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.

Spring

A lo-fi, intimate indie romance about what it means to be human.

United States. Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, 2014. Starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker. 109 minutes.

Spring is in the air and when it comes, romance blooms. Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) finds both in Italy after fleeing the States in the wake of his mother’s death and a streetgang-enraging bar fight. He meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a pretty young college student who’s pretty insistent about limiting their relationship to a single one-night stand. Undaunted by her protests, Evan ignores her apparent fear of commitment and insists on courting her, until he finds out her terrible secret: she’s not entirely human. That’s the basic premise of Spring, the latest from filmmaking duo Justin Benson (who also wrote the screenplay) and Aaron Moorhead.

Their previous effort, Resolution, was a sort of mumblecore reimagining of The Cabin in the Woods, and the filmmakers have carried over its low-fidelity vibe. This isn’t an epic love story or horror tale, it’s a simple indie romance. Even those elements of the production that you might think would detract from an intimate vibe, such as the exotic locale and frequently flamboyant camera work, contribute to it instead. Comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy probably aren’t too far off the mark.

Unfortunately, the story often feels aimless, lacking much in the way of direction. This could be by design–the plot’s loose structure does reflect Evan’s impulsive, spontaneous attitude towards life in Europe–but I rarely felt as if Benson and Moorhead knew where the film was going. The film’s last half hour is particularly problematic, suffering from a lack of compelling material and some weird tonal shifts (one sequence in a church comes off much funnier and more farcical than it should). Other critics have praised the ending, but I personally found it unsatisfying, an example of “ambiguity for its own sake” familiar from the ironically-named Resolution.

Other than the photography–it really is a gorgeous picture–the real reasons to watch Spring are the characters and performances. Benson’s script draws Evan and Louise simply, providing the actors with a sketch (Evan’s family issues, Louise’s devotion to the rational and scientific) and give Pucci and Hilker enough room to inhabit the characters. The two leads have an easy chemistry with each other and many scenes, even those with heavy foreshadowing, seem improvised. The leads’ credbility is crucial to the film’s success, particularly in the case of Pucci, who needs to convince the audience he’s in love with this woman he’s only known for days…and preserve that feeling after he finds out she kills people in fits of madness and probably has an ink sac. For all the other nits I pick with the story, the basic theme–that despite the horrific aspects of Louise’s existence, she’s human, not some sort of Lovecraftian monster, comes through–and the leads are a large part of that.

The supporting performances are also excellent, with the highlights being Jeremy Gardner (writer/director/star of The Battery) as Evan’s drunken, doped-up best friend and Francesco Carnelutti as an Italian farmer who takes Evan on as a farmhand.

While its success isn’t as decisive as one might hope, Spring is nevertheless an interesting take on the concept of the supernatural romance, and is especially recommended for audiences who like their horror intimate and subdued.

Spring poster

Retro Review: The Freakmaker

A hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together, much like the human-plant monsters who menace the characters.

United Kingdom. Directed by Jack Cardiff, 1974. Starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker, Brad Harris. 92 minutes.

Half Freaks, half Frankenstein, half Quatermass Experiment, and half Hammer Horror, Jack Cardiff’s 1974 film The Freakmaker (originally released under the less colorful title The Mutations) is a hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together. Donald Pleasance plays the brilliant but deranged Professor Nolter, who believes he’s hit upon the perfect cure for world hunger: combine human and plant DNA, so future generations can photosynthesize their own sustenance. Sadly, he has a penchant for experimenting on unwilling subjects, procured for him by the performers of a carnival freakshow managed by the deformed and cruel Mr. Lynch (an unrecognizable Tom Baker). But then the carnies make the mistake of abducting one of Nolter’s own students, raising the suspicions of her friends, who are also entertaining eminent American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris). Can Redford and the undergrads stop Nolter and Lynch, or are they all doomed to a horrifying existence as human Venus flytraps?

The Freakmaker gleefully recycles half-baked ideas from its earlier, better influences and isn’t ashamed of it: one scene outright acknowledges the story’s debt to Freaks. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in grue. It’s a sort of missing link between cerebral examinations of physical transformation (and its close cousin, plants that behave like animals, like in The Day of the Triffids or the Genesis song “Return of the Giant Hogweed”) and the later explicit body horror of Cronenberg and Alien. As stomach-churning as the monsters are–there’s nothing pleasant about something that looks like a Sleestak with Audrey Jr. grafted onto its chest–they’re uncomfortably beautiful, as are the dizzying array of genetically-engineered freak plants that don’t walk and talk. Of course, Cardfiff doesn’t quite have budget to do the designs justice, but if you’re a fan of this sort of thing you know when to adjust your expectations.

