03 October 2019

Colonial Horror Movies

Well before film, colonial horror was a
great setting in literature.

It’s that time of year again! The leaves are changing, the air is crisper, and my headphones are blaring the soundtrack to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! Yes indeed, Halloween will soon be with us. Meaning that I have a lot of catching up to do watching spooky movies. There is, however, a genre of movies I feel is criminally underrated and not seen enough in theatres: colonial horror. It's barely surprising so few films belong to this genre: when thinking about period horror movies, Victorian Gothic horror is what comes to most people's minds (for example, who can forget Guillermo del Toro's haunting Crimson Peak?). Heck, we owe most of our classic movie monsters to Gothic horror: Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, etc. Yet, colonial horror can be just as captivating. There's just something that ads to the creepy atmosphere when a movie is set in the colonial period. After all, wasn’t H.P. Lovecraft himself one to constantly hark back to colonial days in his stories? (Speaking of literature, may I digress a moment and also suggest Graeme Davis’s anthology Colonial Horrors?)

After perusing my personal collection as well as the Internet Movie Database, here are all the colonial horror movies I could identify, in no particular order and with the exception of a handful of extra Salem and Sleepy Hollow movies. From the corny to the truly scary, I'm hoping this list is exhaustive. And of course, as is to be expected, historical accuracy is rarely a priority in these movies. Now, if you know of any titles I've missed, please let me know! That said, please note I might have expanded this list by a tiny bit to include a few movies I just couldn’t bear not to share.


Movies I've Watched:


Le Poil de la Bête (A Hair Raising Tale) (2010)


 

It's 1665 and criminal Joseph Côté, escaping from prison, stumbles on the corpse of a dead Jesuit. Disguising himself in the priest's clothing, he befriends a handful of settlers in some rural parish. Unbeknownst to him, werewolves are prowling about and his new friends look up to him for protection, believing him to be the famous werewolf-killer priest.

This movie is by far one of my favourite guilty pleasures: it isn't high art, some of the costumes look rented on a budget, the effects are sometimes laughably bad, and the origins of the werewolves are... questionable. Yet all the actors clearly know what movie they're in and they're obviously having a ball. And oh boy, if you're into terrible puns, this is the movie for you, doggone it! Considering the rarity  of movies set in New France (and quality--who can forget the mindbogglingly terrible Nouvelle-France?), this movie is a fun period monster movie that doesn't take itself seriously at all but delivers at being perfectly entertaining in the "so bad, it's good" department.

(IMDb link here).

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

This film is so well known, do I even need to explain the story at this point? Louis is a Creole plantation owner who has lost his lust for life after the death of his wife and child. One night, he is accosted by the vampire Lestat who offers him the choice to begin a new life as a vampire himself.

One if not the most well-known vampire movie, Interview is the piece that started the craze of making films from the blood-sucker's point of view. However, the first half of the movie always captivates me in how well it represents colonial Louisiana. Moody, dramatic, and beautifully shot, if you haven't seen this film yet, well, you suck (pun intended). 

(IMDb link here).

Sleepy Hollow(s) (1949, 2009 & 2013-2017)

Not strictly colonial per say, the story is nonetheless set in the early years of the United States and so it does carry over colonial vibes. And who doesn't like the story of Washington Irving's Headless Horseman? The two most well known cinematic versions of his book are the 1949 Disney animated feature and Tim Burton's 1999 total reimagining. 

The Disney animation is fairly faithful to the original tale of a schoolmaster frightened out of the town of Sleepy Hollow by his rival who, competing for the love of the daughter of a wealthy local, pranked him into believing the stories of a headless horseman. This adaptation gets bonus points for the narration by Bing Crosby. Also, be warned, if you're looking for the DVD, the feature is technically called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and features another animated short which, let's be honest, we all skip to get to the good stuff.

Burton's movie is a crazy blood-spattered ode to old Hammer films. That is, the story barely resembles the source material and revels in fun, over the top horror. In this version, Ichabod Crane is not a school teacher but rather a detective come to town to solve a series of murders. Little does he suspect that the supernatural is afoot...

Finally, the 2013 TV series has even less to do with the original tale, where Ichabod is an agent of the American Revolution who must travel to modern-day Sleepy Hollow to stop the Headless Horseman who happens to be... one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse! Say what you will about the changes, but seing the Headless Horseman wield a machine gun in the pilot episode was pretty badass. Beyond the overarching narrative of the race to stop the end of the world, the series often follows a monster-of-the-week format that should please anyone who is into supernatural creature-features. I've only seen the first season so far, and so far so good.

(IMDb link here, here and here.)

