Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster shine in this American tragedy masquerading as a crime drama.

Hell or High Water

United States. Directed by David Mackenzie, 2016. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham. 102 minutes.

Roughly halfway through Hell or High Water, Alberto Parker—a Texas Ranger of mixed Comanche and Mexican heritage, played by Gil Birmingham—lays out the film’s thesis. Looking over the picked-over remains of a dying Texas town, he observes that the land once belonged to the Native American peoples. Then the whites came and stole it. Today, the descendants of those white ranchers and farmers find that land being stolen from them in return, by the banks who were supposed to help them buy and keep it.

One such theft drives the film’s plot. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) has discovered oil on his late mother’s ranch, and he wants to give the land to his estranged sons in trust. Problem is, he can’t afford to pay off the reverse mortgage his mother took out on the property. With the help of his troubled brother Tanner (Ben Foster), just out of prison, he launches an audacious plan to pay back the bank with money stolen from its own branches. The resulting robberies draw the attention of the Texas Rangers in the form of the aforementioned Alberto Parker and his senior partner Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly coot staring down the barrel of retirement.

Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (also writer of Sicario, but possibly best known as an actor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy) present us with standard crime drama tropes, such as the wise and world-weary cop on his last case, and the dichotomy between two brothers (Toby is down-to-earth, Tanner impulsive and hot-headed). But they resist the urge to paint the film by numbers, instead positing the story as an American tragedy. Not to say it’s all doom and gloom—Sheridan derives a few moments of levity from Hamilton and Parker’s working relationship—but darkness hangs heavily over the procedure. Toby meant well, but once he set his plan in motion, he sealed his own fate…and the fates of others.

Mackenzie underlines this theme with his visuals, presenting the setting as a hellish, desolate wasteland, seemingly populated only by lost souls and those who seek to take advantage of them. (Hamilton and Parker, representing the law, serve to preserve order but don’t act as moral agents.) Expect plenty of shots of thirsty desert and winding highways, but delivered in a subdued style. Action is used sparingly; violence is quick and brutal. Australians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who perhaps know Americana better than most Americans, add to the atmosphere with a sparse score occasionally punctuated by songs by the likes of Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch.

Ultimately, though, this is an actor’s showcase. Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham all bring depth to archetypal characters running the risk of seeming two-dimensional. But Bridges brings genuine likability to his gruffness (and seemingly endless supply of racial humor), and Foster reveals the humanity behind Tanner’s nihilism and borderline psychosis. These two roles are somewhat larger-than-life—this is Texas, after all—but neither actor goes over-the-top. Pine and Birmingham put in less showy performances, all the better to contrast with their partners.

Hell or High Water is more than a crime drama or action-thriller; by contrasting its character archetypes with the harsh reality of unrestrained capitalism’s vicious economic circle, it’s nothing less than an elegy for the American Dream. One of the year’s best.

Hell or High Water poster

I Am Not a Serial Killer

We all know the “monster-next-door” trope…but how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Billy O’Brien, 2016. Starring Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Christina Baldwin, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucy Lawton, Anna Sundberg. 104 minutes.

We’ve all seen movies or read stories about ordinary folks who suddenly discover they have monsters living in their neighborhood. But how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) finds himself in just such a situation in I Am Not a Serial Killer, the Anglo-Irish adaptation of Dan Wells’s novel. An awkward social misfit, with morbid obsessions (at least partially fueled by the family business of undertaking) and unreliable estranged parents, would have a tough row to hoe in any small-town high school. But John has been diagnosed with clinical sociopathy. Early in the film, he describes most people as being like cardboard boxes: boring—until you open them up and see what’s inside. So he takes great care to keep himself on the straight and narrow. When a serial murderer strikes in his hometown, he naturally finds himself drawn to the mystery. The discovery that his elderly next-door neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible for the killings shocks him enough, but then it turns out kindly old Mr. Crowley isn’t even human…

Sociopathy is a tricky condition to portray in fiction, particularly when developing a character intended, to a large extent, as sympathetic to the audience: it’s hard to relate to a kid when he admits to suppressing an urge to abuse animals, even if you understand that the urge itself is not his fault. But on the surface, John doesn’t seem all that much different from any other misunderstood teenage outcast, which should give most of us a toehold in the task of accepting him as a character we can identify with. Records’s performance is the key to this, and he effectively interprets John’s central internal conflict, between his fascination with Bill Crowley and an intellectual understanding that Crowley poses a threat to John and the people around him—even if John doesn’t have much in the way of emotions for any of those people.