Pity the rest of the production doesn’t approach the standard set by the production design. Pleasance’s subtle, understated performance is marred by a bad, fake, and entirely unnecessary German accent. Baker struggles to break through the barrier built by a laughably terrible makeup job, but once or twice he really does let ‘er rip with impressive hurricane fury. His physical performance is altogether better, six feet three inches of looming menace but always managing to seem half a foot taller. The rest of the “norms” are forgettable, although Harris fits his generic square-jawed Yankee hero fairly well, and second-string Bond girl Julie Ege understands she’s only here to supply eye candy. Despite the production’s reliance on Freaks, the carnies aren’t quite as distinct as their spiritual predecessors, the exception being Willie “Popeye” Baines. Be warned, he didn’t earn that nickname by exhibiting an affinity for spinach.

But really, we’ve got to go back to the script as the single most flawed element. The lack of originality glares like lens flare, and in the bad way–this isn’t a daring remix of familiar tropes but a lazy retread of things you’ve seen a thousand times before. You can spot every twist coming ten minutes away. If the character development was any thinner, you could see through the actors. Screenwriters Edward Mann and Robert Weinbach try too hard to make the dialog “hip” and “relevant” by shoehorning in lots of casually inappropriate drug references. (The reference to Timothy Leary is worth a laugh, though.)

Overall, The Freakmaker isn’t some lost gem just waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a somewhat-below-standard specimen of cheap exploitation that’s largely notable for its design, its gore and its months-away-from-cult-stardom villain. (Baker would, of course, make his proper début as the fourth Doctor Who later in 1974…and face off against a plant-human hybrid two years later, in “The Seeds of Doom.”) But it’s not entirely devoid of entertainment value, and a perfectly valid option when you have ninety or so minutes you’re not doing anything better with.

The Freakmaker

Thanatomorphose

At least it deserves respect for existing in the first place

Canada. Directed by Éric Falardeau, 2012. Starring Kayden Rose, Davyd Tousignant, Emile Beaudry. 99 minutes. 6/10

Laura (Kayden Rose) lives alone, her daily routine interrupted only by bouts of rough sex with her abusive boyfriend Antoine (David Tousignant), the unwelcome advances of her lecherous neighbor Julian (Émile Beaudry), and the occasional futile attempt to create a sculpture. In a word, Laura is miserable.

“I’ve lost the urge to do it,” she tells Julian, after an unsatisfying evening of “lovemaking.” She doesn’t just mean sex–she means everything.

She doesn’t think much of the first bruise; Julian had been particularly…forceful the night before. But the bruise doesn’t heal. Just the opposite, in fact: it seems to multiply. Soon bruises cover her body.

And that’s not all. When she washes her hair, she pulls a clump of it away from her head. Her fingernails fall off. Sores bloom on her skin; maggots breed inside them. Her body becomes weaker.

Her physical state doesn’t seem to scare her. Truth be told, she barely seems to care about it.

Her apathy towards life is no longer a symptom of depression or a sign of a spiritual malaise. For Laura, “dead inside” is no longer a metaphor. It’s a disgustingly literal description of her body as it rots and decays.

I’m a sucker for body horror. Sit me down in front of a movie about some poor schlub turning into a human-insect hybrid or slowly rotting away from the inside out and I’m happy as a clam. Which doesn’t mean I entirely shut down my capacity for critical thinking when I watch a movie like Thanatomorphose. Or that there aren’t right and wrong ways to do body horror.

Many observers have compared Thanatomorphose to last year’s Contracted, a film with a similar premise. Both films feature troubled female protagonists in one-sided, abusive relationships who both find themselves decaying as if they were corpses. Both films connect the process of death with sexuality. Both films trade on taboos against female biology and sexuality to generate audience unease. Both films spend an awful lot of time in the bathroom. The directors of both films even share the same first name.

But the similarities between the two largely stop there. Contracted’s structure is, for the most part, that of a standard modern horror film. With Thanatomorphose, writer/director Éric Falardeau clearly aims to make something decidedly non-standard. In doing so, he makes a number of stylistic and substantial decisions that make the film hard to watch in a way that ordinary gore simply can’t achieve.

The narrative is directionless and meandering; it’s just one thing after another until the film is over. And it moves from thing to thing at about the same pace that Los Angeles traffic moves at 5pm on a Friday evening. Every so often, Falardeau punctuates the proceedings with a dream sequence, usually so heavily processed that it’s nigh-impossible to figure out what’s going on.

For that matter, it’s also often nigh-impossible to figure out what’s going on even when Falardeau isn’t masturbating over Adobe After Effects because the entire production is under-lit. I think there’s a sequence in which Laura pulls one of her own fingers off, takes a Polaroid of it, then sticks it in a jar and tapes the photo to it. But it’s hard to tell for certain. And it’s a comparatively long sequence, too: two or three minutes of trying to figure out what all those black-on-black blobs are doing to each other.

But even if I did know for certain, the characters are so underdeveloped and underwritten that it’s exceedingly difficult to care what happens to them. They’re barely one-dimensional. Most of the time they’re effigies who exist only to suffer abuse or inflict it. I kinda get this with Laura, but the character development Antoine and Julian receive can be summed up, respectively, with the phrases “Grrr misogyny!” and “Grrr rape culture!”

Hell, neither the dialog nor the credits identify the characters by name. I had to get those from the official website.

