‘Queer Horror’ preview: season of the witch

Halloween installment in Hollywood Theatre's film series celebrates the infernal feminine


The witches are coming. No longer are they meeting just in thunder, lightning, or in rain, dancing at the Sabbat’s fire and clothed only by its flickering glow. No longer do they tap their claws against bedroom windows hungry for a feast, tethered to the pagan holidays of old or the worship of Yahweh’s prosecutor-turned-nemesis. Witches today emerge from the dirt and the swamps, from your schools and grocery stores and homes; no longer green and hooknosed, they approach in all shapes, sizes, and colors. From Lady Gaga’s sorceress in American Horror Story to Kristen J. Sollee’s sociological text Witches, Sluts, and Feminists and a whole canon of modern women-centric horror films, the witches are here, and they are legion.

Lady Gaga in ‘American Horror Story.’

These witches aren’t exactly the “perfect love and perfect trust” neopagans who combine ceremonial magic with New Age appropriations like smudging while protesting “negative” stereotypes of witches. No, these are satanic feminist witches – and yet not entirely capital-S Satanists, either. Just as the horror genre is experiencing a retro-throwback in media like ItIt Followsand Stranger Things, so too is witchcraft – the satanic feminist earth witch is a resurrection of the classic witch-used-against-women, the haggard crone thrown to the fire and dropped from the gallows.

W.I.T.C.H. PDX at the PDX Women’s March. Photo: Leigh Richards.

The witches are even making their way to Portland, and they’re ready for justice. Recently the whitest city in America has been treated to pop-up rituals and protests by W.I.T.C.H. (or the Witches’ International Troublemaker Conspiracy from Hell), itself a reboot of a 1960s feminist protest group of the same name. First appearing at the Portland Women’s March in January, Portland’s W.I.T.C.H. chapter has spawned a resurgence of similar covens across the country, all acting anonymously and championing an intersectional feminist code of protest from behind black veils. And on October 27, Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and its bimonthly program Queer Horror will launch a short-film festival of satanic feminist films as a Halloween tribute to these wild women and a new order of witchcraft.


The best Halloween film fright: the Iranian-set chiller “Under the Shadow”

A supernatural menace loose in war-torn 1980s Tehran might be the scariest thing on theater screens this weekend

When they’re good, horror movies can be, pardon the phrase, scary good. The problem is sorting out the wheat from the chaff. They’re easy to make—just set a gaggle of hapless, horny teens loose in a spooky forest or abandoned house and you’re pretty much set. But they’re extremely hard to make well, and, to be honest, horror audiences sometimes aren’t the most discriminating of fans.

That’s why it’s helpful each year when Halloween comes around and cinema screens are awash in bloody (or just merely creepy) revivals. These titles are time-tested and fright-fan approved, and almost always more fun when seen with an appreciative crowd. Before we get to those, though, I want to spotlight what might be the best horror movie of 2016 (and, no, it’s not “Oujia: Origin of Evil,” although to be honest I haven’t seen “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and can’t imagine I will, so who knows…)

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in "Under the Shadow"

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in “Under the Shadow”

It’s called “Under the Shadow,” which, granted, is a pretty generic horror movie title. But nothing else about director Babak Anvari’s debut feature, which opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters, conforms to expectations. The movie is set in Tehran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. In an early scene, a woman named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) learns that, because of left-wing political activity during the Iranian Revolution, she will never be allowed to finish medical school. Back home, a frustrated Shideh spars with her husband and demonstrates impatience with her young daughter Dorsa.

When Shideh’s husband, a doctor, is called up for military service, he orders her to take Dorsa and flee the city, which is under frequent Iraqi missile attack. Fed up with being told what to do by men, she stays in their apartment, which is soon struck by a rocket and damaged.