Bill himself proves to have more depth and complexity than your average movie critter. Lloyd delivers one of the best performances of his recent career in the role, subtly balancing Crowley’s harmless-old-timer exterior with a gradual creeping menace…and some other unexpected facets. The special effects work—with creature design provided by Toby “the bratty baby brother in Labyrinth” Froud—takes a minimalist approach, reminding us how specifically human a monster Bill is.

The strength of the character study doesn’t prevent the plot from going down a fairly predictable, X-Files-reminiscent path late in the game, but luckily the production has other cards up its sleeve to make up for that. The screenplay puts enough focus on John’s dysfunctional family dynamics to give the Cleaver household a genuine lived-in feeling. Director Billy O’Brien makes good use of his wintry rural Minnesota locations, giving the visuals a chilly vibe appropriate to the lead character’s psyche. Laura Fraser (as John’s mother April) seems to have carved herself a niche playing highly strung single moms (see also The Sisterhood of Night and her work as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle on Breaking Bad); her performance is solid, if not revelatory. Fine performances also come from Dee Noah (as Bill’s wife Kay), Anna Sundberg (as John’s sister Lauren), and Karl Geary (as John’s therapist).

Thought-provoking and quietly unsettling, I Am Not a Serial Killer delivers a fresh and unconventional take on the “monster next door” trope.

I Am Not a Serial Killer poster

Roger Waters: The Wall

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters updates his classic rock opera and is caught showing feelings of an almost human nature

Roger Waters stars in ROGER WATERS: THE WALL.

United Kingdom. Directed by Roger Waters and Sean Evans, 2014. 132 minutes.

Roger Waters, the famously megalomaniacal former bassist, songwriter, and creative generalissimo behind Pink Floyd, spent the early 2010s touring the world with The Wall, the Floyd’s 1979 magnum opus. Waters updated the legendary stage show (so complex and expensive in 1980 that the band could afford to perform it in only four cities) for a new generation. He added a renewed focus on the tragedy and injustice of war and the corruption of government and the media, the topics that have dominated his work over the last three decades. This wasn’t the work of an irrelevant classic-rock dinosaur milking his back catalog for a quick buck. Waters (for all his faults) has never lacked passion and fury, and the performances crackled with a vitality surprising for a sixty-something artist touring a thirty-year-old record. He even managed to get his former bandmates Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason to join him for a night.

You had to be there, as the saying goes, but if you weren’t—or if you were (like I was, in 2010, at the United Center in Chicago) and want to relive the memories—Roger Waters: The Wall is an acceptable substitute for the real thing. It doesn’t possess the artistry of the top rank of concert films (Stop Making Sense, for example), it does approximate the experience with a minimum of fuss. The politicking is heavy-handed even by Waters’s standards. And I’m not sure why Waters and co-director Sean Evans think we’d rather watch Rog sing “The Trial” instead of watching the film projected on the Wall behind him.

But the band is in top form (although, really, would it have killed anyone to include the performances with Gilmour and Mason in the film proper instead of relegating them to DVD special features?) and the show contains many fine moments: dancing schoolkids banishing a giant teacher puppet; Waters performing a duet with a recording of himself from a 1980 gig; the “fascist” song sequence that leads up to the story’s climax. And let’s not forget Gerald Scarfe’s animations, grotesquely psychedelic yet timeless. It won’t be the last time you watch some blinkered authority figure talk out of his anus, I guarantee you that.

