Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Six

On the sixth day, I watched: the John Hawkes-led neo-noir Too Late; the colonial-era horror film The Witch; the Polish supernatural drama Demon; the “extreme” and “controversial” anthology German Angst; Isaac Ezban’s Twilight Zone-inspired The Similars.

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The Midnight Swim

An existential character study examining the relationships between three estranged half-sisters and their late mother, mostly showing instead of telling.

United States. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, 2014. Starring Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino. 84 minutes.

Filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith takes a look at the complex family relationships between women in her feature-length début. Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a dive in the lake she lives near, the lake she spent much of her adult life studying and defending. Her body never found, she is presumed dead. Her daughters June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino, co-star of Boardwalk Empire and Halt and Catch Fire and singer of the indie-rock band Exitmusic), estranged from their mother and each other, return home to put her affairs in order, but each finds the environment–the town, the house, the memories, and of course, the lake itself–pulling at them in different ways. Especially June, who has her own obsession with the lake that claimed her mother’s life.

The Midnight Swim strikes me, first and foremost, as a somewhat existential character study, examining how women relate to each other as family members (half-sisters, in this case); a sort of female version of The Corridor, without the cosmic/Lovecraftian implications. The relationships take center stage and the film’s strongest, most memorable moments–June singing her mother’s favorite lullaby, leading into a re-enactment of a verbally abusive rant, for example, or a Spontaneous Stupid Dance set to “Free to Be…You and Me”–focus on the dynamic between the sisters and Amelia (the latter only ever seen on video, in the form of a “Save the Lake” political ad).

Smith’s script puts an emphasis on showing over telling, and she implies many of the characters’ defining traits instead of stating them outright (for example, brief comments Isa makes when discussing her sudden hook-up with June’s childhood crush suggests a history of bad, probably abusive, men). This generally works to the film’s advantage (except for one major semi-revelation toward the end of the film that really needed to come earlier). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Burdge, Lafleur, and Palladino having an easy chemistry with each other, and with Ross Partridge as the aforementioned crush.

However, while I wouldn’t call Midnight Swim an overt horror film, it does include elements that can only be described as supernatural, and much of film’s overall effect is, if not actually nightmarish, then dreamlike in an unsettling way. Unfortunately, while I appreciated some of these elements (the cinematography of several night scenes; Ellen Reid’s superb, discomfiting ambient score), I didn’t think they worked as well in the overall context of the film. Occasionally, Smith simply seems to be trying too hard to be strange or obscure. The best example is the final sequence, which, beautiful though it is, seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie.

Doing the film no favors is the film’s narrative structure, which, I must state with a heavy sigh, bases itself around a found-footage conceit. (June’s making a documentary, and her sisters seem content to let her record everything that goes on around her, except for the one token “turn the camera off” scene.) The format doesn’t add anything of value to the film, creates a level of disconnect between the characters and the audience (I very rarely see people holding video cameras in real life, so why is every third horror or indie film I watch about people who apparently have the damned things surgically grafted to their palms?) and makes the film’s c0founding final moments even less credible.

That all being said, when The Midnight Swim works it really works. I think I would have liked it better if it had jettisoned the weirder elements and was only about the family, but hey, that’s life.

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM poster

The House at the End of Time

An enjoyable, engaging mystery-thriller with a satisfyingly honest emotional core.

Venezuela. Directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, 2013. Starring Ruddy Rodríguez, Gonzalo Cubero, Rosmel Bustamante. 100 minutes. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

No relation to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, The House at the End of Time is a rambling, decaying manor the struggling Fernandez family bought on the cheap. In 1981, Juan Jose Fernandez was stabbed to death, his son Leopoldo disappeared mysteriously, and family matriarch Dulce was convicted of murdering them both–although she claimed her innocence, blaming the house for both crimes. Thirty years later, the government releases her to live in the mysterious estate under house arrest. That’s when the weirdness starts happening again…

Many sources classify The House at the End of Time as a horror movie but a more accurate description would be supernatural thriller. The production design is suitably creepy and there are a few scary moments and scenes of violence, but overall, the mood is not that of horror but of mystery.

Writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo doesn’t so much construct a story as a puzzle. Dulce (with the help of a local priest she befriends) must solve the House using the plot beats as pieces, and everything fits together just so. Unfortunately, House falls prey to a common symptom of “puzzle movies”: the plot feels overly mechanical instead of developing organically, like something deliberately constructed for the characters’ benefit. It doesn’t damage the film’s overall effect, but it did cause me to keep a certain amount of emotional distance from the film.

Hidalgo proves a fine director with a strong command of atmosphere and pace, although some of the score cues work to cross purposes. For example, the light-hearted music that accompanies the baseball sequences made me wonder if I’d somehow managed to come across a Spanish-language remake of The Sandlot.

However, the core strength of the film is Hidalgo’s grasp of family dynamics and human nature. He portrays the disintegrating relationship between Dulce and Juan Jose with sensitivity and attention to the situation’s complexity; even when they aren’t particularly pleasant to each other (which is often), the audience has a good grasp of how they got to where they are. That being said, the final shift between the two seems a bit sudden; I feel Hidalgo should have started building towards it earlier, more gradually and (honestly) a bit more obviously.

Hidalgo develops the relationship between the Fernandez children, Leopoldo and Rodrigo, similarly well: two brothers who don’t always get along and give each other a lot of guff but ultimately love each other very much. However, Hidalgo does over-play his hand a bit by focusing too much on Leo in the opening phases, making for some obvious foreshadowing. Strong performances complement the characterization all around, with child actors Rosmel Bustamante (as Leopoldo) and Héctor Mercado (as Rodrigo) being the standouts.

The House at the End of Time has some flaws, but is overall an enjoyable, engaging mystery-thriller with a satisfyingly honest emotional center.

The House at the End of Time