The Witch (2015)

In my entire list, this is my favourite movie. To quote my previous review of this film, "Directed by Robert Eggers, The VVitch takes place in the early 17th century in the vicinity of an unnamed English colony (Jamestown? Plymouth? Take your pick). The story centers on a puritan family that decides to leave their town to strike out on their own in the wilderness. Headed by patriarch William, they settle in, believing they are following God’s will. Soon, however, something seems amiss... the cumulating crop failures, hunting accidents, and strange goings-on lead them to believe they are cursed by God... or is it something more sinister? Indeed, as each family member starts believing a witch is the cause of their woes, accusations run amok..."

For anyone interested in reading my in-depth, spoiler-free review, you can find it here. For our purposes in this list, suffice to quote this passage: "What makes this movie a true gem however is the care invested in establishing the historical setting. I can never hope to do a better historical commentary on this movie than Alexandra Montgomery’s review, Discovering Witches, over at the Junto. But, I will repeat what is being said all over the media: the main strength of this film is the director’s obsession with historical accuracy. The viewer’s anxiety and dread, as well as the efficacy of the witch as a terrifying antagonist, all depend on this fact and its resulting atmosphere oozing with superstition, fear, loneliness, and the unknown."

(IMDb link here)

The Crucible (1996)

Based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller, the movie is a highly fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials of 1692. The movie is less an exploration of the history of the event rather than an exploration of how paranoia can disintegrate communal ties.

Originally written as an allegory for McCarthyism, the movie still stands as proof that horror doesn't always require the supernatural... 

(IMDb link here)

Le pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf) (2001)

I love hating this movie just as much as I hate loving it. This film is a full-fledged tricorne-wearing fantastical romp in crazy land:
  • Kung-fu wielding Iroquois? Check.
  • Matrix-style slo-mo action? Check.
  • A scantily-clad sexy Monica Bellucci? Check.
  • An awesome soundtrack by Joseph LoDuca? Check.
  • A crazy cool monster created by Jim Henson's creature shop? Double check.
The movie is (very) loosely based on the so-called Beast of Gévaudan's reign of terror between 1764-1767. The story follows Grégoire de Fronsac, the King's naturalist, recently back from New France. He is travelling with his Indigenous friend, Mani, to the French province of Gévaudan in hopes of solving the case of the mysterious savage killings of local peasants. The local authorities blame the deaths on a monstrous beast, meanwhile Fronsac, ever a man of the Enlightenment, is far from sharing their opinion...

I include this title in this list because of the loose (mostly factually incorrect) references to colonial history brought about by the two main characters. Speaking of which, the movie has no pretenses to accuracy whatsoever and 18th century stereotypes abound (so Historians be warned, please check your brains at the door). Nonetheless, the movie remains a fascinating mish-mash of so-bad-it's-good fun with honest, good film-making nonetheless sprinkled about. Think of it as an artsy, high-concept B-movie.

(IMDb link here)

Dark Shadows (2012)

Of course only Tim Burton could pull off having another movie on this list. For having spurned the love of witch Angélique Bouchard, Barnabas Collins is turned into a vampire and then buried alive. Centuries later, he is accidentally released in 1972 to discover his descendants are struggling with the family canning company. Despite being a vampire, Barnabas helps his dysfunctional family regain its former glory all the while running into a former foe...

Tenuously included in this list because the introduction is set in colonial Maine. Also, an extra point for Angélique Bouchard being, I presume, French-Canadian (a nice wink to neighbouring New France). More of a comedy and homage to the original TV series, the movie does suffer a lackluster second half that doesn't live up to the better crafted first half of the movie.

I give this movie 3 Johnny Depps out of 5.

(IMDb link here)

Hocus Pocus (1993)

In 1690s Salem, the Sanderson sisters are executed for using witchcraft to steal the youth from the village children. Three hundred years later, on Halloween night, Max Dennison unwittingly brings back the sisters from beyond the grave after lighting a magical candle. It's now up to Max, his little sister Dani, love-interest Allison, and talking black cat Thackary Binx to stop the Sanderson's sisters from putting a spell on the local children once more. 

This movie is my second guilty pleasure in this list. Yes, I know, I know, it's not "horror", per say, unless you count how obsessed this movie is with virginity. Infamously popular nowadays, it seems cliché to highlight just how much this movie is a delight. However, if you haven't seen this picture yet, let me share this anecdote: A few years ago, we were a few friends (historians, archaeologists, and history enthusiasts) gathered to watch the movie out of nostalgia. Obviously no one expected any historical accuracy from a Disney movie. Yet imagine our surprise when in the one scene where people would be expected to be wearing silly colonial costumes at a Halloween party, our jaws dropped to the floor over how perfect they were. Turns out, for the scene where Max and Dani meet up with Allison, the costumes were apparently recycled from 1988's Dangerous Liaisons. Shout out to Marie-Hélaine over at Mlle Canadienne for the trivia!

Bonus: Doug Jones delights in one of his earlier roles as zombie Billy Butcherson.

Double bonus: As soon as I see a leaf turn colour in late August, the soundtrack is my work jam.