That’s when things get interesting. Dorsa’s beloved doll goes missing, as does Shideh’s samizdat Jane Fonda workout videotape. The child blames invisible creatures she calls ‘djinn,’ and from here on out the movie shares some DNA with the 2014 Australian film “The Babadook.” Mom tries to figure out whether the kid is making stuff up, hallucinating, or actually engaging with some sort of supernatural badness. Things get creepier and more claustrophobic—the stultifying apartment block and perpetually cracked ceiling recall Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.”

By combining horror movie tropes with an explicit criticism of the repressive regime, Anvari makes you wonder exactly what the titular shadow is that Shideh must live under. (The film is actually a British-led multinational co-production, and was filmed in Jordan, since there’s no way the Iranian government would allow it to be shot in Tehran.) Anvari also makes excellent use of minimal special effects, imbuing duct tape and even a seemingly ordinary bed sheet with auras of real menace.

But back to those revivals. Tops on the list would be “Eraserhead,” David Lynch’s nightmarish ode to impending fatherhood and radiators. One wonders what his daughter Jennifer thinks of it. It’s screening in 35mm at the Northwest Film Center on Friday, October 28th. If one wanted to make a full weekend of frightful flicks, one might then return to the Whitsell Auditorium the following night for the classic 1962 ghost story “The Innocents,” which stars Deborah Kerr in an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turning of the Screw.” On Sunday (and Saturday, in fact), the Hollywood Theatre has “Rosemary’s Baby” in 35mm, which makes a nice parental-anxiety bookend with “Eraserhead” if you think about it.

The most intriguing Halloween booking, though, comes on the night itself, as the Hollywood shows the 1981 Canadian B-movie “The Pit.” Having only seen the trailer for this one, I can say that it’s about a 12-year-old boy whose teddy bear commands him commit murders by tossing innocent people (including an old lady) into a monster-filled hole in the middle of the forest. It’s been accurately described as being shot like an after-school special, and appears to allow its juvenile protagonist to indulge in some pretty distasteful behavior, like trying to seduce his attractive babysitter.

If those choices aren’t sufficient, there’s always John Carpenter’s “Halloween” at the Academy Theater, the Swedish kid-vampire classic “Let the Right One In” at the Laurelhurst Theater, the 1982 version of “Cat People” with Malcolm McDowell and Natassja Kinski at PSU’s 5th Avenue Cinema, or the silent Lon Chaney version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” with live organ accompaniment, on Saturday afternoon at the Hollywood.

And if all that isn’t enough to send chills up your spine, next week is the election!

An ‘Out There’ Halloween for the intrepid

Three Halloween performance pop-ups worth haunting

Readers of our partner mag Artslandia may or may not remember a sporadic feature called “Out There,” dedicated to broadening the search for performing arts beyond the music/dance/theater companies you already know and enjoy.

Well, we figure Halloween is as good a time as any to resume—or exhume?—this approach and start poking around the seasonally-themed fringes for a wild time. Here are three events that involve various forms of performance, from graveyard wandering to Burtonesque magic-making.


“Manos” Rises from its B-Movie Grave

How a brand-new local theater company is helping to revive an awesomely terrible 60's cult thriller.

Paul Glazier (background) and Brian Koch (foreground) star in a 60's cult classic exhumed for the stage.

Paul Glazier (background) and Brian Koch (foreground) star in a 60’s cult classic exhumed for the stage.

My first experience with “Manos: The Hands of Fate” was at a Halloween house party, where a few friends of friends (including crew from “Portlandia”) clustered excitedly to watch their favorite obscure 60’s horror film, in which an eccentric undead warlock kidnaps a young family in the desert with plans to dispose of the father and add the mother to his hypnotized, scantily-clad harem of “wives.” As this hokey film played, errors (and my companions’ laughter) abounded. The dramatic timing was terrible. The cuts were abrupt, the characters’ actions implausible. The women in the film spoke in ill-synced voice-overs. They sleepwalked and slap-fought. But the costumes? The costumes were kind of amazing. Lead antagonist “The Master,” skinny and pale with piercing eyes and a striking black mustache, wore a black-widowish black-and-crimson cloak, unfurling it at a climactic moment to fully reveal its pattern: a giant pair of blood-red hands. “Oh my GOD,” several agreed. “That would make the best Halloween costume EVER.”