But the most compelling footage doesn’t document the performances. Interspersed between the concert sequences are scenes of Waters taking a road trip across Europe to visit the gravesites of his father (who died in Italy during World War II) and grandfather (who died in France during World War I). Waters’s songwriting has always been haunted by his father’s death, a loss he has often mourned through bombast. The sight of the seventy-year-old rock star blowing the funereal notes of “Outside the Wall” at a memorial in Anzio could be the most powerful artistic expression of that grief, due to its intimacy.

And what could be more appropriate? After all, the central theme of The Wall is the importance of reaching out and connecting to others instead of living “comfortably numb” but isolated lives. One hopes that Roger Waters: The Wall represents one more brick removed from its creator’s wall.

Roger Waters: The Wall

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I liked it but I can’t guarantee anyone else will

Ruth Wilson stars in I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

Canada/United States. Directed by Oz Perkins, 2016. Starring Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss. 87 minutes.

If you’re here, reading this, I reckon you’ve probably heard of Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t, long story short: writer from the 1940s and ’50s, chiefly of contemporary gothic stories and novels. In 1959 she published The Haunting of Hill House, which established the modern-day version of the Bad Place trope: it might not necessarily be haunted, not per se, but it definitely gets into your head and twists your thoughts around until you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Stephen King dedicated his novel Firestarter to her memory, observing that she “never needed to raise her voice.” Shirley Jackson didn’t do jump-scares. What she did was get under your skin, build a nest, and lay eggs.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (whose title itself suggests another Jackson work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) has the Hill House-iest haunted house storyline since, if not the actual Hill House, at least since The Shining. 28-year-old hospice nurse Lily arrives at the house at the end of Teacup Road to care for the aging and senile Iris Blum. Iris, once a successful horror writer, seems to think that Lily is actually Polly, the subject of her novel The Lady in the Walls. Or maybe it’s not really a novel. The house at the end of Teacup Road hides many secrets, the most important of which is who Polly really is.

As I watched Pretty Thing, I couldn’t go five minutes without thinking about Steve King’s dedication. Writer/director Osgood “Oz” Perkins paces the film slowly and deliberately, laying on the atmosphere with a trowel. He deploys very few shocks of any kind, and no jump-scares. He complements the proceedings with Julie Kirkwood’s lyrical cinematography and an unsettling ambient score provided by his brother Elvis. Skin, nest, eggs. If Jackson never raised her voice, Perkins spends the film whispering.

…or maybe it’s actually mumbling. I’m not going to lie to you, I think most people are going to hate it. I said before that Perkins paces the film slow; it might be more accurate to say that what little plot there is could fit in a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone—the ’60s version—with little to no abridgment. Ruth Wilson, playing Lily, spends much of the film slowly wandering from room to room, occasionally pausing to deliver a poetic soliloquy: “It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched, even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw…” Melodramatic, yes, but Wilson makes it work. Meanwhile, it takes Lucy Boynton (as Polly) multiple flashbacks just to complete the action of turning her head, and Paula Prentiss (Iris Blum) works on perfecting her vacant stare. I’d say she nails it.

Now, I will gleefully admit I love stuff like this: I get everything I like about Kubrick and Tarkovsky (lovely wide shots, slow pacing, music that makes my stomach churn) in just half the time. It’s a win-win! Other viewers, who prefer movies in which things actually happen are likely to reach the end credits wondering what all the fuss is about. That is, if they don’t suddenly discover they fell asleep halfway through the second act.

And that’s fine: I can’t blame anyone for being bored by this movie; it’s about slow people doing slow things very slowly, until they stop doing them. But I did find it pretty and poetic, almost like watching a morbid, gothic dance. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House isn’t going to be something I want to watch every day, but I’m glad it exists.

In a Valley of Violence

Ti West’s latest is an entertaining, if shallow, Western homage

Ethan Hawke stars in IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE

United States. Directed by Ti West, 2016. Starting Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan. 104 minutes.

