A scene from TENEBRAE

Retro Review: Tenebrae

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1982. Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Niccolodi, John Saxon. 100 minutes.

American novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), known for writing graphically violent crime thrillers, arrives in Rome to promote his latest book, Tenebrae. Within hours of his arrival, the police approach him: a young woman was found murdered in her home, her throat cut with a straight-razor, pages from a copy of Neal’s book stuffed in the corpse’s mouth. A message, apparently from the killer, finds its way to Neal shortly thereafter.

The killer strikes again, and again, communicating with Neal after each murder, and getting closer to him with each victim. Some connection between the writer and the murderer exists, and Neal needs to discover it in order to save his own life, and the lives of those around him.

That’s the basic premise of Dario Argento’s early-’80s giallo Tenebrae. The basic setup may seem a bit familiar, and no wonder: an apparent innocent wandering, seemly by chance, into a murder mystery–which he must unravel himself if he expects to save his own skin–is a fixture of the giallo formula. Argento used similar setups twice before, in his 1970 feature début The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and his 1975 masterwork Deep Red.

That may not exactly sound like a compliment, but formula can be a tricky thing. Yes, sometimes it’s a crutch for lazy and unimaginative storytelling or filmmaking, but other times it can serve as a fascinating framework for artistic expression. Blues music can be just as “formulaic” as a horror film, but you might be surprised at how much you can do with three simple guitar chords. The same goes for a leather-gloved hand holding a straight razor.

I’ve actually enjoyed Argento’s gialli more than his supernatural horror, primarily because my chief interests in narrative are plotting and storytelling. Plot is almost never the strongest point of any Argento film, but at least in his gialli his plots cohere a little bit better than in his supernatural work (admittedly, this seems to be deliberate).

While I don’t think Tenebrae‘s plot is as solidly constructed as those of Argento’s earlier thrillers, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cleverness of its construction. His favored tropes are present and correct (for example, a witness to a crime fails to comprehend what he experiences, and thus doesn’t realize he holds the key to the entire mystery), but he deploys them in unfamiliar ways to keep the audience guessing.

One of Argento’s strengths has been in the creation of cinematic environments. Tenebrae’s predecessors Deep RedSuspiria, and Inferno rely on bold, almost aggressive use of primary colors to make a room ooze with sinister menace, while exterior scenes set at night are shot and lit in such a way to make city centers seem like deserted wastelands. Tenebrae goes in a different direction: many scenes feature not just bright but harsh lighting, and sets are dressed in shades of white and gray. The effect is not unlike an optimistic, gleaming pre-Star Wars science fiction effort (those familiar with Doctor Who circa 1978 and 1979 may get my meaning).

Argento’s camera work remains as fluid and inventive as ever–the keystone of the production being a two-and-a-half-minute-long tracking shot that reportedly took three days to film. Even in his early work, Argento has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and gore, but Tenebrae takes it one step further than his previous gialli did, particularly during the intense final sequences.

Acting and characterization are a bit stronger than they were in previous efforts, but like plot these never seemed to be particularly important to Argento. The four English-speaking actors–Franciosa, plus the legendary John Saxon as Peter Neal’s agent, Giuliano Gemma as a police detective, and John Steiner as a talk show host–are all excellent, with Saxon’s occasional comic-relief antics being a particular highlight.

The rest of the ensemble consists of Italian actors dubbed in post, and while the performances of the voice artists are a tad better than other foreign-produced ventures of this vintage, there’s still some negative impact. (The relationship between Neal and his P.A. Anne is supposed to be flirtatious to some degree, but whatever chemistry Franciosa might have with actress Daria Nicolodi is blunted by the dubbed voice.) I probably should be used to this sort of thing by now, but I can’t deny it hampered my enjoyment of the film. Your mileage may vary.

Goblin, the band who supplied the scores for Deep Red and Suspiria (and were brought to Dawn of the Dead via Argento’s involvement with it), had broken up by 1982, but three former members led by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, supplied the score to Tenebrae. It’s a bit hit-or-miss: the title theme, with its disco drum machine and vocoded vocals, is a terrific piece of work but other cues seem like tired retreads of earlier work mildly updated for the early ’80s. Argento and Simonetti even recycle two comparatively pieces from the European cut of Dawn that never made it to the American version.