Since its re-emergence from “a grab-bag of public domain beta tapes,” Manos has steadily amassed a cult following as the perfect B-movie, full of comical mediocrity, psycho-sexual titillation and—by far most importantly—unique, unforgettable iconography. Say what you will about the film, “The Master”‘s got mad style. Last summer, puppet adaptation “Manos: The Hands of Felt” premiered in Seattle. Los Angeles digital film restorer Ben Solovey recently raised 48k on Kickstarter to clean the film and re-release it. And last  Thursday, a stage version of “Manos” resurfaced in Portland at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, thanks to the efforts of Blitzen Trapper drummer and theater director Brian Koch, who played one of the lead roles.

Jackey Raye Neyman Jones, who played “Manos”‘s sole child role, said Friday that she “always thought of it as a family movie”—natural enough since her dad Tom Neyman was the art director, costume designer, set designer and star, but very odd considering the spooky adult subject matter. Now living in Salem, Jones had given up searching for the 1966 film when she happened to flip to Comedy Central in 1993 to find it being screened with new commentary as the butt of a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” joke. “I called Comedy Central and said, ‘Where did you find that film? I’m in that film!’ They said, ‘No way! Are you Debbie? [her character] That’s our favorite movie!’ They were as excited as I was. They sent me a copy.”


Manos star and mastermind Tom Neyman made this painting of his character as a prop for the original film. One of his works is rumored to have resurfaced without his consent in Rod Serling’s subsequent TV show “The Night Gallery.”

Still sentimental about the El Paso-shot film that captured “the best summer of [her] life,” Jones was delighted to join the IFCC production, providing live offstage voice-overs for her original character Debbie. It’s an oddly appropriate role reversal, since her child character’s voice-over was originally dubbed in by a middle-aged woman. In a post-show talkback last Friday, she recounted how her father, an El Paso community theater director, had poured his soul into the movie, creating all the bizarre-yet-unforgettable “hand” art with—well—his own two hands. On Saturday, Solovey was set to deliver a copy of “Manos” to its Master—now in his 70’s—who hadn’t watched the darned thing in more than 40 years. Neyman may as well reacquaint himself with his orphaned brain-child, while a slew of trick-or-treaters  immortalize his signature poncho.

The IFCC play, presented by brand-new theater company Capital I Productions, is goofy in some of the same ways as “Troll 2: The Musical”—unsurprising since female lead Jade Harris co-wrote that production. Most of the laughs come from variations on the same joke—a spoof of stilted acting replete with unnatural pauses and awkward movements—but other campy gags include cardboard set elements and cross-dressed goddesses. In a particularly whimsical device, a stationary cardboard car is depicted as “moving” by actors in cactus suits running past it.

Koch, who plays The Master’s sweaty goat-footed minion Torgo, hams his character’s perviness to the hilt, occasionally collapsing into, if you will, “Torgasms” while peeping on the leading lady or The Master’s wives. Meanwhile, a live band of the producer’s esteemed Portland music friends (Viva Voce’s Kevin Robinson, Parson Redheads’ Charlie Hester, and Blitzen’s Eric Earley) breezily accompanies the show. The best conceptual boon to the widely-acknowledged-as-wobbly storyline are Capital I’s pre-filmed prologue and epilogue, which not only provide a back-story for the tragic Torgo but hilariously reframe the other characters in modern TV formats a lá “Where Are They Now” and “To Catch a Predator.”

Paul Glazier as The Master is the ultimate uncrackable straight-man amid the wacky hijinks, flaring his cape forebodingly and savoring his lines poetry-slam style. “Arise, My Wives!” he commands. And with his incantation, a long-dormant story springs back to life.

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