Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Doctor Sleep: Acts Of Service

(Just as a heads-up, I’m probably gonna spoil both The Shining and this over the course of this one, so if you have somehow never seen The Shining, go rectify that immediately and then come back to this.)

I am normally not one for sequels. I think horror works best when the audience is left hanging a little, when there are loose ends, when not everything is explained. Sequels tend to overexplain, bleeding off the mystery that gives horror its power. At their worst they create some kind of mythos for the world the story exists in, turning what should be scary into what is basically a gory action film.

So I’m already not on board with sequels, but a sequel to an iconic horror film? Come on. Come on. At that point, you aren’t just making a film, you’re also taking on the original film’s legacy. You’re making a film under a very long shadow. You’re going to have to reckon with the original, otherwise what’s the point? And how do you do that in a way that doesn’t devolve into “hey, remember how cool this movie was?” It needs to be something more than a retread, it needs to not overexplain, but it still has to acknowledge its source material.

This means that Doctor Sleep has…a lot…on its shoulders. And I don’t think it drops the ball, but I think in its attempt to be faithful to the novel from which it was adapted and engage with both the original text of The Shining and the film adaptation, it…well, it ends up being a lot of things, but I’m not sure a horror film is one of them.

It begins as The Shining does, with the same ominous, minor-key synthesizer and a long tracking aerial shot. In my write-up of The Shining, I pointed out how just changing the soundtrack would turn it into a family vacation film, and that’s exactly what we get here. The car driving the long road belongs to a family who stops for a picnic, and their young daughter Violet wanders off to pick flowers. Down by the riverbank, she meets a woman singing a lovely tune and picking flowers of her own. There’s some conversation, and soon enough, Violet has become another face on another missing-child poster.

Elsewhere, Danny Torrance is living in Florida with his mother Wendy. They moved there so they’d never have to see snow again. But Danny - cursed to see the dead around him - hasn’t earned a quiet life yet. The Overlook was condemned following the events of The Shining, and its ghosts grow hungry, drawn to Danny like moths to a candle. As he gets older, he learns ways to deal with them, to lock them in boxes in his mind, where they can’t ever, ever get out.

And then meanwhile, in yet another movie, young Abra Stone celebrates her birthday with her parents and friends. Her mom and dad have hired a magician for her birthday, and Abra - delighted - does some magic tricks of her own, much to her parents’ bemusement. She’s gifted, like Danny is gifted.

This is how the movie opens, and I think you get a sense of one of its biggest problems right off the bat. The first third of the film is almost entirely world-building and table-setting. This is even assuming we’re familiar with the original film - if you’ve never seen The Shining, it’s going to be pretty confusing, and that film had a lot going on as well - “psychic boy moves to a haunted hotel where his abusive, alcoholic father goes insane” is a lot of balls to keep in the air, and this film tacks on even more. This film employs the same title-card device that The Shining did, and it ends up being equally as disorienting, though I don’t think that was the intent - it just highlights how much we’re bouncing around in time and space trying to connect three different stories.

So we have a flash-forward. Danny Torrance is a grown man, and he isn’t doing well. He may have quieted the ghosts of the Overlook, but he continues to see the dead. He is very much his father’s son - he drinks to numb himself and has bouts of violent rage. He loses nights to booze and coke and fistfights. He sleeps on the street. And then he hits bottom in horrifying fashion, bringing together the worlds of the living and the dead. He jumps on a bus and heads for New Hampshire. He gets a room, starts going to meetings. One day at a time. He takes a job at a hospice, sitting with the dying. A big part of recovery is being of service to others.

Meanwhile, Abra has grown into an extremely bright teenage girl who can hear what other people think, who can move objects with her mind, who can reach out across vast distances to other similar minds. Minds like Danny’s.

And then there are the people behind the disappearance of young Violet. They’re a group who call themselves the True Knot. They’re very, very old. Much older than they look. The oldest of them cheered gladiators in the Coliseum. They live a nomadic existence, traveling across the U.S. in a caravan of campers, looking for the food that sustains them. They call it “steam,” and it prolongs their lives. Steam is produced when you take someone with Danny or Abra’s gifts and torture them to death. Pain makes the steam better. Fear makes the steam better. And it’s always better in the very young.

So they travel across the country, leaving a trail of missing-child posters in their wake. But it’s getting harder and harder to feed. The steam isn’t so pure anymore, and there’s less of it out there. As their leader Rose tells their newest member: “Eat well, and live long.” But it’s been a very long time since any of them ate well.