Overall, Tenebrae is an enjoyable psychological mystery-thriller, very effective although with a few flaws. It does try to break the mold somewhat but its essential Argento-ness shines through, for better and for worse.

Tenebrae poster

A scene from PROXY.

Proxy

United States. Directed by Zack Parker, 2013. Starring Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, Kristina Klebe. 122 minutes.

A hooded attacker knocks heavily pregnant Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) unconscious as she walks home from her OB/GYN’s office, and strikes her repeatedly in the stomach with a brick. Her baby dies by the time the ER doctors perform an emergency C-section.

At a support group meeting for grieving parents, Esther meets Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins). Melanie shows her a picture of her husband and young son, killed by a drunk driver. The two become fast friends.

Some time later, Esther sees Melanie at a department store, claiming her son Peyton is missing. While security searches the store, Melanie goes outside to take another look for Peyton–who was never missing at all, merely waiting patiently in his mother’s car the entire time. Unnoticed by Melanie, Esther recognizes Peyton as the boy from the family picture.

This touches off a series of events that brings to light a web of lies that also involves Melanie’s husband (Joe Swanberg) and Esther’s lover (Kristina Klebe). Everyone has secrets they would prefer remain hidden, and blood will be spilled before all is revealed.

It ain’t easy being a hobbyist film critic. More than once I’ve walked away from a film, asking myself, How the Hell am I going to explain this to people? Sometimes it’s hard to describe a film without entering spoiler territory. (I had a friend once who recommended Donnie Darko to someone who’d never heard of it, explicitly telling her what it’s really about. I have rarely in my life wanted to punch someone so badly.) Other times a movie is just so weird that there’s no way to describe it without sounding insane.

Then there’s Proxy. If someone were to ask me “What is Proxy about?” I would probably curl up into a ball and whimper. What Proxy is about changes roughly every fifteen to twenty minutes. Some movies like to pull the rug out from under the audience. Proxy pulls out the rug, then it pulls out the floor, then the rest of the building. I get the feeling that if co-writer/director Zack Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner could pull the entire planet out from under you, they would.

This is an exceedingly difficult trick to pull off and it’s to Parker’s credit that it mostly works. More than once the film feels like it’s gone a twist too far. Forcing the audience to drastically rethink its attitude towards a character can be an effective plot point, but ask too often and you run the risk of the audience not caring who the characters really are. Proxy only approaches that point with one subplot, involving Joe Swanberg’s character. Red herrings can be useful, but this one takes up too much space in a film that’s on the longish side to begin with.

Other than that, the subplots lock together tightly and Parker milks every drop of suspense he can out of every scene–in fact, while it’s usually classed as a horror movie, Proxy is really more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, just gorier. (Which doesn’t mean that no horror can be found here: the attack on Esther was undoubtedly difficult to watch.) The pacing works but could probably use some tightening up, particularly the midsection, which tends to drag a little.

But it’s not the kind of film that could succeed solely based on its script or its direction. It requires strong performances to make it work, and strong performances are what it has. Esther is perhaps the most difficult character to get a handle on, because she’s essentially blank and shallow; Rasmussen brings enough dimension to the character to keep her from being dull. Havins commands all your attention whenever she’s on-screen. Swanberg delivers top-notch unhinged. Klebe, having the least-defined of the main roles, manages to transcend the Bull-Dyke clichés the script burdens her with.

Proxy is a fine effort that occasionally doesn’t work as well as it should. It could definitely do with some tightening up. But I enjoyed it, and I admire the filmmakers for thinking big and ambitiously.

Proxy poster

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal star in ENEMY.

Enemy

Canada. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2013. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Melanie Laurent. 90 minutes.

I try to go into a movie knowing as little as possible as possible about it. Sometimes I’ll be familiar with a trailer–one of the nice things about the peculiar subset of film that I cover for the Gallery is that trailers aren’t as often plagued with the problems that those for mainstream movies have–and a log line, but that’s it. If something strikes me as interesting, I’ll do my damnedest to avoid press coverage and even discussions with other people.

Here’s what I knew about Enemy at the moment I brought it up on Amazon Instant Video: it’s about a guy who meets a double. The other guy seemed to be an actor of some sort, seemed inclined towards intimidation, and dressed like he lived some sort of glamorous life or something.

I figured it was going to be a fairly straightforward action-thriller with a SF element…you know, like Orphan Black would be if it were a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal. After the existential antics of +1 and Coherence, that would be just the ticket.

