Cruel Peter (2020)

Surfing TubiTV’s digital library is a byte-shoot on the digital felts of the cloud. Most times you stream 2, 3 and 12s; but sometimes you’ll upload 7s and 11s. If one exhibits patience—and cross-references with the IMBb—they’ll 7 and 11 well-made overseas films that, in the horror oeuvres, are on equal with any of the U.S. domestics from the commercial A24 and Blumhouse slots. And many of these under-the-felts streaming cherries come courtesy of the industry’s leading indie-film streaming purveyor Wild Eye Entertainment (along with other distributors, such as Gravitas Ventures, Indie Rights, Uncork’d Entertainment, and ITN Studios), which has been importing some very impressive foreign horrors: the neo-giallos Dark Sister (aka Australia’s Sororal) and Evil River (aka Italy’s Shanda’s River) are two of those recently spun jackpots. Other recent, satisfying byte-shoots were the Asian horrors Daughter (aka Hong Kong’s Shuang shen) and 0.0 MHz (South Korea). Then there’s the inventive found-footage tale Cold Ground (France’s Sol Froid), the creative zombie tale Inmate Zero (aka, Wales-Ireland’s Patients of a Saint), the radio station-based thriller When Murder Calls (aka Canada’s Radio Silence), and the Liam Neeson-styled actioner Revenge (aka, France’s Revanche).

Sadly, many movie lovers see these films as “three lemons” on the ol’ roulette app because the indie distributors, as you can see, forgo the films’ original titles from the respective country’s initial theatrical release and digitally rebaptize the films for American-domestic consumption—and pair the rechristened films with admittedly well-drawn/shot, but low-grade, sensationalistic-to-cheesy streaming one-sheets that make the films look like so many of the other (amateur-to-lower budget) sensationalistic-to-cheesy indie streams out there; you know the type: the films where the incident/character on the poster never occurs/appears in the film. The aforementioned Daughter and Evil River—with their respective, stringy-haired possessed girls crucifixion-floating above their bed under the sign of a wall-scribbled pentagram and rising out of mucky river waters in front of a remote, rural cabin—are the worse-case examples of a great movie hidden under deceptive-discouraging J-Horror-inspired art work.

And that brings us to the English-language Italian import Cruel Peter. You’ll notice that the streaming one-sheets—as do all streaming one-sheets, because of the size-diminishing of a movie’s poster in an online library—forgo tagline and credits: instead you get artwork (rebooted-sensationalistic, natch) and a title. That’s it.

Of course, Cruel Peter churned out of the digital-distribution sausage processing centers relatively intact. But still: That red-hued poster makes me think that some kid with a Jess Franco-level grease paint-cum-oatmeal gook-acne problem, under the direction of Don Dohler, is wreaking havoc in a small town. And I am burnt out on A) Shaky-cam cheap horrors, B) Zombies, especially of the kid variety or any creepy brats of the low-budget variety, C) If I want to see a Don Dohler movie (e.g., Night Beast), I’ll watch an actual Don Dohler movie, and D) Don’t mistake celluloid ineptitude as a “retro-homage” to a ’70s drive-in ditty, because, well the classy-majesty of The Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Messiah of Evil (1973) and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) are never going to be duplicated.

Which is why you need to hit the big red streaming button and byte-shoot the digital felts and let the 1s and 0s roll stream for at least 10 minutes . . . and in the case of this second feature film collaboration from writer/directors Christian Bisceglia and Ascanio Malgarini, I am glad I took the digital gambit.

The duo’s first effort was the under-the-radar The Haunting of Helena (2012); which, natch, got the ‘ol U.S. distribution reboot retitle-cover art boondoggle as Fairytale. Based on that female-centric corpse from the Sam Raimi School of Witch Bitches and Cellar Dwellers screaming through the window, I probably came across it on a streaming platform—and passed on it because I don’t take well to scary toys, dolls, freak clowns (real or puppet), or fluttering Lord of the Rings-inspired fairy-creatures due to my own childhood traumas. But that’s my loss. Based on my enjoyment of Cruel Peter, I’m seeking out The Haunting of Helena—now that I know the film’s true title vs. its deceptive title.