Like I said, just getting all of the pieces onto the board takes the entire first act, and then the second has to start bringing everyone together. Abra learns about the True Knot (in another genuinely horrifying moment), calls out to Danny for help, and Danny has to reckon with all of his old, buried ghosts to help keep Abra alive once the True Knot gets her scent. The chase is on.

Here, I think it’s worth contrasting the original story with the sequel. King has written candidly about his struggles with alcohol and drugs, and it’s hard not to see an element of “write what you know” in The Shining, a story about a writer struggling to support a family and wrestling with an alcohol problem. It’s a surprisingly claustrophobic story given the Overlook’s size - it’s Jack, Wendy and Danny all on their lonesome and Jack is under tremendous pressure. It all happens in one place over the course of a few months. Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, is about someone in recovery, coming out the other side of something, and its scope is vast - it ranges across the country over several years (though the extensive use of date and location cards is one of the many ways it’s tied to the original film), and instead of being a tight, focused story about one family’s experience, it’s part of a much larger dark fantasy tapestry that encompasses something of a shared universe within King’s writings. These are two different stories written by the same man at two very, very different stages of his career. The Shining is the work of a writer trying to establish himself and mining very personal fears. Doctor Sleep is the work of a writer thinking back on those times and playing in the landscape of an imagination that has at this point been producing stories for decades, roaming deep and wide.

What I think this all means is that you don’t have to worry about this film merely recapitulating the original. But I also think that The Shining made for a better film (despite King’s dislike for it, more on that in a bit) because it was such a tight, focused story. Doctor Sleep is so sprawling - geographically, temporally, and in the sheer volume of ideas it presents - that it feels throughout like you aren’t watching a movie so much as you are bingeing a miniseries. It’s two and a half hours as it is (about the same run time as The Shining, come to think of it), but it feels like you could have tacked on another hour and a half and turned it into a four-part miniseries (an approach that has been tried with the even more sprawling King novel The Stand, and it’s still not enough time to do that story justice). The problem with this is that the amount of exposition needed leaves very little room for any kind of atmosphere or tension to develop, and in positioning Abra and Danny against the True Knot, we end up with more of a good versus evil story than a horror story. Not that horror films don’t deal in good and evil, they often do, but it’s usually on much more personal terms, rather than being about some kind of cosmic struggle.

The result of this (and a pretty heavy emphasis on action in the back half) is that what we get is closer to dark fantasy than horror per se. Dark fantasy and horror can certainly coexist (I have high hopes for the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories in the works at Netflix in that regard), but once we widen out from Danny Torrance’s personal hell, it really becomes something other than horror. It isn’t bad, but there’s just too much going on across too many places and too many ideas being juggled for it to really bear down and get scary.

Which is too bad, because there’s definitely horror to be mined here. One thing I really appreciated about this film was that it does something lots of sequels don’t do well, if at all - it actually deals with the consequences of surviving a horror movie. Danny’s downward spiral is illustrated vividly - he’s a rage-fueled alcoholic on his way to bottoming out when the movie starts. Putting your nightmares in boxes isn’t confronting them, and I think that under other circumstances, there would be a much tighter, more personal, honest-to-goodness horror movie in the story of Danny’s trauma. We get glimpses of that movie in the beginning, and it’s responsible for one of the most unsettling sequences in the film.

This isn’t to say that the film as it stands is insubstantial - despite its sprawl, there are some clear thematic through-lines here. Letting go is a big theme here - Danny works at a hospice and comforts the dying, helps them to let go, where the True Knot do monstrous things to delay death because they can’t let go of the world. In the end, Danny lets go of the ghosts (literal and figurative) of the Overlook, who’ve been with him for most of his life, because that’s how you find peace. The film is also, in ways textual and otherwise, about service. Service is important to recovery, so Danny engages in service. By contrast, the True Knot are profoundly selfish in how they feed on the lives of others. They serve nobody but themselves.

Which leads to another way of think about service. Questions of fanservice attend any adaptation or revisiting of a popular story, and this film has to contend with the legacy of The Shining, both the original novel and the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, an adaptation that author Stephen King has always vocally disliked. I understand King’s criticisms, but other than his problem with how Jack starts off the film well on his way to losing his mind (something that really leapt out at me on my recent rewatch), I don’t really share his objections. A lot of them are to do with how impersonal the film is and how much the characters have changed from the novel. They have, but Kubrick isn’t going for fidelity to the text, he’s going for mood and atmosphere and vibe and his version of The Shining has that in spades. The best you can say about the King-approved miniseries adaptation is that it’s more faithful to the text and less cheesy than I feared it would be, but it’s still most notable to me as an example of why strict faithfulness to a text isn’t always a virtue. Bottom line, it’s just not that scary, and King’s distinctive authorial voice doesn’t always work as well coming out of people’s mouths as it does on the page.  