That’s being said, let’s ponder the words of Karl Pilkington one last time (I’m not using this quote in doppelgänger movie reviews anymore):

“What would do me head in is…does he think the same way, look the same way…how would I know which one I was?”

—Karl Pilkington, when asked about how he would respond to meeting his own doppelgänger

Pilkington said that in a podcast episode he recorded with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Gervais and Merchant respond by opining that that must be the stupidest question ever asked: you know which one’s you because you know you’re you. To which I would have asked, “…or are you?”

I’ll get back to that later, maybe; right now, let’s get back to Enemy. The two Jakes are Adam Bell and Anthony Claire. Bell is a nebbishy (or at least as nebbishy as Jake Gyllenhaal is allowed to look) history prof who doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds fame). Neither appears all that interested in the other, and while they do seem to have a fair amount of sex, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying.

Meanwhile, Anthony Claire is (as I surmised) an actor, working under the stage name Daniel St. Claire. He’s more confident and less unkempt than Bell, but otherwise the two are identical. He’s married to Helen (Sarah Gadon, Cronenberg’s latest muse; she starred his last two movies, his upcoming Maps to the Stars, and his son Brandon’s Antiviral). Their relationship isn’t much better than Adam and Mary’s, although it must be marginally so because Helen is pregnant and Anthony enjoys privileges at a local sex club.

So. Adam discovers he has a doppelgänger and tracks Anthony down. Their meeting leaves them both anxious, confused, filled with dread. How can this be possible? Even if they are somehow long-lost twins, it’s impossible for two people to be exact physical duplicates, even down to scars and choice of facial hair, right?

That’s when a certain thing happens, a shocking thing, a thing that insists I recontextualize everything I’ve seen so far. That thing is the image of a huge–we’re talking kaiju-sized–spider striding above the Toronto skyline. From that point on, it becomes apparent that not everything that appears on-screen is meant to be considered as “real” and it’s up to the audience to determine what, if anything, is actually happening.

Writer/director Denis Villenueve has constructed one hell of a cinematic puzzle, and Enemy has a lot to offer viewers who like combing a movie for clues to what’s actually going on. The problem I have with the film is that’s not how I play the game, I’m not constantly scanning the image looking for the key to understanding the scene. (One YouTube video purporting to explain Enemy states that you can tell which of the Two Jakes appears in a scene: he’s “obviously wearing a wedding ring” and is therefore Anthony. But I’m not the sort of person who registers wedding rings, in either images or real life, unless my attention is directly called to them, so I missed that vital clue.)

I tend to go for writing/story first, then visual aesthetics. I wasn’t much impressed with the former: while I enjoyed the Pilkingtonian (see, told you I’d get back to that quote!) essence of the quest to find the true nature of the Two Jakes, the characterization is so weak I didn’t find myself emotionally invested in the outcome. Mary is a complete cipher as a character; Helen isn’t much better, although I do like Gadon as an actress and she puts in a good performance here.

The look and the feel of the film are the main selling point to me. I’m not a huge fan of Villenueve’s work but I’ll give him that he’s got a great eye and a palpable feeling of dread oozes from every frame of the film. He clearly put a lot of thought behind the ideas. I just wish he’d done more work on the characters.

While I didn’t like Enemy as much as I wish I had, I respect Denis Villenueve for having the guts to make a film that demands the audience pay very close attention and use its brain. Sadly, it’s not quite my thing.

Enemy poster

Craig Wasson stars in BODY DOUBLE.

Retro Review: Body Double

United States. Directed by Brian De Palma, 1984. Starring Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry, Melanie Griffith. 114 minutes.

Brian De Palma, the modern master of suspense, invites you to witness a seduction, a mystery, a murder,” read the copy on the Body Double posters. To film-goers in 1984, the implication couldn’t be any clearer. “Modern master of suspense” is the key phrase. There were many skilled suspense directors, but only one unqualified “master of suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock. I suspect that the copywriter who wrote those words wanted the public to make the connection between Body Double and Hitch.

Anyone who saw the film hoping to see a suspense thriller in Hitchcock’s tradition wouldn’t have been disappointed. Hitch’s influence on De Palma has always been obvious, but Body Double borders on pastiche. Jake Scully, the down-on-his-luck actor played by Craig Wasson, suffers from claustrophobia and indulges in voyeurism, recalling Jimmy Stewart’s characters in Vertigo and Rear Window. And it’s probably coincidence that female lead Melanie Griffith is the daughter of Hitchcock Blonde Tippi Hedren, but you never know.