(IMDb link here)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)


Do I even bother explaining the plot? Pirates are hunting for treasure. In a twist, they're returning the treasure where they found it. Second twist: they're undead. Nuff said. 

Why the heck am I including this blockbuster in this list? Well, come on: Undead. Freaking. Pirates. Even though the franchise has overstayed its welcome long ago, we must still admire how unlikely it is that a movie like this was ever made in the first place. By the way, if you have 20 minutes to spare, swing over to Lindsay Ellis' channel and check out her amazing exploration of this very question. We also tend to forget how this movie was an amazing blend of swashbuckling action and spooky ghost story. To this day, I still get chills from Geoffrey Rush's telling of his captain's plight.

I give this movie 5 Johnny Depps out of 5.

(IMDb link here)

Ravenous (1999)

Second Lieutenant John Boyd is sent to winter in a remote outpost of the American army at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. A veteran of the Mexican-American War, Boyd is struggling with... something... inside him. Barely arrived among the handful of other military rejects, he must join a rescue party to save what is left of a group of settlers possibly cannibalizing each other. Little does Boyd know he'll soon have more than his inner demons to fight with...

I'm sneaking this movie into the "colonial horror" genre because though technically taking place in the 19th century, the story's setting is when the United States were colonizing the west. I'm also using the shoe-horn argument that I can't think of any movie taking place during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), a period that also deserves a bit more love. And, final argument, this movie has a special place in my heart and I try to promote it anytime I can. The first time I've ever watched this movie, my girlfriend bluntly said during the credits: "What the hell was that, and why did I love it?". Indeed, the movie defies classification: Is it horror or is it comedy? Is it action or is it drama? Is it a weird allegory where cannibalism stands in for Manifest Destiny? Who knows. This movie tightropes over so many genres that it doesn't fit anywhere and yet fits everywhere. Though it flopped at the box office, it's gained a cult following, even being recently released on Blu-ray. People who love this movie love it a lot. This must be gratifying for the crew considering the hell they went through filming this movie in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Mexico. Production was so troubled by studio meddling that director Antonia Bird was technically the third director hired on this movie! Yet, despite the hang-ups during filming and bad reception, we end up with a terrific, strange little gem of a movie. I didn't want to spoil much of the plot, suffice to say it is also infused with the legend of the Windigo, a figure of Algonquian oral culture. Cinema has since dragged the Windigo too far from its original roots in the fear of cannibalism and has turned it into a generic movie monster. [Edit: coincidentally, a few days after writing this review, I stumbled on this amazing breakdown of the Windigo legend.] Asides that, Guy Pierce is terrific as the cowardly Boyd, and Robert Carlyle is mesmerizing as Colqhoun. On a final note, the soundtrack by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn is like nothing you've ever heard. Give this one a good watch, and hopefully you'll be hungry for more...



(IMDb link here)


Movies I Haven't Seen Yet

Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke/Wraiths of Roanoke (2007)

Quoting IMDB: "In the 1580's English colonists arrive in what was to become North Carolina and find supernatural terror."

You know your movie is top notch quality when you can't even settle on a title *sarcasm*. I'm dying to see how bad this movie is (no pun intended). But based on the trailer, it doesn't bode well... Here's to hoping it's in the so-bad-it's-good category.

(IMDb link here)


Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)

The Fitzgerald sisters arrive at a remote trading post run by the Hudson's Bay, besieged by werewolves.

This is the second movie on this list to feature werewolves. A sequel to the original 2000 Ginger Snaps, the movie inexplicably has the same main characters but in a colonial setting. Can't wait to get my claws on this one and see how bad/good it is.

(IMDb link here)


Eyes of fire (1983)


Quoting IMDb once more: "A preacher is accused of adultery, and he and his followers are chased out of town. They become stranded in an isolated forest, which is haunted by the spirits of long dead Native Americans."

Can't say I've ever heard of this movie. But watching the trailer, it looks hilariously bad. And I would be remiss if I didn't point out that this movie seems to inject steroids into the Indian burial ground trope common in the 1980s.

UPDATE: I watched it and wrote a review! Read it here.

Bonus

Just like after a hefty meal, perhaps you need a little something sweet after all these movies. I present to you 1985's Garfield's Halloween Adventure, where Garfield faces off against ghost pirates. Folks, my love for Halloween movies would not exist without this gem from my childhood. To this day, I'm convinced I don't simply have a nostalgic sweet spot for this special but that's it's honestly the next best cartoon Halloween special after It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! The music is great, the jokes actually hit the mark, and dare I say, those pirates actually are creepier than many horror movies today, thanks in large part to C. Lindsay Workman's vocal performance as the Old Man. Truth be told, the only movie this short reminds me of is John Carpenter's The Fog, both sharing a maritime ghost story vibe. On that note, Happy Halloween to you all!


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