HOLY TERRORS: An Uneven Anthology That Would Work Better In Another Form
At times mysterious and intoxicating, Holy Terrors is an above average supernatural horror anthology - but it most definitely has its flaws.
Mark Goodall and Julien Butler’s supernatural horror anthology, Holy Terrors, adapts the work of famed Welsh writer Arthur Machen, in an attempt to bring his acclaimed ghostly stories to a new audience. His early 1900s material proves to be effective even today, with Goodall and Butler assembling a generally solid but largely uneven selection of chilling tales for our enjoyment.
Consisting of six stories (The Cosy Room, The White Powder, The Bowmen, The Ritual, The Happy Children and Midsummer), the film is broken down into numbered chapters, each narrated and playing out against stunning black-and-white visuals. Like pretty much every anthology you have ever laid eyes on, Holy Terrors suffers from a staggering range in quality, with clear highlights and pace-hindering low-points. Through the ebbs and flow, Goodall and Butler assert their talent but sometimes struggle to ensure it remains an engaging, potent piece of cinema.
Holy Terrors, flawed in its design, feels monotonous at times. The combination of narration and two-tone (admittedly gorgeous and grainy) visuals initially set a suitably eerie, almost gothic atmosphere that looms effectively; unfortunately though, it eventually wears a little thin, working to the film’s detriment. We get a burst of colour in the final stretch – a pleasant, welcomed surprise. While each story leads you down a slightly different route, I’m unsure as to whether it covers enough ground to sustain even its slim 75 minute runtime; it lacks tonal and visual variation, in short.
Holy Terror’s refusal to stray from this stylistic amalgamation results in dwindling engagement levels over time; it gives you the impression that, should these stories have been released on their own terms (rather than as a collective), you would find much more enjoyment in their singularity. Being able to dip in and out of the stories, like a series of Black Mirror for instances, would benefit the pace and momentum, and your general engagement in the adaptations, tremendously. It’s both too much and too little all at once in its current form.
Judging by the director’s IMDB pages, the shorter form is something Goodall and Butler has dabbled in previously: having seen such promise in their work here, I may go back and check out their previous attempts, to see if my theory stands up.
Highs and lows
Because I personally do not feel that the piece should be operating as one whole in its current format, I will attempt to break down each chapter, so we can explore them with a stronger insight.
Holy Terrors‘ opening, The Cosy Room, starts the feature-length on poor footing. Any atmospheric development is hindered by a loud, overpowering score that dilutes the tension and suspense. It feels very amateur in its execution, from its performances to odd framing devices, like a haphazard student film consisting of first-takes and the first actors they can find to sell a story they don’t really believe in. The lazy scene transitions and weak connectivity tissues weaken the impact, capped-off with a bizarre chess sequence that renders our first impression of Holy Terrors somewhat sour.
Thankfully, that misstep is rectified with the impressive The White Powder: easily the strongest, and longest, of the six stories. The dual directors craft an intoxicating atmosphere and intensity that pervades throughout the film’s second installment expertly. It tells the story of a woman whose brother begins to display worrying symptoms after changing prescriptions; it dials up the intensity bit by bit, masterfully, until it reaches almost excruciating levels of suspense, propelling us towards a powerful ending that stands up to the hard work and effort that came before it. It contains some of the most well-tuned performances and sharpest visuals of the bunch, wrapping it all up in one polished, impressive product. On its own, it would be something to rave about.
After the severe case of whiplash caused by the change in quality over the first two chapters, two more middling, arguably forgettable chapters follow – The Bowmen and The Ritual are largely fine, if uninspired work. The former in particular incorporates grainy archive footage, using war as a backdrop to the tale in a rather sophisticated way. More than being of the supernatural, The Bowmen leaves audiences feeling uneasy in the moment, but it doesn’t really stay with you; similarly The Ritual does most things right without leaving too much of an impact, and with little to take away from it.
The Happy Children uses its dimly-lit alleys and strong imagery to deliver an effective chapter, transitioning well into the film’s final, lighter piece, Midsummer – an invigorating pace. They both convey an alluring vibe, pulling you into the curious story and themes of the piece, ending the film on a stronger note than it begins. Machen poetic language is captivating and particularly beautiful in The Happy Children, with Goodall and Butler’s use of colour in Midsummer a lovely flourish, if slightly too late-in-the-game.
Holy Terrors: In Conclusion
Holy Terrors is so uneven that it’s difficult to cultivate an overall consensus on it. Thanks to Machen’s skilled, supposedly unaltered passages, and Goodall and Butler’s dedication and commitment to bring his work to a new audience, Holy Terrors is an above average supernatural horror anthology – but it most definitely has its flaws. At times mysterious and intoxicating, at other tiresome and monotonous, it has its obvious strengths and weakness, jarring in its quality, if not in its content.
Holy Terrors features some promising work from the two directors and showcases Machen acclaimed stories enthusiastically, although it doesn’t convince me that film is the right platform to deliver them through. The all-important momentum is interrupted by the collection’s general ebbs and flow, disrupting the power of the piece on the whole and meaning it does not coalesce in an overly satisfying manner – but moments shine and certainly impress, with some terrific examples of film-making contained within.
It has given me a motivation to delve further into Machen’s work, so perhaps that means this exercise is a success? While I cannot boast that sentiment with too much excitement or conviction, it’s refreshing and inspiring to see a film made out of genuine love, rather than care for profit or career advancement.
What is your favourite horror anthology? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Holy Terrors is screening intermittently around the UK. For all international release dates, see here.
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