Stuff doesn’t always translate well from page to screen and part of adapting a book into a film is knowing what to keep and what to jettison. So this film reckons with both the text and the more notable of the two adaptations and does so deftly and with intelligence. It’s filled with visual allusions to The Shining throughout - matching shots, recreated flashbacks, some sly locational references where you aren’t expecting them - and that’s before the action arrives, as it must, at the Overlook, long-condemned and abandoned, a ghost of its former self. Here, it all becomes explicit, the location and visuals speaking to the film, and the action and dialogue often speaking to the original text, creating a place where both come together, just as past and present converge at the Overlook. It could be reduced to trivia (and certainly it’s going to be more rewarding to people familiar with both the book and film than to people unfamiliar with them), but I think that misses the point. It’s not just a bunch of references, it’s the way the present recapitulates the past, the way the son threatens to make the same mistakes the father did, the way trauma doesn’t just go away - avoidance and repression aren’t confrontation. The ghosts are both literal and metaphor alike.

That’s a huge legacy to live up to, and a heavy burden for a film to bear, and honestly I think it’s impressive how well it manages to evoke its predecessors, but here’s where one last contrast comes in: My central thesis when I talked about The Shining was how much it worked at the irrational, lizard-brain level for me. It was a film almost entirely about feel, which is why I think it was so effective. This film, rich with textual, subtextual, intertextual and metatextual allusion, works better as a comment on the original than it does as a stand-alone film. For anyone who has seen and read The Shining and appreciated both film and novel, this film is going to be intellectually rewarding. But thinking isn’t feeling, and the impression I was left with was “hmmm…well done,” not “holy shit.” Which, I have to say, is a little disappointing. But I’m not sure what else I could have expected from something that had to serve so many masters on its way to getting made.

IMDB entry

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Shining: Dissonance

So my way to this one was a little roundabout. As I was looking over movies I wanted to check out, I had a couple of people recommend Doctor Sleep to me. I’m a fan of the director, and it’s a sequel to The Shining ,which is…and that’s when it hit me.

I’ve never written about The Shining on this thing.

This isn’t necessarily noteworthy - there are probably far more horror movies I haven't written about than ones I have. But back in the day I did a survey of my top ten horror movies, and I’ve already written about six of them. I’ll get to the rest of them in time. But I can’t even start to talk about Doctor Sleep without having talked about The Shining first. This is a big oversight on my part.

The Shining…that’s number one on the list. It is, for me, the ur-horror film.

It all started when I was nine or ten years old and saw an ad for it on television. This ad, as a matter of fact. I didn’t make it through the whole thing. Six seconds in, Jack Nicholson turning slowly toward the camera just pushed some lizard-brain nightmare button that said “NOPE” and I had to change the channel. Every time it came on TV after that, I’d change the channel as soon as it started. I don’t think I saw the full trailer until I found it on YouTube as an adult and I’m positive that if I’d made it through the whole thing as a little kid it would have scared me shitless. It’s a distillation of the film’s mood and aesthetic, evoking a powerful, inarticulate dread that almost felt overwhelming at the time. It felt less like a movie trailer and more like someone had managed to put one of my nightmares - cryptic, but full of fear - on film.

Fast forward about six years or so, and I’m a teenager who has since developed something of a taste for horror - more in literature than film, but nonetheless. I’d read a lot of Stephen King by this point, probably including the original novel upon which the film is based. So, one evening I saw that The Shining was showing on television. Not cable - network television. For those too young to appreciate the difference, this means a couple of things. First, that all of the most egregious stuff - profanity, nudity, and graphic violence - was going to be excised. Second, that it was going to be interrupted periodically by advertising. Add to that frequent interruptions by the state weather service who was busy tracking tornado activity in the region. It didn’t really make the evening more atmospheric or anything, mostly it just meant more interruptions.

None of that mattered. It scared the crap out of me. Even much older, even though it was a sanitized and frequently interrupted experience, it still scared the crap out of me. Any time anyone asks me what my favorite horror films are, this is the first one out of my mouth. It’s not the most unsettling, it’s not the most provocative, but it captures the feelings of my nightmares better than pretty much any movie out there.

And so here I’m going to try and pull that apart - why and how does it have this effect on me? How is it so good at creating a mood that so many other films struggle to create? And finally, how does it stand up now, after years of writing critically about horror movies?