Of course, De Palma is De Palma and he can’t help but employ subject matter a bit more sordid (comparatively speaking) than Hitchcock’s. Wasson’s quest to uncover the murderer of his erotic-dancing neighbor (Deborah Shelton…OR IS SHE???) leads him to audition for a porn film. (De Palma reportedly wanted Body Double to be the first mainstream Hollywood picture to feature unsimulated sex, which for some reason strikes me as an obvious desire for him to have.) Peeping isn’t the only deviant fetish Wasson indulges in; he also has a pair of Shelton’s undies in his pants pocket. And let’s not forget the film’s central murder, carried out (for some reason) with an industrial drill in a scene highly reminiscent of another Hitchock acolyte, Dario Argento. No wonder it’s Patrick Bateman’s favorite movie.

As a filmmaker De Palma tends to place style over substance, which sounds like a criticism, but isn’t in this case. His command over pacing and atmosphere ensure the audience is glued to the edge of its seat throughout. The reveal of the killer’s identity shouldn‘t work, because it’s obvious from the first moment he appears on-screen, but it does work. It’s the art of shocking the viewer with the things he or she already knows, and it’s central to making suspense work.

Similarly, De Palma knows the importance of composition and the film’s lurid visual aesthetic is a treat. Certain sequences are dated–particularly a scene between Wasson and Shelton that borders on the cornball. At another point, De Palma puts the plot on hold for four minutes to turn the film into a music video. The song is Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s venerable “Relax,” the perfect song for a movie about a guy who looks through a telescope and watches a woman masturbate. Just in case you didn’t get the point, HGTH singer Holly Johnson makes an uncredited appearance in what is probably the most perfect cameo of the entire 1980s, gliding around a porno set (for a film called Holly Does Hollywood, even!) like he owned the place. Hell, maybe he did.

Certainly it doesn’t hurt that the film’s script, outlandish though it may be, is solidly constructed and doesn’t have any holes you could drive a creepy panel van through. But that’s icing on the cake. Watch Body Double for the story, and you watch for the wrong reason.

The cast is solid although the dearth of major stars (Griffith doesn’t really count, as this was her first leading role, so the closest it gets to having a “big name” is Dennis Franz in a small but memorable role as a cranky film director) is notable considering it was made between Scarface and the Danny DeVito/Joe Piscopo vehicle Wise Guys. Wasson is an engaging protagonist, although his penchant for peeping might be even creepier today than it was in the mid-’80s. I’ve never been a huge fan of Griffith, who plays porn star Holly Body, and I think sometimes she reaches too hard for the southern California girl stereotype, but for the most part she does just fine. Shelton’s performance is okay, but there’s not a whole lot for her to do, and whoever it is that’s dubbing her voice sounds vaguely detached.

The best performance comes from character-actor Gregg Henry (always and forever Eddie Izzard’s boss on The Riches) as Sam, a fellow actor with an incredible crash pad with the most amazing view. His take on a popular thriller stereotype–the always-smiling, fun-loving, vaguely douchey buddy with a dark side you never suspected–is critical to the film’s success. In a way, it’s almost more important that Henry nails his character than Wasson, and he does–Sam is probably more memorable than either Scully or Holly.

Body Double is a curious beast, a bit of a throwback, the kind of movie they didn’t really make anymore, mainly because the person who made the best ones died. And yet, it’s firmly rooted in 1984 (may I remind you that Frankie Goes to Hollywood is in it?). It might look a bit cheesy to modern eyes, but if you’re willing to not only look past the ’80s veneer but revel in it, you’re in for a treat: one of the best suspense thrillers of its era.

Body Double poster

Dreama Walker stars in COMPLIANCE

Compliance

United States. Directed by Craig Zobel, 2012. Starring Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Ann Dowd. 89 minutes.

Another stressful Friday at a ChickWich franchise in Ohio. Last night, an employee left a freezer door ajar before closing up; over a thousand dollars’ worth of food spoiled. Manager Sandra Fromme (Ann Dowd) managed to wrangle an emergency shipment from the warehouse to replace some of it, but bacon remains in short supply. If that’s not bad enough, regional HQ is sending a “secret shopper” to the restaurant tonight, to evaluate the crew’s service. Sandra doesn’t need any more hassles.

