Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

The Ranger, The Devil’s Doorway, Hover, Await Further Instructions, and What Keeps You Alive.

The Ranger

The Ranger

Director/co-writer Jenn Wexler pits a pack of post-adolescent punk rockers (led by Chloe Levine) against a deranged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, who’s recently done turns on House of Cards and Mr. Robot) in her feature début. Wexler shifts between two different approaches here: the first posits the titular Ranger as a campy slasher who quotes Park Service regulations at his victims; the second explores the twisted psychological relationship between the Final Girl and her nemesis. Sadly, Wexler never balances the two approaches so that they feel like they belong in the same movie. On the plus side, Levine delivers a bravura performance, Holm both amuses and menaces, and I liked the effects work, so it’s not an entire wash.

Larry Fessenden appears in flashbacks as Levine’s uncle, kicking off my traditional genre festival Larry Fessenden Watch. My very first film brings Cinepocalypse 2018’s Fessenden Count to 1.

United States. Directed by Jenn Wexler.

The Devil's Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway

The found-footage trend has (mercifully) passed, but you can still find the occasional movie made in the format. Writer-director Aislinn Clarke sets her stab at it in Sixties Ireland, putting the camera—stocked with actual film, natch—in the hands of a pair of priests investigating an apparent miracle at a “Magdalene house” (a church-run workhouse for unwed mothers and promiscuous young woman—think Philomena). The story itself is a factory-standard demonic-possession narrative featuring two priests (one old, one young; one a true believer, one a skeptic), steely, cruel nuns, an innocent victim suffering the tortures of the damned, and enough secrets to fill an abbey. But Clarke makes The Devil’s Doorway worth watching by emphasizing the thick Irish-gothic atmosphere.

Ireland. Directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Hover

Hover

Set in an ominous near-future world of assisted suicide machines, AI-driven security drones, and slabs of thick plastic doubling as tablet computers, Hover practically begs comparisons to Black Mirror. Unfortunately for director Matt Osterman and writer/star Cleopatra Coleman, that comparison wouldn’t be a favorable one. The premise is sound, but the execution is faulty; the world-building is weak, the characters thinly-drawn and forgettable. (Even the script forgets about the protagonist’s incompetent trainee, abandoning her mid-film until the story requires a shock reveal at the climax.) You can pretty much guess every twist before it happens, most of the performances are lackluster, and even the effects are shitty. And there’s gotta be a more efficient way of killing vermin than exploding their heads with microwaves. It’s probably possible to make a good movie with this premise; but Hover sure ain’t it.

United States. Directed by Matt Osterman.

Await Further Instructions

Await Further Instructions

If you’ve recently found yourself thinking, “Gee, we sure could use a Videodrome for the Trump/Brexit/Fox News era,” director Johnny Kevorkian and writer Gavin Williams have the answer to your prayers. Await Further Instructions seals the fractious Milgram family (if you know get that reference, that’s your first clue) in its home at Christmas, their only contact with the outside world a series of increasingly bizarre instructions delivered by some unknown force through the television. Long-simmering familial resentments boil over in the form of a vicious power struggle as the paranoia and the craziness escalate, and everything culminates in a climax I could not have seen coming in a million years. Add brilliant performances (especially from Grant Masters and living legend David Bradley, aka Argus Filch, Walder Frey, the creepy guy from the first series of Broadchurch, and the third First Doctor Who), a light touch of throwback (note how all the TVs are CRTs), and some brilliantly original effects sequences, and you get something really special.

United Kingdom. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian.

What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive

Canadian writer/director Colin Minihan—one-half of the Vicious Brothers team responsible for the Grave Encounters series, Extraterrestrial, and It Stains the Sands Red—strips human conflict down to basics in this survival-horror exercise. Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen star as a married couple celebrating their first anniversary at a remote lake house, but a chance encounter triggers a series of events, culminating in a devastating betrayal. Minihan doesn’t develop the narrative as thoroughly as I would have liked—took me far too long to suss out a couple of major clues, so maybe it’s just me—but he makes the most of his beautiful remote locations, and Anderson and Allen both deliver strong performances. You like your horror intense? Here’s your movie.

Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan.

Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2017

An urban legend and a novel mockumentary

Real-life commitments kept me from contributing much to Cinema Axis’ coverage of Blood in the Snow, Toronto’s annual showcase of Canadian low-budget filmmaking. But I did find time to get a couple of reviews in:

Blood in the Snow 2017

Buckout Road (Canada: dir. Matthew Currie Holmes, 2017). Anybody who’s ever watched a movie will recognize the Coping with Grief (what is it with movies about grief this year? See also half the movies I saw at either CIFF or Cinepocalypse) and Living with a Difficult Family clichés. On the bright side, I found Holmes’ direction surprisingly atmospheric, and the always-awesome Danny Glover and Henry Czerny make up for the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors.

Fake Blood (Canada: dir. Rob Grant, 2017) examines the relationship between horror-movie violence and real-life violence through the lens of a found-footage or “mockumentary” film (see what I did there?). It’s a novel idea (while not wholly original; see also JT Petty’s S&man) that might have worked better if their approach was more conventional. The filmmakers concern themselves more with what happened than what will happen, leaving the audience in suspense for events that never come.

 

Cinepocalypse: Trench 11; Animals

A period horror film and a Lynchian nightmare

I saw two films on the final two days of the festival, Trench 11 and Animals.

Trench 11

Trench 11

Canada. Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Ted Atherton, Shaun Benson, Robert Stadlober, Karine Vanasse. 90 minutes.

As one of the bloodiest, most destructive, and most senseless mass conflicts of the last few centuries, World War I provides fertile dramatic fodder for horror narratives, and Cronenberg protégé Leo Scherman exploits it to maximum effect in his latest effort Trench 11. Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald) heads an excellent cast as Berton, a Canadian tunneler assigned to an Allied Powers taskforce, led by Brits and supported by Americans. Their assignment: investigate an apparently deserted warren deep beneath the German trenches, rumored to house the laboratories of a notorious engineer of chemical and biological weapons.

Scherman milks the dimly-lit, underground setting for all it’s worth, and once our team of “heroes” reaches the tunnels, the tension never lets up. He pulls no punches when it comes to grue (an effective mix of practical effects and CGI), but wisely uses the infected test subjects as an environmental hazard, not as the primary threat. The antagonists (only the deranged Reiner, a German weapons expert, qualifies as a villain) remain identifiably human, helping the horror work on multiple levels.

Bottom line: highly recommended for those who like their horror unremittingly grim.

Animals (Tiere)

Germany. Directed by Greg Zglinski. Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, Mona Petri, Mehdi Nebbou, Michael Ostrowski. 95 minutes.

A relationship on the rocks turns into a surreal nightmare in Animals. Anna, writer of children’s books, heads to Switzerland with her husband Nick in a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, but an automobile accident proves to be the first of a series of unsettling and increasingly bizarre occurrences. Meanwhile, Mischa, the young woman hired to look after Anna and Nick’s apartment finds herself stalked by a man who thinks she’s his ex-girlfriend.

Writers Greg Zglinski (who also directed) and Jörg Kalt pile absurdity on top of absurdity: events occur out of order, Anna loses time and appears in two places at once; the talking cat and the giant fork sticking out of the sea are two of the less inexplicable anomalies. The film exhibits a distinct Lynchian influence, although the climax at least provides something that could pass for an explanation.

Unfortunately, this style of film just isn’t my cup of tea: I found it too disjointed. (I think understanding the film uses what I call “wedding ring logic,” after the visual device the viewer should use to tell the Jake Gyllenhaals apart in Enemy. In other words, it requires me to notice things I don’t normally pay attention to.) It didn’t help that I found funny several elements the filmmakers seem to have intended as creepy. (The talking cat is at the top of that list.) On the other hand, fans of Mulholland Dr. and other Lynchian puzzle movies should find this one worth the watch.