Upon watching it again, I think in short that the key to this film’s effectiveness is a persistent sense of contrast and discordance - in the narrative, in the cinematography, in the interaction between the film and its score. This is a film that keeps you off-balance, and pulls you in different directions at once.

It starts early, with an ominous, dirgelike minor-key score over a beautiful tracking aerial shot of a car winding its way down a long mountain road. If you change the soundtrack, it’s a family holiday film. We’re presented with something innocuous on the surface, but the music is telling us that something bad is coming.

In the car are Jack and Wendy Torrance, and their son Danny. They’re headed into the mountains of Colorado, where Jack is interviewing for a winter caretaker position at the Overlook Hotel, a resort that operates from April to October, then closes down for five months. You’d think that ski season would be prime for them, but they get so much snow and the roads get so impassable that the cost of keeping everything clear basically eats up any profits they’d see. So they hire a winter caretaker to do minor repairs and upkeep, to make sure the boiler that heats the hotel doesn’t break down, to look after the property when the snowfall means nobody else can get there from town. It’s a tough job - the isolation gets to people. There was an…incident with a previous caretaker.

It’s a big change from what Jack was doing - he was teaching English at a school in Vermont, but…he left that job. He doesn’t want to talk about why. It was just a placeholder anyway. His real work is as a writer, and he’s looking forward to the solitude as an opportunity to start work on a novel. And then there’s Wendy and Danny. Wendy seems a little tired all the time, but she’s pleasant enough, even when she’s talking about the violent episode that got Jack to swear off drinking a few months ago. It’s sedate, conversational, but there’s an undercurrent of unease. Danny seems like a normal kid, mostly. He’s got a really active imagination, though. He has an imaginary friend named “Tony” who talks to him, talks through him. Tony can apparently see things before they happen.

Tony doesn’t like the hotel. Terrible things have happened in this hotel.

The Overlook Hotel, then, has a past, as most big old resort hotels do. It’s been around since the early 1900s and that’s a lot of time, a lot of people passing through its doors, a lot of sordid things happening in a lot of the rooms lining its labyrinthine corridors. And Danny seems to have something of a psychic gift - a “shining” that shows him those things. The past is very alive to Danny. So the hotel is established as a malign influence, and we have this  man and his wife and child about to be locked up there for five months on their lonesome…and then we jump one month ahead.

This is the first way the film creates a feeling of deep unease. It’s punctuated with title cards intended to mark the passage of time, or to separate the film into vignettes. We begin with “The Interview”,  and then “Closing Day”, and then a leap to “A Month Later” with a sudden musical sting. It creates tension and a feeling of dislocation - a sense of time’s inevitable forward motion combined with unpredictable shifts, a feeling that we’re moving toward something inexorably, but we’re jarred out of a steady rhythm as soon as it’s established. The title cards appear throughout, moving from “A Month Later” to “Tuesday,’ repeating some days, moving from days to hours, expanding and contracting our sense of time. It’s deeply dislocating and from a contemporary standpoint, it’s not unlike the way time blurs in pandemic lockdown, how one day starts to look very much like another, how weeks blur together, and it’s either November or it’s Wednesday, or both. The end result feels like they’re sort of adrift in this giant hotel and at the same time moving toward some horrible conclusion. It’s a discordance of simultaneous timelessness and countdown to something.

This sense of being adrift is also reinforced (and subverted) by the cinematography. This isn’t really a film that uses a lot of medium shots. Shots are either of small figures dwarfed and swallowed by the rooms they inhabit, or close-ups and tight shots. There’s very little in between, and the close shots often have people placed exactly in the center of the frame in symmetric composition that draws your eye to the figures at the middle. There’s something really unnerving about extended close-ups on faces, it’s agitating, almost overstimulating, and that’s not even taking into account the fear on those faces. You can’t really look away, and there’s an exaggerated quality to the facial expressions in shots like these that reminds me very much of the intense emotions experienced in a nightmare. The lighting contributes to this as well - Jack is lit from above or below, rarely directly, which makes him look even more sinister, and the lighting palette is a mixture of warmer incandescents, natural lighting from windows, and the flat, harsh panels of fluorescents, reinforcing this feeling of disconnection, of things shifting as they do in dreams.