What we have here with Cruel Peter is a psychological, neo-Gothic flick that expertly pays homage to the ’70s productions of Hammer and Amicus Studios. As the characters navigate the remodeled, rural Italian villas, overgrown cemeteries, and crumbly crypts, we drift back to the Italian and Spanish, old-school horrors of yesteryear by Armando De Ossorio (his four-film “Blind Dead” series) and Paul Naschy (Horror Rises from the Tomb); a film awash in superb, picturesque locations—only with the high production values afforded to an A24 or Blumhouse domestic U.S. production—sans the mainstream “jump scares” modus operandi of those studios’ resumes.

We’ve got animated, articulate corpses, demon wall-crawling, shadowy ghosts rising out of floors, hands emerging from a murky sink waters, witchcraft, necromancy, and poltergeists afoot in a creepy, slow burn that dispenses with the been-there-and-done-that blood n’ guts slasher-gore and trades up for an articulate approach of dripping-with-atmosphere cinematography and plotting. Cruel Peter is a horror film just like the ‘70s used to make—before John Carpenter’s Halloween reinvented (for better or worse; opinions vary) the horror genre and drowned ‘80s home video shelves with an endless stream of implement-slashing, woodsy stalkers.

The film begins in 1908 in the village of Messina, Sicily, where a rich, English-bred mother coddles her 10-year old son’s sociopathic tendencies. Peter’s prone to slashing a servant girl’s face, dousing a caged field mouse with lighter fluid to watch the poor creature burn, and buries the dog of a house servant’s son alive. It’s also believed Peter murdered his own father. But the dog’s death was the last straw: the children of the villa’s servants ambush Peter and bury him alive.

And in the case of the “Devil looks after his own”: an earthquake strikes and kills thousands—and decimates the town’s cemetery where Peter was buried. And he’s forgotten. . . .

In the present day, Norman, a widowed British archaeologist—with his own bag of demons and closeted bones—along with his resentful, strong-willed and deaf-mute daughter Liz, relocate (and take up resident in Peter’s old villa home) for Norman’s latest assignment: excavate and restore Messina’s long-neglected cemetery. Courtesy of her father and late mother’s work, Liz also has an interest in the past—a deeper past of the supernatural and occult where she spends her days examining grimoires as she plays with a Ouija Board-inscribed crystal ball that displays letters on the wall—all in the efforts to contact her late mother.

During the excavations, Norman discovers Peter’s lost grave—and a small box of Peter’s belongings. Now freed, Peter, through Liz’s occult interests, makes contact—which she thinks is her mother. As Peter’s possession is fully realized, Liz’s personality changes and Peter extracts his long-simmering revenge.

During this article’s search-and-destroy Intel mission, a constant comment by threaders on the Amazon Prime and Netflix frontiers: the film is too dark; you can’t see anything. And the TubiTV stream I watched—in a darkened room with no light glare—was dark; characters and sets washed-out in shadows. Monitor adjustments didn’t help. So we’re not sure if that’s the result of a cinematography snafu, a post-production oversight, or an artistic choice of using a real location’s (not a stage set) natural light. But what it actually seems to be is a screen-ratio issue. Cruel Peter, based on its stellar, high production values—while it’s been primarily seen outside of its native Italy (and probably Europe) as a cable PPV and, more likely, as an online VOD—isn’t just another direct-to-streaming production: it’s a theatrical feature film, again, of an A24 and Blumhouse-level, meant to be seen on the big screen. It seems the image compression for streaming devices compromised the film’s cinematography and caused the “too dark” issues. The solution: watch on a laptop, sit closer, and angle the screen until you find a comfortable position.

It’s worth the effort. Cruel Peter is a great horror flick to nosh popcorn by—just like the ‘70s used to pop—without the slasher-bloody buttery aftertaste.

Netflix gave Cruel Peter its U.S. debut proper in June. It’s now available as a free-with-ads stream on TubiTv; you can also watch it on You Tube/Amazon Prime. The Haunting of Helena is not available on TubiTV, but is available as a VOD on You Tube/Amazon Prime.

Disclaimer: We weren’t provided a screener nor received a review request from the film’s P.R firm. That has no bearing on our review. We discovered this film on our own and genuinely enjoyed the movie.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies and publishes on Medium.

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