Wrap-Up

Well, that’s it for the first Cinepocalypse. Unfortunately I was only able to catch about half of the new features offered; and scheduling conflicts forced me to skip several films I would have liked to see, such as Poor AgnesThe Lodgers, and especially Psychopaths (having to miss Mickey Keating joining forces with Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, Jeremy Gardner, and Matt Mercer hurts). And It Came from the Desert sucked hard as a secret screening choice. But other than Desert, I’m pretty happy with my spread of screenings.

Top Five (Non-Repertory) Movies of the Festival, as Far as I’m Concerned:

  1. Mohawk
  2. The Crescent
  3. Trench 11
  4. Applecart
  5. Housewife

Best Director: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Best Writer(s): Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix, Mohawk

Best Actress: Kaniehtto Horn, Mohawk

Best Supporting Actress: Barbara Crampton, Applecart

Best Actor: Rossif Sutherland, Trench 11

Best Supporting Actor: Ezra Buzzington, Mohawk

Best Score: Seth A. Smith, The Crescent

Cinepocalypse: Sequence Break; Dead Shack; Suspiria

An urban legend for the video game age, a family of zombies in the woods, and an uncut classic in its native language

On my third day at the festival, I saw two shorts (Feeding Time and Blood Shed), along with two new films (Sequence Break and Dead Shack), along with the Chicago premiere of the uncut, Italian-language, 35mm print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer.

Feeding Time

Short Film: Feeding Time

Directed by Matt Mercer, 2016. Starring Stacy Snyder, Graham Skipper, Najarra Townsend. 13 minutes.

Matt Mercer wrote and directed this delightful little horror-comedy, about a hapless teenager (Stacy Snyder) hired by an eccentric couple (Graham Skipper, of whom more later, and Mercer’s Contracted co-star Najarra Townsend) to babysit. Just lovely.

Sequence Break

Sequence Break

United States. Directed by Graham Skipper. Starring Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, John Dinan, Lyle Kanouse. 80 minutes.

According to an urban legend first recorded in 2000, several units of an arcade game called “Polybius” manufactured by “Sinneslöschen” appeared in the Portland, Oregon, area in 1981. The game was very popular, even though players suffered from side effects like seizures and hallucinations. Black-suited government agents occasionally showed up to download data from the units. After a month, the machines disappeared.

Genre mainstay Graham Skipper takes on the Polybius legend for latest directorial effort Sequence Break. Skipper reunites John Dies at the End power couple Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese as, respectively, an arcade-game refurbisher named Oz and an aspiring writer named Tess, who find themselves mysteriously drawn to an unnamed game cabinet in the corner of Oz’s work space, which begins to have sinister effects on the couple as they play it.

Skipper connects the Polybius story with the technology-as-flesh motif of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Unfortunately Sequence Break doesn’t display the wit or depth of the Cronenberg work. In compensation, the film offers some strikingly creative practical effects work, while Williamson and Therese prove engaging leads. It’s a perfectly enjoyable middle-of-the-road low-budget horror film, probably not something that you’ll regard as a classic in ten years, but a fun way to scratch your horror itch while also engaging in some ’80s arcade nostalgia.

Blood Shed

Short Film: Blood Shed

United Kingdom. Directed by James Moran. Starring Sally Phillips, Shaun Dooley. 13 minutes.

In this hilarious British short, cost-cutting measures result in a DIY garden shed that eats flesh and pukes buckets of blood on its owners. The shed’s name is Bunty, and it’s a she, because we all know that sheds are girls, just like cars are.

Dead Shack

Dead Shack

Canada. Directed by Peter Ricq. Starring Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Lizzie Boys, Donavon Stinson, Valerie Tian, Lauren Holly. 85 minutes.

Aaaaagh, I just could not get into this one at all. Fourteen-year-old Jason goes off on a camping trip with his asshole friend Colin, Colin’s asshole sister Summer, Colin and Summer’s asshole father Roger, and Roger’s girlfriend Lisa. There, they run into Lauren Holly, who’s raising a family of zombies.