As cinematic genres, the modern horror film and the Western are intertwined. The generation of horror auteurs born between, say, 1935 and 1950 came of age in an era when Hollywood churned out oaters a dozen at a time. A great many of the films young Johnny Carpenter would have seen in his youth were horse operas, and that’s why so many entries in his filmography—Assault on Precinct 13Escape from New York, Vampires—make more sense if you consider them as Westerns. And now that “throwback horror” is a thing, Carpenter and his contemporaries having influenced a younger generation of genre filmmakers, the news that professional ’70s/’80s pasticheur Ti West has thrown his hat into the Western ring should not surprise us.

Indeed, with In a Valley of Violence West delivers a classic-formula Western of the kind Sergio Leone used to make, complete with a strong streak of gallows humor (the film almost qualifies as a comedy), morally-ambiguous protagonists, and expansive wide shots of desert wasteland. Even the opening titles crib from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the score—courtesy Jeff Grace, West’s standard musical collaborator—puts in an admirable impersonation of Ennio Morricone.

The film’s plot progresses slowly and simply, as a man-with-no-name (actually he does have a name, but it’s not even mentioned until at least thirty minutes in, so we’ll just call him Ethan Hawke) arrives in Denton, known to the few locals as the Valley of Violence, a dying town of maybe a dozen residents, most of them corrupt bullies whom Hawke runs afoul of almost immediately. Valley of Violence possesses a lack of plot sophistication and thematic depth that won’t surprise those familiar with West. The characters get more definition than the story, but the genre’s icons and tropes quite obviously guide West’s hand, and he relies on the ensemble—which includes John Travolta and James Ransone as the primary antagonists, along with Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim), and the always reliable Larry Fessenden (please tell me I don’t need to explain Larry Fessenden to you)—to perform most of the heavy lifting.

This isn’t necessarily a strike against the film; even in his best work, such as The House of the Devil, West has always emphasized style over substance. But he brings something of a half-baked modern sensibility t0 the film; this doesn’t always detract, and indeed many of the funniest and most memorable moments come from it. But I can’t shake the feeling that the film would have felt more even had West committed to that sensibility more fully. He never quite reconciles the film’s nominal theme, the idea that violence begets nothing but more violence, with the vicarious thrill of watching Hawke hunt down and kill the bad guys. And while the sexual tension between Hawke (age 45 in real life) and Farmiga (22, and playing a 16-year-old to boot) might not have raised an eyebrow in the real Old West, it’s massively creepy by modern standards. It’s nice that West makes a token comment about that, but it would have been nicer if that comment wasn’t merely token.

Despite my criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed In a Valley of Violence. I wouldn’t consider it an acceptable substitute for The Hateful Eight or even Bone Tomahawk, but as an entertaining genre exercise it squarely hits its target.

In a Valley of Violence poster

Under the Shadow

Caught between an endless war, a repressive regime, and a vengeful spirit

Avin Manshadi and Narges Rashidi star in UNDER THE SHADOW
Avin Manshadi, Narges Rashidi

United Kingdom/Jordan/Qatar. Directed by Babak Anvari, 2016. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi. 84 minutes.

Life in Tehran, the capital of Iran, was dangerous in the late ’80s, caught between the repressive regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni and the destruction of the seemingly-endless war with Iraq (as Saddam Hussein prepares to pelt Iranian targets, including Tehran, with Scud missiles). Air-raid sirens are a familiar sound; innocuous luxuries such as a Betamax recorder and Jane Fonda workout video must remain out of sight, lest one gain the attention of the wrong authorities. Against such a backdrop, the horrors of a supernatural monster might seem almost mundane.

That’s the environment in which Under the Shadow, the début feature from writer/director Babak Anvari, plays out. When Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor living comfortably in a Tehran apartment block, is called to the front to tend to the causualties of war, his wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) must raise their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone. Iraj’s departure coincides with the apparent arrival of a djinn, a malevolent spirit, seeking to do harm to the building’s residents; and it seems particularly interested in Dorsa.

We recognize this archetype, the fiercely defensive mother-figure fighting to protect her young, and Under the Shadow has earned several comparisons to The Babadook, the current “reigning” definitive treatment of the trope. Both films use its monster as a metaphor for larger issues, and neither shies away from the darker aspects of parent-child relationships.