So everything is either very distant or uncomfortably close. and adding to the unease is a mix of slow dissolves and sudden cuts, of fast, tight zooms and slow zooms than deny you any kind of visual distance on what’s happening. It feels a little glib to talk about a film’s director as controlling what you see in a film, but here the way things are so strongly composed and presented really does feel like you don’t have much say in the matter, like you’re going to look at whatever’s happening whether you want to or not. It’s not chaotic at all, but neither is it fluent or familiar from minute to minute, so it keeps you on edge right from the start, and combined with the score and sound design, it creates tension in scenes out of something that might otherwise be innocuous. There’s nothing by itself scary about two little girls standing in the middle of a rec room, for example, but their sudden appearance, the way they hold the middle of the shot, their dead-eyed stare, it all combines to create a sense of the inexplicable and awful. In my nightmares, I’ll be faced with something similarly innocent on its own, but in the nightmare it carries some hidden, terrible meaning that I just somehow know. There’s a discordance in the visuals, then, where you’ll be presented with something that seems more or less normal, but the way it’s presented, and what you’re hearing on the soundtrack, are telling you it’s anything but.

Just as the visuals and the score change and shift to create a sense of unease, so does the narrative itself. It begins with supernatural elements there, but more in the background, the central story more one of Jack’s psychological disintegration. Just as we moving from the day the hotel closes to one month later, Jack’s descent feels just as abrupt, though it does feel forecasted - the sudden change in jobs, the incident with Danny, the relatively recent sobriety - it’s set up pretty clearly that he really has no business taking this job, so things catch up to him quick. As with the cinematography, it’s all about stark contrast - he’s fine, then he really, really isn’t. Wendy begins the film pleasant if not somewhat timid, but as we learn about what happened three years ago, the excuse-making becomes apparent, the beleaguered vigilance of an alcoholic’s spouse. It’s not an especially sympathetic portrayal - she’s hardly a portrait of courage, but it works to communicate that feelings of helplessness, and as things get worse, her feeble attempts to defend herself vividly describe anyone who has ever found themselves unable to run or speak or fight back in a nightmare. That feeling of being utterly ineffectual is almost primal.

As the movie moves on, it shifts from impending dread to a story of psychological disintegration to one more explicitly supernatural - the hotel is a malevolent place, but at first it seems like only Danny can see the wreckage of its past. But then, as Jack’s grasp on reality slips, the hotel becomes a more actively malicious force - the hotel hasn’t just had evil things happen there, the hotel itself is evil, an organism with its own consciousness, given voice by its ghosts. We get hints of this throughout as Steadicam shots give the impression of something ghostly, gliding along behind Wendy and Danny, something watching them and following them through the halls. Finally, it becomes apparent even to Wendy as the hotel shows its true face to all of them in the final act. We know that something bad is going to happen, then something bad does happen, but then it just keeps getting worse and worse, pushing beyond rational boundaries into the purer images of the subconscious.

It does a lot right, but I think the intervening years that I’ve spent watching lots and lots of horror movies with a critical eye has revealed some flaws. Jack’s rapid descent into madness can be explained by the leap in time, but there are already hints of it under the surface at the beginning - he never really seems like a sympathetic family man at all, and as things get worse it does collapse into scenery-chewing in places. Likewise, the pacing feels very slack to me - the vignette structure means that we get isolated moments that are themselves powerful, but the middle of the film meanders some and loses tension as a result. It can feel every inch of its almost two and half hours, which works for the drifting, rootless feeling of isolation, but it undoes some of the tension as well. We get scenes that work in isolation, but don’t really build on each other.

Stephen King has over the years been openly critical of this adaptation, taking exception to the way Jack and Wendy are depicted and deriding it as a beautiful film without any substance. Certainly, director Stanley Kubrick has been accused of lacking warmth, of making icy, unsympathetic, clinical films, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think it works for the film here. It’s not the more tragic story of the original text, of a Jack Torrance who’s trying to be a better person, who’s trying to battle his demons and who fails, or a Wendy Torrance who is strong and resolute when necessary, and does what she must to keep Danny safe. It’s about something bad that you see coming from the very beginning, with that ominous score over the opening tracking shot, but like a nightmare, it just keeps coming and coming and coming and getting worse than you imagined. The generally histrionic pitch of everyone’s behavior is the elevated, operatic pitch of dreams and nightmares.

It’s not the more human-scaled story King wrote - which is a fine piece of horror writing, no doubt about that - but it works very well as its own thing, impeccably styled and relentlessly uneasy. It may not have the visceral punch it did when I was a kid (though specific shots, scenes, and segments, have lost very little power over the years), but I see echoes of this film in every juxtaposition of the pastoral with the hysteric, symmetrical shots interrupted by a lone horrible figure in the center of the frame, the quick cut with musical sting, fast zooms, faces contorted with horror, and these are the sort of devices that never fail to get to me. They are the visual language of my nightmares, and that’s pretty much the highest praise I can give a horror film.