As you can probably guess, I decided early on that I hated all the characters, although I expect I was supposed to find them funny. I just found their constant bickering and insults annoying. Judging from the consistent bursts of laughter from the audience, I’m probably alone in that.

I didn’t completely hate the film—I believe I chuckled once or twice, and appreciated the makeup work and production values overall—but this is not going to rank as one of the festival highlights in my memory.

Suspiria

Suspiria

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1976. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett. 98 minutes.

Look, I understand why people like Suspiria so damn much. Even today, there’s not much out there that looks or sounds quite like it, and that’s after forty-plus years as one of the most influential horror films ever made. So in 1976, American horror fans must have felt like they were viewing something produced on another planet.

But for myself, while I don’t dislike the film, it does have an actual plot. And I tend to feel that a film that has an actual plot should take care to make sure said plot makes a bare minimum of sense. Suspiria takes place in a world where the standard laws of cause and effect never existed. What does the rain of maggots have to do with anything? Why would a ballet school keep an entire room filled with coiled razor wire? Why doesn’t Sara tell Suzy what Pat told her before running off into the night? Why doesn’t Suzy ask Sara to tell her?

(On a positive note, I have finally seen the scene where Daniel gets kicked out of the academy, so the reasoning for his murder makes more sense now. And seeing the film in Italian means Madame Blanc’s line about “fifty of your American dollars” doesn’t stick out.)

The point is, Suspiria (to quote the Village Voice) “only makes sense to the eye.” (I would argue that it only makes sense to the eye and the ear: Goblin’s atypically dissonant and discordant score pushes even mundane scenes over the edge into insanity. Suzy enters the “world of madness” not when she crosses the threshold of the Tanz Akademie, but when she walks out the door of the airport in Freiburg.) I prefer movies that make sense to the brain as well. As a result, while I like Suspiria somewhat, I will never love it.

Next

On Tuesday, Ted Geoghegan drops Mohawk, his follow-up to We Are Still Here; genre legends Barbara Crampton and AJ Bowen team up in the Don Coscarelli-produced Applecart; plus: secret screening!

Cinepocalypse: The Crescent; Housewife

A neo-psychedelic story of grief and a giallo-influenced journey into the weird

My second day at the festival (actually the festival’s fourth day overall, Sunday, November 5) included screenings of The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Baskin director Can Evrenol.

The Crescent

The Crescent

Canada. Directed by Seth A. Smith. Starring Danika Vandersteen, Woodrow Graves, Terrance Murphy, Britt Loder. 99 minutes.

Canadian filmmaker Seth A. Smith takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey and turns the Infinite into a full-on psychedelic experience with The Crescent, using an artistic technique called “paper marbling” as a symbolic element while lulling the audience into a state of emotional suggestion with dense electronic-ambient soundscapes.

Oh, and there’s a story in there as well. Recently-widowed mother Beth (Danika Vandersteen) and her toddler son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) navigate the not-entirely-metaphorical waters of grief at Beth’s mother’s remote seaside house. There they come to the attention of old, creepy Joseph (Terrance Murphy) and young, enigmatic Sam (Britt Loder), representing opposed forces who want to use Beth and Lowen—mostly Lowen—for their own ends.

I could have done without the plot’s development into a supernatural thriller complete with third-act twist, but I don’t think that hurt my overall impression of the film. Even so, I don’t think there are too many other filmmakers out there doing this kind of thing, so I’m in.

Housewife

Housewife

Turkey. Directed by Can Evrenol. Starring Clémentine Poidatz, David Sakurai, Ali Aksöz, Alicia Kapudag, Defne Halman. 82 minutes.

The giallo influence on Can Evrenol’s sophomore effort has been overstated somewhat, but it’s certainly there: primary-color lighting sources abound, and lead Clémentine Poidatz has the look of someone who should really be in a Forzani-Cattet film. The plotline—a young girl watches her mother murder her sister and father, and grows up to gain the attention of a cult called the Umbrella of Love and Mind, two events that are strongly entwined—is 100% pure Modern Weird Fiction, not too far off from a short story Tom Ligotti or Laird Barron might write.