She gets one anyway, in the form of a phone call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who tells her he has an irate customer with him and Sandra’s regional manager on the other line. The customer claims to be the victim of a theft committed at the restaurant an hour earlier by one of the counter jockeys, a blonde girl, about 19 years of age. The police aren’t currently able to spare any uniforms to investigate yet, so Daniels asks Sandra for her help, and tells her that the regional manager authorizes her to assist him in whatever way he needs.

Daniels’s description matches Becky (Dreama Walker), one of Sandra’s least favorite crew members, so she calls her into the office for a chat. Becky, of course, denies the theft. Daniels doesn’t believe her, and tells Sandra she needs to search the young woman. She doesn’t have the money on her.

Nobody ever doubts the officers’s story. Nobody considers the possibility that no theft ever occurred, and that “Officer Daniels” mightn’t be a cop at all. Nobody questions him when he instructs them to strip-search Becky, or to treat her in a more extreme manner. They just assume he is who he says he is, and comply with his instructions, even when they cross the line to sexual harassment and beyond.

Before the night is over, trust will be shattered, careers will be destroyed, and lives will be ruined…all because of a middle-aged man with a prepaid cell phone and a few calling cards, claiming to be a policeman.

Compliance begins with the boilerplate disclaimer that it’s based on a true story. For once, that’s not bullshit: writer/director Craig Zobel changed the names of people, places and companies, but his screenplay matches, plot point for plot point, an incident that occurred at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in April of 2004.

Turns out that disclaimer is pretty much crucial, because it makes a point. I’m not sure how well Contrivance would work if it were pure fiction instead of merely fictionalized. I don’t think it’s accurate to call these events “unbelievable”; in fact, they’re all too believable, because it’s easy to be blasé and cynical about human gullibility/stupidity/herd mentality/moral decay/whatever you want to call it. But knowing that these things actually happened makes it harder to write these events off.

Zobel never bothers to concretely answer the question “How the fuck could this possibly happen?” But he gives several hints, and the most obvious one comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, as “Officer Daniels” talks Sandra’s tipsy fiancée Van through the finer points of keeping a naked 19-year-old girl under control. Van needs to make Becky call him “sir,” he needs to spank her like he’s her daddy when she “mouths off” to Sandra.

He needs to assert authority over her, and to trigger her programming to submit. Just like Daniels does whenever he tells someone, “You need to calm down, and you really should call me ‘officer.’ Or ‘sir.’” Do we all have this programming? Are we all that different from Sandra, Van and the rest of the crew?

At this point, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Compliance is a horror movie, and not one of the fun ones, either. It’s one of the ones that makes you feel numb or hollow inside at the end, and you need a good cry or maybe a shower. Just with emotional violence instead of physical.

And Zobel’s devotion to the actual sequence of events makes the film harder to watch. Modern horror and thriller films tend to utilize a “roller-coaster” structure, a cascading sequence of events to build tension and release tension. Compliance, on the other hand, is all tension. Occasionally the action (inasmuch as you can call a bunch of people talking on the phone with each other “action”) breaks for a minute or two, but not very often, but by the time the climax hits, you’re going to want to run screaming from the room.

This is all well and good, but it is the sort of film that needs a good cast to sell it and it’s got one. Dreama Walker puts in an admirably brave performance as Becky, Pat Healy’s “Officer Daniels” commands the entire film (pun intended), but it’s Ann Dowd as Sandra who has the toughest role: you have to see her as an ordinary, average Everywoman who commits a series of increasingly horrifying acts simply because a man she believes to be an officer of the law tells her they’re the right things to do.

Compliance isn’t a work of entertainment. It will make you uncomfortable and it will make you think about things you’d rather not think about; it might even force you to face an ugly truth about yourself. It is art.

Compliance poster

A scene from THE CORRIDOR

The Corridor

Canada. Directed by Evan Kelly, 2010. Starring Stephen Chambers, David Patrick Flemming, James Gilbert. 98 minutes. 8/10

Five men–five friends–arrive at the house in the woods. Chris Comeau (David Patrick Flemming), a teacher of the deaf at the high school he and his friends attended. His cousin Bob “Bobcat” Comeau (Matthew Amyotte), happily married, father of several children, but balding and unable to get over a pro ball career that never happened. Ev Manette (James Gilbert), a bartender screwing his boss on the side. Jim “Huggsy” Huggan (Glen Matthews), married to a beautiful woman he can’t impregnate.