IMDB entry
Available from Amazon

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Saint Maud: The Agony And The Ecstasy

When you stop to think about it, some expressions of religion are extremely lurid, if not downright terrifying. In Christianity, this goes all the way back to Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God, moving up through the hellfire-and-damnation tradition in Protestantism, alongside the horrifying tribulations of Catholic martyrs. I mean, there’s a reason there’s a (very good) horror movie called Martyrs. And a younger, edgier me would have called The Passion Of The Christ the first real “torture porn” film, because it’s sure as shit as bloody as one, and its violence as lovingly lingered over. I mean, the word “awe” can refer both to reverence and to dread.

Devotion is fertile ground for horror, is what I’m saying. And Saint Maud - a stark, carefully told story about the place where faith and madness overlaps - explores it skillfully. It’s equal parts drama, horror, psychological character study, and account of tragic decompensation.

The film opens on a woman huddled in the corner of some kind of institutionally tiled room. There’s a pile of rumpled bedding on a gurney, the dim flicker of fluorescents. A roach crawls across the ceiling as the woman, her face smeared with blood, stares blankly upward.

Flash forward to some time later. The woman is Maud, and she’s a nurse for a private hospice care organization in seaside England. She finds value and purpose in her work, bolstered by her recent conversion to Catholicism. She credits her faith for rescuing her when she was lost, and tries to be an agent of grace for the dying. She’s starting a new posting at the mansion of Amanda Kohl, a celebrated dancer and choreographer, who is in the late stages of spinal cancer. Dying and confined to a wheelchair, Amanda sits in her big house in small-town England, away from London, watching recordings of her old performances. There’s an anger there, a bitterness. It’s understandable. Maud helps her with her exercises, administers her shots, her vile-tasting medications, bathes her, cooks for her. And as they begin to converse, Maud explains the value of her faith to Amanda, and Amanda seems receptive, if not someone astray in her grief. And so Maud realizes what she must do - it is her responsibility to bring Amanda back into the fold of the saved, to make her soul ready for heaven.

You see, Maud hears God speaking to her.

This film is less balls-out horror than it is a relationship drama and character study - well, at least until things go bad, as they must, and then they go pretty damn bad. We mostly see the world through Maud’s eyes - the dreary English seaside town, its garishly lit main drag, the dimly lit interiors of Amanda’s mansion, Maud’s squalid bedsit. There’s not a lot of honest light in her world, so no wonder she seeks it elsewhere, seeing what she wants to see. And this is definitely a film with an unreliable narrator, with a division between delusion and reality that sharpens as the film goes on. We see what she sees, but we also see her through others’ eyes, and shifting between them starts off as slightly disconcerting, and escalates to, well, that’s where the horror comes in.

It’s told in small, smartly underplayed ways - this is a film that is very good about showing instead of telling. It’s not short on dialogue, but people’s behavior, how they say things, tells us as much as (if not more than) what they actually say. Occasional flashbacks and asides give us brief glimpses into who Maud might have been before, and how she ended up like she did, but it’s never entirely spelled out, and doesn’t really need to be. Something bad happened, she took it perhaps harder than she should, and it broke something inside. She’s looking for transcendence, penance, salvation, and she feels God moving through her, speaking to her. So for as much as we’re aware of her devotion (and the things underneath she’s repressing), we also see that she’s lonely, traumatized, and not really stable. It’s longing for connection, for forgiveness, for punishment. There’s a lot of guilt there, and she’s just barely holding it together.

And what this means is that at some point, she’s going to fall apart. She’s a devout young woman caring for someone older, someone unapologetically gay, someone angry at a world that has condemned her to a slow death and the denial of movement after a lifetime spent celebrating it. Amanda lashes out - somewhat cruelly - and Maud falls, and falls hard. There’s a lot to unpack in her fervor in contrast to the life she led before, suggestions of repressed or sublimated sexuality, a need to punish herself for her transgressions, real or imagined. Lots of stories about saints involve tribulations and mortification - for some expressions of religious faith, the line between agony and ecstasy is extremely thin, and there’s all sorts of stuff to be mined here, given what Maud seems to be grappling with and traumatized by. The second half of the film shifts the focus from Maud and Amanda to Maud alone, as she spirals into something masochistic and sordid, soundtracked by moody synthesizer which moves from minor key ambience to ominous swells, the rumbling before the storm and the thunder alike.