Housewife is as weird and violent as Baskin, but largely not as unsettling: the ULM and its rock-star-ish leader (David Sakurai) are too over-the-top to take seriously (even though I’ve seen video footage of Scientology conferences bearing a resemblance to the ULM seminar we see here). On the plus side, I was impressed by the screenplay’s clever structure.

One other thing—if Clive Barker’s serious about doing that Hellraise remake, Evrenol should be at the top of his wish list to direct.

Next

On Monday, scream king Graham Skipper (The Mind’s EyeBeyond the Gates) steps behind the camera for his directorial début Sequence Break, Canada offers up a zombie-comedy with Dead Shack, and the 33mm Italian-language print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer finally gets its hometown screening.

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.

The Boy

A routine and predictable Gothic melodrama

The Boy
Canada/United States, 2016. Directed by William Brent Bell. Starring Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle. 97 minutes. 4/10

The month of January has a reputation as a dumping ground for theatrical releases the studios don’t have much faith in. In the case of The Boy, the latest directorial effort from William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside), you can see why.A routine

Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead) stars as Greta Evans, a young American on the run from a bad relationship, pursuing a job opportunity in the English countryside, as nanny to Brahms, the young son of the reclusive Heelshires (Diana Hardcastle and Jim Norton). It’s only when Greta arrives at the Heelshire estate that she discovers Brahms is actually a porcelain doll whose “parents” treat as a real boy. After the Heelshires depart on holiday, leaving Greta in charge of the doll with a detailed routine and list of rules, local deliveryman Malcolm (Rupert Evans, The Man in the High Castle) tells her the story of the real Brahms, who died in a fire over twenty years previous. That’s when the weird occurrences–strange noises, missing objects–start. Is there more to the doll than meets the eye?

The Boy makes for a fairly routine gothic melodrama. Any viewer who’s ever stood downwind of a horror movie should be able to work out most of the major plot developments: for example, when we learn that Greta took the job to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend Cole, it doesn’t take us long to work at what point Cole will eventually turn up at Heelshire Manor, and what will happen to him after he does so. (Admittedly, the film borrows its big third-act twist from a source obscure enough to have slipped by most members of a casual audience.) Plot issues don’t end at predictability; many of the beats depend on the characters taking “stupid pills” and consistently overlooking the safest and most obvious course of action at almost every turn.

Bell’s direction mostly works, wringing a suitably creepy atmosphere out of Craigraddoch Castle in British Columbia (although he does break the illusion by having Greta fix herself a PB&J sandwich). Admittedly, he depends heavily on jump-scares and “Hey! Look behind you”-style shots (which composer Bear McCreary is more than happy to punctuate with obtrusive orchestral stabs). Overall, The Boy is less of an exercise in suspense than surprise.

The cast are the strongest element, overall, of the production. Cohan and Evans make for engaging leads (even though the characters are written to be at least ten years younger than the actors), although I do have some gripes about the former’s work in the film’s midsection. Hardcastle and Norton are the MVPs, bestowing the elder Heelshires with a gravitas and sense of tragedy that counterbalances some of the story’s other flaws. Ben Robson (Vikings) and James Russell put in memorable performances in comparatively minor roles late in the game.

The Boy isn’t a complete waste of time, especially if you’re the sort of horror fan who likes to shout at the characters about how stupid they are. But it’s certainly not worth braving the bitter January weather to buy a full-price ticket for. Wait till it shows up on streaming or at your local Redbox kiosk.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

The Forbidden Room

Guy Maddin’s latest (in collaboration with Evan Johnson) often feels like an adaptation of a big book of Freudian dream interpretations.

Canada. Directed by Guy Maddin (co-directed by Evan Johnson), 2015. Starring Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Gregory Hlady, Mathieu Almaric, Noel Burton, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Amira Casar, Ariane Labed, Caroline Dhavernas, Karine Vanasse. 130 minutes. 8/10

2015 seems to have been a banner year for films seemingly designed to leave the viewer asking “What the Hell was that?” like Krusty the Clown after an episode of Worker & Parasite. We’ve already had the absurdist nightmare A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence. Now, Canadian Guy Maddin and collaborator Evan Johnson go on location in the human subconscious to bring us The Forbidden Room.