And Tyler Crawley (Stephen Chambers), recently released from psychiatric care, bearing his late mother’s ashes.

Some time ago, Tyler had a psychotic break, triggered by the apparent suicide of his mother, a woman who herself had mental issues. He attacked his friends, slicing Ev across the face and stabbing Chris through the hand.

The house in the woods is “Pauline’s Retreat,” the Crawley family’s second home. The friends come to reminisce, to make amends, to bond, and to lay their good friend’s mother to rest.

Scattering the ashes out by the old beacon tower, Tyler stumbles through something much like a force field covering a small patch of ground. It keeps the light in and weather out, and inside it, machinery and electronics don’t function. It scares him, but it also fascinates him, and he returns to it several times, eventually leading the rest of his friends there.

It’s when all five friends stand inside the zone that they get a glimpse of its full potential. It grows larger with every visit. First it was like a room; now it’s like a hallway, a corridor. And it changes them somehow, binding their minds together in a telepathic bond.

But one of those minds is sick. The corridor is gradually driving the friends crazy. And at the center of that madness is the relationship between Tyler and his late mother.

The most effective horror films, to me, are the ones that work on an existential level. I don’t mind a fun tale of stupid teenagers relentlessly stalked by an axe-wielding maniac in a rubber mask, but they’re like junk food to me, empty calories. But a movie that poses fundamental questions about the nature of reality and humanity’s perception of it? That’s a satisfying meal with a rich dessert. I cut my teeth on Lovecraft, after all. That’s why I loved The Corridor so much.

Screenwriter Josh McDonald and director Evan Kelly keep a tight focus on the five friends and the things that make them tick. In this way it’s closer to a psychological thriller than a standard horror movie. This is a film about men and how they relate to each other, and it hits the nail on the head. When I get together with my male friends, we treat each other the way these guys do. Yes, they indulge in machismo, break each others’ balls, and engage in dick-measuring contests, but there’s no small measure of sensitivity and affection as well. Exaggerated bromance men-children need not apply.

Another thing the film gets right is…I’m not sure I want to call it a “mid-life crisis” (even though that’s what Netflix says) because it doesn’t look like any of the actors were older than thirty, but it’s the feeling of failure one gets having reached a certain age without having conquered the entire world. I think this is a distinctly male concern; women experience something similar but since they have an entirely different set of cultural expectations laid on them, it’s not quite the same. None of the five are satisfied with their lives, and suffer from some degree of self-loathing. Even Jim, who pretty much has conquered the entire world, but still hates himself because he can’t get his wife pregnant (and the film makes it clear that it’s Jim’s “fault” because he’s firing blanks).

Drop the Corridor into the middle of this and suddenly everyone’s sharing neuroses and delusions…and let’s not forget Tyler, who probably suffers from schizophrenia. Many viewers won’t be pleased that the Corridor doesn’t get all that much screen time or explanation, but let’s get real: is there anything that could satisfactorily explain a Phantom Zone that turns people into mind-readers? I didn’t think so. This is a film that trusts its audience not to get hung up on the stuff that’s not important.

The Corridor is an ensemble piece for a strong cast, and all five of the main actors put in excellent performances. Flemming’s Chris is the emotional center and audience-identification character; Chambers underplays Tyler’s crazy (it must have been hard to fight off the temptation to go full Nicolas Cage); Gilbert manages to make Ev likable despite a long streak of douchebaggery. Amyotte and Matthews are also terrific.

There are few minor roles, but Mary-Colin Chisholm makes a strong impression as Pauline Crawley, and respected British character actor Nigel Bennett (probably best known for his roles on Forever KnightLa Femme Nikita and Lexx) makes a brief appearance as a hunter who stumbles across the Corridor.

There are a couple of silly narrative decisions in the last fifteen or so minutes, some dodgy effects, and the world’s fakest-looking bald cap on Amyotte’s head. But honestly, if that’s the stuff you care about then you’re watching the wrong movie.

The Corridor is a genuinely thought-provoking cosmic horror story that remembers that the center of the story isn’t some awesome supernatural force, but the characters who discover that force, and how they respond to it. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Scott.