Maud takes her penance and her holy mission very seriously indeed, and as the movie goes on the contrast between how she sees herself and how she is seen by the world becomes sharper and sharper until the very end, which is as horrifying as you’d expect, in many of the ways you’d expect. And I think maybe in some ways this is a weakness of the film. As a character study, it’s pretty strong - it’s not often that the films I write about here remind me of Taxi Driver, for example, but this one sure does - but the shift in focus halfway through robs the film of some momentum and tension, and for me the end was forecasted maybe a little too heavily - it feels less shocking than it does a foregone conclusion (though it’s certainly strikingly conveyed) and would have benefited from a stronger commitment to the unreliability of Maud’s perspective that brings us to that point so well. Still, it plays fair with everyone involved, and for as horrific as it can be, it’s tragic as well. As so often is the case with martyrs.

IMDB entry

Available on Hulu
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Thursday, May 27, 2021

In The Earth: The Forest Primeval

Something I’d like to see more of are, for lack of a better term, psychedelic horror films. Sure, the word conjures up very specific ideas, mostly to do with the Sixties and hippie culture, and though there’s nothing wrong with that, I think there have been some fairly good movies of late that expand beyond that specific time and space. Consider Beyond The Black Rainbow, Mandy, and even Annihilation, Possessor, and Ahi Va El Diablo to a certain extent. Lords Of Salem flirted with it and could have leaned into it harder, but it was kind of a confused mess as it was. Hell, as much as I dislike remakes, I wouldn’t mind seeing someone good take a run at a new version of Altered States. Films that push beyond delusion and instead bend and warp reality into something completely other scratch a very specific itch for me.

In The Earth is, for the most part, a worthwhile addition to that little corner of film. It’s trippy and brutal in equal measure, telling a story of the roles of art and science in communing with nature. Which may not sound especially frightening, but it works. It does lose the plot toward the end, but until that point it’s extremely atmospheric and unsettling.

The film opens cryptically, on shots of a forest as seen through a hole in a standing stone, like an eye, or a void. A man smashes some rock with an axe, and plants a shard of it in the ground. We cut to Martin Lowery, who has just arrived at a research site in a remote wooded area in England. The area is unusually fertile - things grow really, really well there, and he’s come to assist the lead researcher - Dr. Olivia Wendle - with her investigation into the local flora. There may be something of use to be learned, things that might help improve the hardiness of crops. Martin walks up to the lodge where the research team is based, and stops at a checkpoint. People in hazmat suits come out and spray him down. He bears it patiently, like it’s routine. Inside, there’s paperwork, a piss test, a blood draw, confirmation that he’s been in quarantine for four months. Everyone’s wearing masks.

As it turns out, this is all just part of daily life - there’s a global pandemic going on in this world too. It doesn’t figure heavily into the story, but a lot of the establishing details hit very differently than in your usual films that take place during some kind of plague - it’s all very routine and commonplace, but seeing it in a movie as a fact of life instead of the central conceit is itself sort of unsettling. Once all of Martin’s documentation is in order, he’s introduced to Alma, a park ranger assigned to guide him out to the lead researcher’s camp, a two-day walk from the lodge. No roads, no quad trails, they’ll be doing this on foot, taking supplies out to Dr. Wendle. 

Before they leave, Martin notices a painting on a wall in the lodge. The lodge’s owner explains that it’s a depiction of Parnag Fegg, a local legend. It’s a woodland spirit, part folk tale, part boogeyman used to scare children into obedience. It looks a lot like the stone from the beginning.

Apparently, nobody’s heard from Dr. Wendle in months.

Martin and Alma head into the deep woods and it becomes very clear very quickly that Martin isn’t much of an outdoorsman, and that he lied when he told the doctor back at the lodge that he’d been keeping up his exercise in quarantine. Martin’s an interesting character - he is not in any way, shape, or form a heroic man. There’s something meek and hesitant about him, almost bordering on petulant. He seems like someone profoundly out of his depth. Alma, by contrast, is in her element. She’s tough and practical and focused. She’s trying to do her job, because these are not tamed lands. This is the wild, and people get lost here all the time. An entire research team went missing not that long ago, as a matter of fact. She has to keep Martin safe and moving. 

