrant foil for an encroaching and inevitable death. The scenes with the dying patient intercut the journey into darkness Claire takes in pursuit of Jack, providing a mix of hope and despair to punctuate the tightening tension of the physical and spiritual dangers our foolhardy heroine encounters.
Much of the film takes place in heavily forested, rural, found-settings like abandoned institutional buildings, a sketchy motel, and houses collapsing under the effects of deindustrialization and free trade on the working class of North America. There’s a bitterness of soul in the main characters and a hopelessness in the faces of those who float in the periphery. These are people, young and old, robbed of a future, abandoned to the slow decay of lost opportunity.
I jokingly called this “the Rust Belt, the movie” and while I don’t know where it was filmed—details are very hard to come by—it can stand in for pretty much any post-industrial or post-NAFTA community ravaged by the whims of global finance. The jobs are gone, the fields and factories are fallow, the rural hospitals are shuttered. No wonder the locals turned to devil worship.
Abandoned, wire-stripped buildings are juxtaposed with lavish, satanic altars forged in the raw materials of the woods and human bodies: the former are dead and devoid of promise and utility; the latter are alive and vibrant, full of untapped potential and power.
Claire’s journey into this closed-off, isolated underworld is one of tension and nonlinear experience, full of violence and the impending arrival of worse. The demonic force implied by the proceedings is merely a secondary villain to the economic and cultural forces wreaking havoc on a community of people robbed of hope a generation or more ago.
The devil didn’t need to steal anyone’s soul here. These people were left for dead long before they turned to building altars of bone and making secret pacts with the dark spirits of the forest.
(Note: This film does not appear to have a physical release, but is, at the time of this article, on Tubi and Prime.)
Psycho Goreman (2020)
Written and Directed by Steven Kostanski, Cinematography by Andrew Appelle
Starring Nita-Josee Hanna, Owen Myre, Matthew Ninaber, Steven Vlahos, Adam Brooks
Created in part by Astron-6 alumni, who created the greatest giallo film ever made in The Editor, this film carries on their tradition of producing the most unhinged, scattershot, bafflingly bad-taste films possible. The film has a plot, technically, which concerns an evil space warlord being bound to the will of a sociopathic little girl because she possesses a magical gem, but the film is more of an excuse to parade a series of bizarre, gore-filled set pieces of madcap violence and absurdist toilet humor. Whereas Kostanski’s previous effort The Void is a near-perfect cosmic horror film of escalating terror, Psycho Goreman is its neon-bright opposite.
On its surface, Psycho Goreman lacks any sophistication whatsoever, but it is in its attendant interest in undercutting the resurgent Amblin / Stranger Things-style of kids-on-bikes adventure setup by parading a series of alternatingly grotesque and goofy (often both at the same time) effects and scenes that the film finds its own postmodern identity. The movie manages to look both cheap and lovingly crafted, a mix of colorful and highly detailed monster and alien costumes contrasted against garish special effects that communicate the inherent silliness of the proceedings while also being visually compelling in the grossest way possible.
There are dozens of brilliant one-off jokes and subplots that amount to nothing more than fun imagery or stupefying gags, all wrapped around the motif of a family learning to accept and love one another despite their contemporary alienation. Not every joke or setup works, but the performances of the main cast are just earnest enough in the most absurd situations possible that the film, despite its mask of inherent stupidity, never succumbs to the pitfall of Marvel-esque self-irony that cripples so much pop-art today. The film is gleefully dumb and in poor taste, all the time, every time, much to its benefit.
I have to emphasize: the film’s nominal themes do not actually pay off, as the family conflict-slash-alien-warlord-learns-to-love theme is completely undercut by the film’s purposefully nihilistic resolution. Nobody really learns anything. There’s just blood and horror ahead, with the illusion of having learned some abstract personal lesson to justify the escalating psychedelic madness. Or something. It doesn’t matter. Psycho Goreman will continue his reign of terror, the world will end, and what happiness or meager survival we manage to sift from the bloody carnage is temporary before reaching our own gore-explosion-finale.
I can think of no greater takeaway from the terrors, institutional breakdown, and mass death of our present historical moment. I love this movie because it makes me feel like I’m not alone in seeing and experiencing the madness of our world as a terrifying and deeply comedic farce, set in motion and perpetuated by forces that have no regard for human life. See Psycho Goreman immediately.
Jonathan Raab is the author of The Secret Goatman Spookshow and Other Psychological Warfare Operations, Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and more. His latest novel, The Haunting of Camp Winter Falcon, will be available this summer.