But Under the Shadow’s subtext possesses a few more layers than we might expect from a horror film. Danger besets Shideh and Dorsa from all sides, with one peril feeding into the next. If it’s not the djinn, it’s the threat of the missiles (and the film’s most affecting shot depicts a Scud having broken through the roof of a top-floor apartment), and if it’s not the missiles, it’s the culture. We may breathe a sigh of relief when Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees the haunted block of flats, but our hearts almost immediately sink when we realize Shideh forgot to don her hijab first.

While Anvari subjects his ideas to complex development, his visual style relies a bit too much on the fundamentals, deploying jump-scares and “it was all a dream!” fakeouts several times too often. That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have visual merits, and his use of peculiar camera angles to emphasize the off-kilter nature of a situation that’s already skewed to begin with stands out. He also indulges in a few creative visual set-pieces, memorably imbuing a simple head-scarf with a sense of palpable menace.

Under the Shadow provides a valuable window into a culture and time period not familiar to most Western audiences, and is quite excellent (even if it didn’t blow my mind as I’d hoped). As a fresh new talent, Babek Anvari has announced himself as someone to watch and I look forward to his future work.

Under the Shadow poster

Estranged

Despite its strong visuals and cast, Estranged simply isn’t memorable, and its shortcomings stick out more than its strengths.

estranged.jpg
United Kingdom. Directed by Adam Levins, 2015. Starring Amy Manson, James Cosmo, James Lance. 101 minutes. 5/10

Dysfunctional family relationships often prove fertile ground for psychological thrillers, with first-time director Adam Levins providing his take on the trope in Estranged. Amy Manson (Being Human U.K., Once Upon a Time) stars as January, a young woman left wheelchair-bound and amnesiac by a motorcycle accident, returning home with her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) to a family she hasn’t seen in six years and has no memory of. I probably don’t need to tell you that the family has some huge skeletons in their closet…the biggest being the reason January left in the first place.

The screenplay, by William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo, has the requisite twists and turns and gothic trappings (long-buried secrets, huge mansions), not to mention the occasional scene of genuine shock. Unfortunately, I occasionally found the plot a bit hard to follow; not incoherent, exactly, but I never shook the feeling that there were things I should have figured out before the characters did. There were times when the plot seemed needlessly complex and the pacing and editing seemed somewhat off. It seemed to me as if Levins had problems developing the narrative effectively.

While his storytelling has issues, Levins has a keen visual sense. The interior sequences, in particular, work very well, with the mansion’s massive, cavernous spaces generating a sense of foreboding. He also works the cast very well, with Manson breezing through an emotional range and keeping Jan sympathetic even when her behavior becomes difficult. But the real star of the show is James Cosmo (better known as Jeor Mormont on Game of Thrones) as Albert, the family patriarch, who deftly maneuvers his role from “stern” to “menacing” with nary a hitch. James Lance also makes quite an impression as Laurence, Jan’s slimy brother.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much else to say about Estranged–perhaps it simply caught me on a bad day–and that could be its biggest problem: despite the film’s strong visuals and cast, it’s simply not very memorable, and its shortcomings stick out in my mind more than its strengths. I wouldn’t advise people to steer clear of it, but I can guarantee I’m going to have a difficult time remembering it in a month or so.

ESTRANGED.

They Look Like People

An unconventional and highly unnerving psychological thriller.

They Look Like People

United States. Directed by Perry Blackshear, 2015. Starring MacLeod Andrews, Evan Demouchel, Margaret Ying Drake. 80 minutes. 8/10

Once again, let’s turn to Wikipedia, the repository of all human knowledge:

The Capgras delusion (or Capgras syndrome) is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family member (or pet) has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.

The Capgras delusion resembles the “pod people” trope: invading monsters taking the form of our friends, our coworkers, our loved ones, their goal the eventual eradication of humanity. Inevitably, only one person (or a small group of people) has any knowledge of the monsters’ agenda and the coming disaster. Such narratives only rarely examine the psychological toll such knowledge has on those who possess it. What must it be like to know something so terrible…and to understand that nobody you tried to convince would ever believe you?

