Mercy: Witchcraft, Possession, and Horror

Movie poster for MercyAfter seeing some reviews (some good, some less than positive) about Mercy, I decided to give it a shot. It’s possible that I’m in somewhat of a minority, but I typically like most Stephen King adaptations. (In fact, the TV adaptations are my favorite things to watch over the Christmas season.) Mercy is actually loosely based on a short story that King wrote called “Gramma,” which I somewhat remember from the collection in Skeleton Crew. The gist of the story is that a single mother and her two sons move back grandma’s house to take care of her after her health has failed. There have also been some problems at the nursing home, so they will need to care for grandma at home for the rest of her life, which no one thinks will really be that long. However, grandma — Mercy (Shirley Knight) — has some dark secrets in her past that quickly come to the surface.

The film is mainly from the viewpoint of the younger son, George (Chandler Riggs). He has always had a special relationship with his grandmother and is fine with moving back to take care of her, while his older brother definitely doesn’t agree. There’s also Uncle Lanning (Mark Duplass) who is not a fan of grandma, an unrepentant alcoholic, and basically not much use for anything but scaring the pants off of kids and depressing everyone. George’s mom, Rebecca (Frances O’Connor) is torn between flirting with her old high school flame, Jim Swann (Dylan McDermott), and focusing on doing her duty for her mother. And, it isn’t until a bit into the film that we realize that grandma hasn’t always been as nice to everyone else as she was to George. In fact, grandma was a real witch. I mean, she had a creepy spell book and everything. Oh, and there was a demon involved, too, which has apparently stuck around throughout the years. In short, George ends up having to deal with a lot more than just his grandmother’s death.

The film is beautifully shot. There are a lot of gorgeous shots of the countryside, which also serve to reinforce the remote location of grandma’s house. I was especially impressed by the dual horrors in the film. Regardless of demons and witchcraft, the natural process of aging and caring for an aging family member is shown from the viewpoint of George, a child, and it is extremely terrifying to see him witnessing the changes in someone he loves and struggling to figure out how to best cope.

Chandler Riggs in Mercy

In the more traditional horror aspects there is much to like here. For example, the idea of selling your soul is addressed, but instead of the traditional setup a different question is implied: What happens if you sell your soul to the devil but he doesn’t reclaim it all at once? We normally think of the payment coming due at the end of life, but what if it is instead a slow, creeping erosion over time? There is menace and dread in the way that the story plays out. There is some quick, shocking horror with an especially creative suicide by axe. There is a huge, spirit wolf creature that is lurking around waiting to grab a soul. And, there is the creepy imaginary friend that George talks to on occasion.

As far as horror films go, I would have to say that the ending was less satisfying for me than I would have hoped. However, I think that the film works, and that looking back on where the story originated and the character viewpoint, the ending makes sense. Overall, there is a good story here and I would definitely recommend giving this one a watch.

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Shocking and Violent, Kill List Delivers the Horror

Movie poster for Kill ListI’ve been seeing several people talk about Kill List online lately, so I added it to my list and finally ended up watching it last night. All the discussion of this film was definitely merited and I was immediately pulled in, almost seduced into watching until the brutal end. Be forewarned – this is not a film that you will ever forget.

PLEASE NOTE: I want to actually talk about some of what goes on in the film, so there are spoilers from here on.

I was at first thrown off by the pacing of the film. It starts a bit slow, at least if what you are expecting is horror. This film, though, is not your normal horror. The plot is centered around a hit man, Jay, whose last job didn’t go so well. He’s been “off work” for about 8 months and all the money from the previous job is gone. His hot Swedish wife, Shel, is losing it and there are a lot of screaming matches in the house because, no money and broken hot tub. The volume and intensity of these initial screaming matches are what drew me in. It’s a voyeuristic pull, for sure, because I immediately wanted to know what the hell was up. Through it all there is this 8-year-old boy that kind of wanders in and out and I watched several excellent performances of crazy mommy where Shel was sugar sweet to the child in one room and then proceeded to go into another room and rain down verbal terror on Jay.

Gal and Jay in Kill List

Eventually, the former partner, Gal,  shows up at the house for dinner, along with his slightly odd date. Gal’s trying to get Jay to do another job, there is a list of people to be killed. The dinner scene gets predictably ugly, then mellows, then gets ugly, etc. If you have ever been to an “adult” dinner party with individuals who have both alcohol and anger management issues then this will all be familiar fare. At the end of it all, Jay finally agrees to take the job, but not before Gal’s weird girlfriend scratches out a strange sigil on the back of the bathroom mirror.

From the start, it is clear that Gal is going to have to manage Jay’s barely controlled rage. There are several incidents that point to just how far Jay might go — from dealing with a declined credit card at the hotel front desk, to breaking up a Christian sing-along in the dining room that evening. Their meeting with the employer is definitely not what I would think is normal, even in these situations, since it involves Jay getting his palm slashed and bleeding everywhere. But, the deal is struck and Gal and Jay set out to start down their list.

The segments with each of the intended victims are preceded by a screen identifying who’s up next (The Priest, The Librarian, etc.). The Priest is dealt with first and it is slightly odd because he is so accepting of his fate. The next victim, The Librarian, turns out to be a child pornographer, and Jay snaps out on him inflicting several minutes of prolonged damage using a hammer, during which the victim continues to thank him for what he is doing. After a side trip to find the people responsible for actually filming the pornography (not on the list), and more brutalities inflicted on them, Jay starts having some psychological setbacks and takes a little break at home where Shel berates him for even thinking about reneging on the contract.

Gal and Jay end up checking in with the employer to see if maybe they can just kind of get out of the contract, but it appears that is not an option, or at least not an option that will allow them to come out of the situation alive. So, the two set out in search of the next victim, which requires them sneaking onto an estate through some old, stone tunnels and then running surveillance in the woods outside the house.

Image from Kill List

This is where the cult shows up and things start getting really freaking scary. Up until this point, the movie could pass for a thriller with a few odd tweaks (sigils and blood pacts), but now things change in a hurry and not for the better. I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say that it is horrific in a way that I don’t often see accomplished in film. It will shock you and leave you to think about this film for a very long time afterward.

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