The Corridor poster

A scene from ALYCE KILLS

Alyce Kills

United States. Directed by Jay Lee, 2011. Starring Jade Dornfeld, Tamara Feldman, Eddie Rouse. 94 minutes. 5/10

Twentysomething Alyce (Jade Dornfeld) works a dead-end data entry job for a boss who loathes her. She lives in a run-down apartment, her landlord constantly hounding her for rent. Her associates see her as weird and pathetic, and even her best–more like only–friend, Carroll (Tamara Feldman), thinks she’s kind of odd.

One night, Carroll discovers her boyfriend Vince (James Duval) is cheating on her and responds the only way she knows how: by dumping the bastard, then going on an ecstasy-fueled bender and taking Alyce along for the ride. The two young women end up on the roof of Alyce’s apartment building and tragedy strikes. The drug-addled Alyce playfully pushes Carroll as she dances along the roof’s ledge. Alyce doesn’t mean to hurt her friend; nevertheless, Carroll takes a multi-story tumble and lands on the street below.

Assuming she killed Carroll, Alyce sneaks back to her apartment. When the cops arrive the next day, she lies to them, telling them that Carroll was distraught over her breakup and went to the roof alone. That’s when the cops reveal that Carroll isn’t dead. Although with a shattered jaw, she’s not in much of a position to tell anyone the truth.

The guilt of having nearly killed her best–only–friend sends Alyce, never the most stable of people to begin with, over the edge. She looks up Carroll’s dealer Rex (Eddie Rouse) and tries to buy drugs from him…but since she doesn’t have enough money, he demands an…alternate…form of payment. Her life soon spins into a downward spiral of drug abuse and degrading sex. Her job performance suffers. Her behavior becomes more erratic than it already was.

Something inside Alyce has snapped. She may have been weird before…but now she’s dangerous.

Hey kids! Do you like movies about adorable, eccentric misfits (May)? What about gut-wrenching tales of emotional and physical degradation (Requiem for a Dream)? Or black comedies about psychotic murderers (Sightseers)? Well then, friend, today is your lucky day, because Alyce Kills is all three at once!

But actually–and this probably shouldn’t surprise you–what it really is, is an unfocused mess. It reminds me a lot of Chicago weather: if you don’t like what it’s doing or where it’s going, just wait about ten minutes. By that time you’ll find yourself wondering if you’re watching an entirely different movie.

Now, I’m all for shifts in tone and changes in direction in cinema. Some of my favorite horror movies employ them to great effect. The problem with Alyce Kills is that its shifts and twists aren’t particularly effective. Most horror films with a dark comic bent either juxtapose the two, or start out funny and progress to terrifying. This is hard enough to do as it is. Alyce Kills tries something a bit different: it starts serious, gets dark, and then becomes a comedy in its last half-hour. I guess there’s got to be a way to make that work, although writer/director Jay Lee certainly isn’t successful at it.

One thing that doesn’t help is that it’s hard for the audience to wrap its mind around the title character. One moment we feel bad for her because Rex shot his wad in her mouth even though she specifically told him not to, then she kills one of her friends, then she masturbates while watching Gulf War footage on a cable channel. Sometimes she’s a lovable, sarcastic pixie, sometimes she’s a freak and sometimes she’s just fucking nuts. Real human beings have all sorts of contradictory personality traits, but fictional characters need a bit of work to resolve them. Sometimes Alyce seems like an effigy to perform whatever action Lee thinks is cool or funny or whatever.

Jade Dornfeld’s performance in the role doesn’t make up for the flaws in its conception. That doesn’t mean that her performance is entirely, or even partially, bad: she’s a gifted comic actress, and she makes the best impression in the later, funnier scenes. There’s a sequence involving a microwave oven, a garbage disposal, and a severed human arm that’s priceless, and the film’s final scene is as hilarious as anything in an Edgar Wright movie.

She’s problematic when the story is on the serious side, especially in the first half hour or so. Like any good white liberal boy, I know I should feel bad for Alyce when she agrees to trade sex for drugs. But Dornfeld doesn’t really make the case that Alyce doesn’t have a choice (or feels she doesn’t have a choice, which is pretty much the same thing), and so I get miffed at her when she just doesn’t turn around and walk away.