Things start with detailed instructions on how to take a bath, and gets weirder from there. A submarine crew trapped on their vessel with unstable explosives encounter a lumberjack (actually an aspiring lumberjack, or “saplingjack”) who appears suddenly and mysteriously, and relates a tale of attempting to rescue a beautiful woman named Margot from a gang of vicious thugs who worship a volcano. Margot, meanwhile, dreams of being trapped and amnesiac in a strange city, pursued by vampires. It’s something like an anthology film, which each story also serving as a narrative nesting doll for another story, and so on.

A few years ago I watched a movie called Anguish, which contains a scene in which people watch a movie about a guy watching a movie. That really impressed me, but The Forbidden Room goes so much deeper, until we get Udo Kier’s mustache–I am not even remotely fucking with you on this one–dreaming about a man whose cursed bust of the Roman god Janus causes his dark side to become manifest, kind of like Jekyll and Hyde, except in this case Hyde’s name is actually Lug-Lug.

Maddin seems to have a relationship with silent films and early talkies similar to the one Quentin Tarantino has with ’60s and ’70s foreign exploitation films, and he and Johnson take great pains to recreate that aesthetic in The Forbidden Room: sepia-toned or monochrome colorization, intertitle cards, obvious rear-projection backgrounds, adorably primitive SFX. Most importantly, their goal is apparently to replicate the oneiric quality of early motion pictures. When the Red Wolves sacrifice a tire to their volcano god, or when vampire bananas threaten Margot, these weird events actually do operate on a distinct form of dream logic based on the symbols of the subconscious mind. The film often feels like an adaptation of a big book of Freudian dream interpretations.

The end result is a big beautiful mess of a picture, almost always pretty to look at and to listen to, usually amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny, and featuring a sublime brand-new song from art-rock wisenheimers Sparks called “The Final Derriere.” On the downside, the proceedings are usually extremely hard to follow, and I didn’t find the overall film engaging enough to justify its two-hours-plus running time.

Then again, like the dreams it evokes, The Forbidden Room doesn’t seem meant to be easily followed. If I’m correct in my interpretation of Maddin and Johnson’s intent, the filmmakers achieved exactly what they wished with this film; enjoying it is the audience’s problem. The Forbidden Room is Art, and that’s how Art works.

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM poster.

Room

A family drama masquerading as a thriller, more about heartbreak and relationships than excitement, and perhaps the best of the year.

Canada/Ireland. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2015. Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy. 118 minutes. 10/10

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives in a garden shed with his mother (Brie Larson), and in his five years of life, neither he or his Ma has ever left it. He doesn’t know that there’s a world outside the shed door, that the things he sees on television are, in some part, real, or that kindly “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) who brings them food and supplies abducted Ma before he was even born. He doesn’t know that Old Nick is his father by rape. He doesn’t know that Ma told him a lot of lies because he was too young to understand the truth. All he knows is the tiny world inside the shed, which he calls Room.

When Old Nick loses his job and can’t keep up with his bills, Ma sees a chance for escape. Unfortunately, Old Nick isn’t her only obstacle: she must convince her son to disregard everything she taught him about the world. And their problems don’t end once they leave Room. How will Ma adjust to a world she spent seven years away from? How will Jack cope with so many things he has never known?

Trauma is a popular source of conflict in drama, particularly in genre exercises: it’s natural to want to see characters in unusual, dangerous situations, defying all odds to succeed. Many such narratives limit the aftermath of that trauma to the final segment of the plot arc, the denoument, but that doesn’t mean it can’t serve as a rich source of drama itself. Ma’s captivity is a traumatic event, but so is her escape, at least to Jack, and Room spends as much time examining the lives of Jack and his Ma inside Room as it does on their lives on the outside.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) and screenwriter Emma Donaghue (adapting her novel) tell the story from Jack’s point of view, giving him a metaphorical second birth into a wider world. This perspective is ironically inverted from the viewers’: we see the outside world as ordinary and banal, and Room as the scary place where bizarre, messed-up stuff happens, but to Jack it’s the other way round. Room is comfort, Room is predictability, Room is safety. When Jack and Ma go to live with her parents, a throng of well-wishers greets them–not to mention the media–and those qualities are no longer present.