In Perry Blackshear’s feature-length début, They Look Like People, longtime friends Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Demouchel) unexpectedly reunite after some time apart. Both men have recently endured devastating break-ups. While Christian seeks to overcome his lack of confidence with weightlifting, alpha-male affirmations, and romantic overtures toward his boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), Wyatt seems to have taken the opposite route, becoming antisocial and withdrawn.

But Christian doesn’t know the truth of why Wyatt and his fiancée broke up. He doesn’t know about the late-night calls Wyatt receives from sinister strangers. He doesn’t know about the stash of power tools and hardware Wyatt has stashed in the basement. And he definitely doesn’t know that Wyatt believes the world threatened by an impending invasion of pod people.

Blackshear approaches his material as a psychological thriller rather than as an alien-invasion horror story, maintaining a laser focus on the relationship between the two men and how they’ve changed since they last met. Blackshear does away with many of the investigative and procedural elements that often accompany the trope. He uses the pod people not as a primary source of dramatic conflict, but as a sort of environmental challenge: they exist and must be dealt with, but what they mean to Wyatt is more important than what they actually do; they are a thematic approximation of his neuroses.

The screenplay takes something of a minimalist approach to the narrative, never overexplaining and leaving the audience to fill in many gaps on their own. The protagonists are often unsympathetic—Christian’s “affirmations” bear an uncomfortable resemblance to pick-up-artist dogma—but deft characterization, in addition to powerful performances from Andrews and Demouchel, make them seem more real than most fictional alien hunters. Blackshear makes the most of his low budget, taking the emphasis off of visual effects (although deploying them effectively when needed, such as a backlit silhouette composition of a sleeping figure that makes her seem faceless) and using sound to keep the audience at the edge of its seat.

I did feel things did start to unravel towards the last ten or so minutes, and I wasn’t sure whether I was satisfied with the end; but, for the most part, Perry Blackshear has crafted an unconventional and highly unnerving thriller. Definitely worth checking out.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society for bringing They Look Like People to Chicago.

THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE poster.

The Interior

No matter where you go, the universe is a total jerk.

The Interior

Canada. Directed by Trevor Juras, 2015. Starring Patrick McFadden. 80 minutes. 9/10

Recently, a friend of mine gave up his job, home, and girlfriend in New York, and (citing a struggle with “the practical necessities of modern life” and a feeling of being “isolated from the sun and trees”) relocated to Arizona to pursue his dream of living as a “hunter-gatherer.” I think my friend would find a lot of common ground with James, the twenty-something protagonist of The Interior, played by Patrick McFadden. James lives in a swank apartment in Toronto, but hates his soulless copywriting career and his narcissistic boss, finds no creative fulfillment as a rapper, and finds himself incapable of committing to his year-long relationship with his girlfriend. Bad news from his doctor about a series of nosebleeds and a bout with double vision turns out to be the last straw; soon afterward, we find him wandering the forests of British Columbia (the Interior of the title), there to live his life in peace and solitude.

He probably needn’t bother. Writer/director Trevor Juras approaches his feature début as The Blair Witch Project filtered through the sensibility of Samuel Beckett…or nihilist-horror author Thomas Ligotti. The narrator of Ligotti’s story “The Clown Puppet” described his existence as dominated by “the most outrageous nonsense,” something James can surely relate. Having abandoned the crushing modernity of city life for the solitude and simplicity of the majestic Canadian forest, he still finds himself plagued by absurd, petty inanity, the work of briefly-glimpsed forces whose only goal is to fuck with him. No matter where you go, Juras figures, the universe is a total dick.

Any horror-comedy tasks itself with performing a delicate balancing act, with The Interior laying out a more delicate goal than most, thanks to its absurdist sensibility. Overt gags (James’s doctor asks him if he’s stoned, the tip-off being the joint he holds just out of frame…later, he breaks into a vacation cabin and drinks a bottle of wine; he signs the apology note with the name “Jesus”) gradually become more subtle and sinister without losing their humor value. When a stranger visited James’s tent in the dead of night and poked its canvas wall with his (or her) finger, I found myself torn between the equally appropriate options of uncontrollable laughter or whimpering in fear.