Lee consistently tells us throughout the movie that Alyce has always been a little weird, but neither he nor Dornfeld actually convince us. We never get the feeling that there’s this wellspring of rage inside her, just waiting to burst out.

And it hurts because the character deserves a lot better than this, and so does the cast–including Dornfeld herself, despite all my criticism of her. I don’t regret watching Alyce Kills–it’s got its entertaining bits and its disturbing bits. They’re just not put together in a sequence that makes much sense.

Alyce Kills poster

Blue Ruin

United States. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, 2013. Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves. 90 minutes. 9/10

Unkempt and withdrawn, Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) lives “off the grid” in Delaware. He breaks into houses for baths, scavenges for food and lives in his broken-down, pale blue Pontiac Bonneville.

One day, someone raps on the car’s window. It’s Officer Eddy of the local P.D. She has a message for Dwight.

Years ago, Wade Cleland, Jr., murdered Dwight Evans’s mother and father. He went to prison for his crime. And soon, within days, his term will be over.

Dwight’s demeanor changes the minute he hears the news. He fixes his car, sends a postcard to his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), and unsuccessfully attempts to get a gun. He hits the road, his destination a place he hasn’t seen in a long, long time.

Home.

By pure chance, Dwight comes across the Cleland family, celebrating Wade’s release at a meeting hall just outside the small Virginia town where he grew up. Within minutes, Wade lies on the floor of the men’s room, dead by Dwight’s hand.

Dwight gets away–but not unseen. Soon, the Cleland family will come for him, and probably his sister and her young daughters. He’s got to get them first.

It’s the only way.

It’s an old story. The wronged man takes up arms, to take vengeance on those who persecuted him. But at the end of it all, he rarely finds that revenge delivers the catharsis and closure he seeks. Instead, he finds the price he pays is terrible indeed, and he is worse off than he was before. He sees, to his sorrow, the truth behind the old saying: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

That’s not how Dwight’s story goes, not exactly. It’s not hard to guess that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin won’t end with Dwight Evans perched triumphantly atop a mound of Cleland corpses. But it’s not the process of vengeance that destroys him. He’s a broken man, damned the day his parents died. He’s a tragic figure, unable to take any step that doesn’t bring him closer to his looming fate. Awkward and inept, he’s nobody’s idea of a hero.

“I could feel sorry for you if you were crazy,” Sam tells him, “but you’re just weak.”

The direction is poetic and spare, occasionally interrupted by scenes of intense suspense and harrowing violence. The cracked urban pavements and long shots of vast, empty rural land reflect the characters’ mental states. Some of the dialogue is quite clever (I’m very fond of “The guy with the gun gets to tell the truth”) and there’s a thin streak of black comedy running through the story, but the overall tone is bleak. The script sparingly doles out backstory, and while there are surprises and twists, it thankfully doesn’t hinge on an all-important third-act shock plot twist. Haunting ambient soundscapes, provided by Brooke and Will Blair, underline the action, along with the occasional country and western song.

Blair (who also executive-produced) inhabits the lead role of Dwight and carries the film with it. It’s not just in his line readings (sometimes intense, sometimes scattershot). His physical presence is just as important, and even after cleaning up and changing from a scraggly-bearded, creepy-looking drifter to someone you wouldn’t look twice at passing on the street, Blair looks the part of a man driven by demons. It’s in the eyes, mainly.

The other performances are quite good, especially Hargreaves (best known for playing Claire Danes’s sister on Homeland), Devin Ratray as Dwight’s gun-fondling childhood friend and Kevin Kolack, Stacey Rock and Eve Plumb (yup, that Eve Plumb) as various Clelands.

Quirky yet hauntingly dark, Blue Ruin is one of the best films of 2014 so far. Highly recommended for fans of the Coen Brothers’ darker films, such as Blood Simple and Fargo.

P.S. Jeremy Saulnier may seem to have come out of nowhere, but several months ago my friends Jori and John introduced me to his first film, 2007’s Murder Party; we discussed it in the April episode of the Forced Viewing Podcast. As riotously hilarious as Blue Ruin is spare and grim, this merciless evisceration of pretentious art-scene sycophants is one of the finest horror-comedies of recent years. It also stars Macon Blair, as well as two other Blue Ruin actors, Cleland siblings Stacey Rock and Alex (Sandy) Barnett. I wholeheartedly recommend it. “Fuck the scene! Everybody dies!”

Blue Ruin poster