By the time they start to exhibit personalities, it’s too late. I don’t mean “too late for the characters” because they’re about to die; I mean “too late for the viewers,” most of whom have wandered off during the previous 80 minutes of film.

The thing about this is, I can see–or at least I think I can see–what Falardeau is getting at. Dimly-lit scenes are more atmospheric and creepy. Laura’s apathy alienates the audience, but it’s also built into the point of the character and the movie. The pace is slow to make the experience of watching even more grueling and unpleasant. Actress Kayden Rose, in the lead role, spends roughly 95% of her screen time entirely nude because, well, we’ve got to show off all this makeup and effects work. (Yes, she’s cute, but keep your pants on. After about an hour, her comely visage will cease to matter.)

I’m not going to lie to you: this film is a long, hard, frustrating slog. But I can’t think of any ways to “fix” my issues with it without taking away from it the things that make it what it is. A better-lit, pacier version of Thanatomorphose with relatable characters entirely violates the film’s point.

Or at least, that’s what I hope.

Falardeau clearly has ambitions beyond making yet another gore- and nudity-filled exploitation flick. It’s hard to judge, objectively, whether he hits the mark,. Personally, I didn’t like it and would be hard-pressed to recommend it to, well, anyone really (the one exception maybe being John Bruni), thus the two-star rating. But I do respect it for existing in the first place. Regardless of whether I enjoyed it, horror exists so that Thanatomorphose may be called into being, and the genre would be lesser without it.

Just don’t ever ask me to watch it again.

Thanatomorphose poster

Contracted

A zombie movie that takes the novel approach of presenting the plague as an STD

Contracted

United States. Directed by Eric England, 2014. Starring Najarra Townsend, Alice Macdonald, Caroline Williams. 84 minutes. 8/10

“Sex is natural,” proclaimed the Anglo-Greek poet Georgios Panayiotou in 1987, “sex is fun.” But it’s also often awkward, occasionally painful, saddled with a lot of cultural baggage, and kinda gross.

In other words, the emotional and physical mechanics of sex are perfect territory for horror movies to mine.

The last decade or so has seen a minor boom in horror movies that use frank depictions of the female sexual cycle to generate unease in the audience. (For a lot of people, frank depictions of the female sexual cycle are unsettling enough without the added context of a horror movie.) Paul Solet’s Grace graphically portrays a miscarriage, while the heroine of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s satire Teeth turns out to have a set of the eponymous chompers in her vagina. Eric England’s Contracted, a plague movie in which the plague is an STD, works in a similar vein.

B.J. apparently contracts the disease from the corpse he’s seen fucking at the beginning of the film. Later, he passes it on to Samantha, when he meets her at a party and uses her drunken condition to take sexual advantage of her (read: rapes).

Sam is the story’s protagonist, a troubled and confused young florist who’s on the outs with both her mother and her ex-girlfriend. Her friends are assholes: Alice encourages Sam to drown her sorrows in booze, Zain offers her a “bump” of cocaine despite the implications of substance abuse in her past, and Riley is an obsessive sad-sack who puts on a grand show of being a “nice guy.” Alice and Riley are both angling to get Sam in the sack, and they don’t seem to mind employing dickish tactics in their pursuit.

With friends like these, who needs chlamydia?

Once you’ve added Sam’s bitchy ex and her homophobic mother to the mix, you find yourself without much in the way of likable characters. Even Sam, with her tendency towards immature behavior that only increases as her illness progresses, isn’t a particularly sympathetic central figure.

This has a bit of an alienating effect, which I found largely countered by strong performances, particularly from Najarra Townsend as Sam. Townsend expands upon the characterization, turning a character who could very easily be an obnoxious brat into a girl who’s still visibly battling with demons everybody else thinks she should have conquered by now.

Caroline Williams (Sam’s mother) and Alice Macdonald (Alice) put in good performances as well. Charlie Koontz brings darkly comic relief in his two or three scenes as Zain, and Simon Barrett (better known as writer for several Adam Wingard projects) is great in his brief role as B.J.

Contracted doesn’t necessarily need gore to disgust the audience; the characters are revolting enough. But there is plenty of the icky stuff on display. Sam interprets the initial effects of the illness as a particularly nasty period, allowing England to indulge in several scenes involving clothes with strategically-located bloodstains. Eventually we realize that Sam’s been gradually decomposing before our eyes. The impeccable makeup work will impress gorehounds, and a third-act scene involving maggots is sure to upset the most ironclad of stomachs.

England also wrote the screenplay and I was quite impressed with it. The plotting is effective and I enjoyed the first fresh take on the zombie/plague trope I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that focused on the gradual change from living to undead the way this one does. His direction is fairly solid, although the cinematography more on hand-held “shaky-cam” techniques than I prefer.

All in all, it’s a fine modern horror film that doesn’t skimp on the splat. But if you can get past the unpleasant characters, you’ll find that Contracted’s emotional violence is just as powerful as its physical violence.

Contracted poster