Room has been described as a “thriller” and while there are moments of danger and tension, at its core it’s a family drama, more about heartbreak and relationships than excitement. It needs a strong cast, particularly when it comes to Jack, a role that requires a certain natural-ness from Tremblay–too much of a “performance” will kill the film with preciousness. He succeeds admirably here. Larson is also terrific as Ma, who embodies an unusual mixture of maturity and immaturity: emotionally stunted by her captivity, she nonetheless possesses keen instincts when it comes to her son.

I’ll call it now: at this point in the game, I expect to name Room my favorite film of 2015. It’s a sad and challenging but ultimately hopeful story about broken people struggling to help each other fix themselves, buoyed by a great script and fine performances.

ROOM poster.

The Dark Stranger

A good example of how not to tell a story like this

The Dark Stranger

Canada, 2015. Directed by Chris Trebilcock. Starring Katie Findlay, Alex Ozerov, Enrico Colantoli, Stephen McHattie, Jennifer Dale, Mark O’Brien. 90 minutes. 3/10

Horror fiction often is at its best when we can associate its fantastic monsters with our own concerns, frustrations, and anxieties. But outright allegory requires something of a deft touch to keep its subtext from becoming a sermon. Case in point: The Dark Stranger, the début feature from writer/director Chris Trebilcock.

Katie Findlay stars as Leah Garrison, a young graphic novelist recovering from the suicide of her troubled artist mother, which left her with a severe case of agoraphobia. When local art patron Randall Toth (veteran character-actor Stephen McHattie) approaches Leah’s father (Enrico Colantoni, perhaps best known as Veronica Mars’s dad) bout the prospect of showing Leah’s mother’s work as part of an exhibition focusing on artists and depression, Leah zealously pushes back, sensing Toth is not all that he seems. Moreover, Leah’s latest work, an allegorical fantasy based on her struggle with mental illness, is taking a strong toll on her. And is it just a coincidence that its villain, the Dark Stranger, looks exactly like Randall Toth?

While Treblicock certainly means well and handles issues such as depression, alcoholism, and self-harm with sensitivity, I can’t help but feel that the film’s supernatural elements distract from the main narrative. Indeed, the story gets along just fine for much of its running time without even confirming the Stranger’s existence outside Leah’s work. Speaking of, Trebilcock juxtaposes the main narrative with animated excerpts from Leah’s work in progress. While the art style has a unique charm, the parallel story doesn’t really tell us anything we haven’t already figured out, and often feels like padding.

The “real-life” story doesn’t fare much better. The film’s tone doesn’t convince the audience of the stakes or impart a feeling of danger; one never doubts that Leah will eventually overcome and defeat the Stranger and, by extension, her fears and anxieties. This leaves most of the suspense to ride on the identity and nature of the Stranger, who turns out to possess a perfunctory origin story. This leads to the film’s anticlimactic resolution of the conflict, made all the more disappointing by Trebilcock’s good intensions.

What The Dark Stranger does have in its favor is a strong cast with good chemistry, particularly between Findlay, Colantoni, and Alex Ozerov (as Leah’s younger brother Toby), who possess a credibly familial dynamic. Mark O’Brien and Jennifer Dale, respectively playing Leah’s love interest and therapist, do quite well with their somewhat underdeveloped roles. Only the usually-dependable McHattie disappoints, by coming on too strong as Toth and playing too much for camp as the Stranger.

Ultimately I feel bad about not liking The Dark Stranger, as Trebilcock’s goals are certainly laudable and his heart so obviously in the right place. But it simply doesn’t succeed in what it wants to do. If nothing else, it’s a good example of how not to tell a story like this.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.