Juras applies a distinctly minimalist aesthetic that takes “show, don’t tell” to its logcial extreme, making John Cage’s 4′33″ look like “Bohemian Rhapsody” by comparison. McFadden largely carries the film on his own as the only major performer for about sixty of the film’s eighty minutes; appropriately, the script assigns him, or indeed anyone else, very little dialog once we arrive at the Interior. Not that we really need it, as the immense, looming trees say what mere words can’t.

If there’s a weakness with The Interior, it’s in Juras’s stubborn refusal to provide a conventional structure, satisfying resolution, or even a sense that he knows where the story, such as it is, is going. Admittedly, this is rather the point of the whole exercise, but I expect most audiences will find themselves turned off by the whole approach. Those left over–including myself–will find themselves left with a beautiful enigma, something to be treasured.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society for bringing The Interior to Chicago.

THE INTERIOR poster.

Contracted: Phase 2

Considering it largely disregards the ideas that made its predecessor so interesting, Contracted: Phase 2 works much better than expected.

A scene from CONTRACTED: PHASE 2.
United States. Directed by Josh Forbes, 2015. Starring Matt Mercer, Marianna Palka, Morgan Peter Brown, Anna Lore, Laurel Vail, Peter Cilella. 78 minutes. 5/10

Towards the end of Eric England’s 2013 film Contracted, protagonist Samantha, her transformation into a zombie via a contagion contracted (geddit?) during a date-rape, grudge-fucks her “nice guy” friend Riley (Matt Mercer)…who then becomes the focus of the sequel, written by Craig Walendziak and directed by Josh Forbes. Phase 2 details Riley’s gradual decay and devolution, while also following subplots involving the spread of the disease beyond Sam’s group of friends, and the authorities’ search for “B.J.” (Morgan Peter Brown, taking over from the original’s Simon Barrett), Sam’s rapist and the infection’s apparent “Patient Zero.”

The differences between Contracted: Phase 2 and its predecessor stretch beyond the obvious gender-reversing of the protagonists. My reading of the original’s subtext was that it was a metaphor for how people use sex to hurt each other, an element almost entirely missing from Phase 2. Instead, the infection spreads through more conventional vectors such as bites and other involuntary exposures to bodily fluids (one unfortunate supporting player catches the plague through infected blood in nacho cheese dip).

The filmmakers wryly probe their apparent theme: entire subcultures of people so self-absorbed they fail to see what’s really going on around them. Riley’s sister Brenda (Laurel Vail) opportunistically exploits the death of a dear friend (actually one of Sam’s victims, as seen in Phase 1) to promote her latest self-help tome, and doesn’t notice her brother has developed a habit of inconveniently spraying gouts of blood from his nose and mouth. Even Riley himself isn’t about to let the discovery of nests of maggots under his skin get in the way of getting it on with Harper (Anna Lore), his grandmother’s adorable nurse.

Phase 2’s winning cast (which includes several hangers-on from the predecessor; not just Mercer, but also Najarra Townsend, Reuben Pla, and Community’s Charley Koontz as the hilarious black-marketeer Zain), wry humor, and well-constructed gross-out sequences detract from its biggest failing. By relegating the sexual transmission vector to the background, Forbes and Walendziak rob the film of what could have been its distinguishing element. STD zombies might not seem quite as novel now as they did two years ago (thanks to the original Contracted and Thanatomorphose emerging at the same time, and a possible resurgence in “venereal horror” led by the success of It Follows), but the filmmakers don’t have any fresh takes on the ghoul trope to replace them with, to make it stand apart from the rest of the pack of zombie movies. B.J.’s subplots turn out to be a particular disappointment, a limp combination of doomsday-cult conspiracy and bog-standard police-procedural that take up far too much of the film’s comparatively scant running-time.

Contracted: Phase 2 works fairly well for a sequel that largely disregards what made the original so interesting, but I doubt it’s likely to find much of an audience beyond subgenre diehards and fans of the original.

CONTRACTED: PHASE 2 poster.