Beyond this, it’s tough to talk about the story, because so much of what makes this movie good is the way it twists, and does so with little to no warning. But you’ve got the outlines - it’s an unusually fertile forest reputedly home to some kind of pagan spirit, and there have been a lot of mysterious disappearances lately. What I think makes the film work is the way it weaves together what you’re expecting from a story with this framework with things you probably weren’t expecting. It’s very terse in its composition - there are lots of quick shots and sudden cuts, some almost feel premature, moving away slightly before the action is completed (this extends to a lot of strobing imagery in the second half, so this one’s off the table for anyone prone to seizures). Likewise, the characters don’t talk a lot, and when they do there’s a brusqueness to it. The action and dialogue feel naturalistic, but the clipped style to the pace and editing makes it all feel slightly fragmented. This extends to the dynamic of the action as well - things turn ugly quickly, out of nowhere. There isn’t a ton of violence but what’s there is sudden and awful, depicted without fanfare and sharply observed. It happens in real time and in striking still images, drawn out for maximum discomfort and lightning-fast alike. All of this combines to create an atmosphere of persistent discomfort. 

This, then is in contrast with things like the cinematography and sound design. There are lots of shots of nature in slow motion and almost microscopic close up, making everything look surreal and alien in a fashion similar to Color Out Of Space. It’s all soundtracked with woozy, monolithic synthesizers that evokes everything from classic science fiction scores to traditional psychedelica to tectonic, rumbling tone generation. You get the sense that these choppy, hesitant human lives are stories playing out against a vast, slow natural world that tolerates their presence for its own reasons. It’s a film that revolves around the reality that nature is a living organism and pits pagan folk tales against science. It asks the question: How do we commune with nature, and should we even try? As the characters explore these questions, the world around them turns stranger and stranger, before collapsing entirely into kaleidoscopic visions of a world they can barely comprehend.

It’s largely a strong effort, but it does have some problems. The second half, the last act especially, feels like it’s trying to cram in a bunch of ideas about nature and consciousness and our role in the ecosystem that it doesn’t really develop. It actually does a pretty good job of everything making sense in context for most of its runtime, which is no mean feat, given how weird and kind of cerebral its premise is. But it loses its way in the climax, I think, sacrificing development of all of those ideas for a firehose of imagery pointed directly at our eyeballs in the end. 

It’s one of the pitfalls psychedelic horror can fall into - it tends to sacrifice story for imagery, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing necessarily, but if you’re going to do that, you really need to commit and just pour it on throughout and let the audience take the ride. This film presents a pretty compelling story, but instead of following the story to increasingly stranger places, it sort of sets the story up and then ends on a lot of imagery, and so you feel kind of cheated. Which is too bad, because up to that point you have something uncomfortable and sinister and very smartly executed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Hunter Hunter: Predators

Pretty much any monster movie (and I’ll include serial killer films in there because ultimately that’s what most of them are) leans into the idea that the monster is a predator and its victims are its prey. So, in other words, it’s just replicating relationships that exist in nature, but since we, as a species, are supposed to have transcended those base transactions, and so that’s where the horror comes in. That despite all of our evolution and technology, under the right circumstances, we can be reduced to a target, to food. That we aren’t so special after all.

Hunter Hunter, then, is an absolutely harrowing film about the relationship between predator and prey, and it goes some unexpected places.

Joseph and his family - his wife Anne, and daughter Renee - live off the land, in a remote parcel, far even beyond rural, out where tourists don’t usually go and even the seasonal crowd hasn’t built homes (though that’s certainly changing). Joseph and Renee are out setting trap lines, collecting pelts and meat. The pelts they can sell in town, the meat’s what they’ll eat to survive. This is how Joseph lives, how his father lived, how his father’s father lived, and so on and so on as long as this has been their land. He’s focused on the work and showing Renee what needs to be done when he notices one of his traps has had its catch gnawed away, all that’s left in the trap is a leg. It looks like the work of a wolf. This is going to have to be taken care of quickly - winter’s coming, and that’s when they move to their other cabin further south, and they’re going to need supplies to take with them. Pelts aren’t bringing in the money they used to, and food is starting to run low. The last thing they need is another predator taking the prey they need to survive..

Especially one that isn’t afraid to venture into another predator’s territory.

So Joseph resolves to set up traps and stake out the area, waiting for the wolf to reveal itself. He and his family represent a dying breed - they live off the grid, off the land, hunt and trap to keep themselves fed. He’s aware he’s part of a world that’s vanishing as modernity encroaches, and he’s very much the taciturn alpha male, with the protectiveness that comes along with it, that desire to stand between his loved ones and the dangers of the wild. He doesn’t want Anna and Renee to know how bad this situation is, how much danger they’re in, but Anna and Renee are no pushovers, they’re accustomed to this life as well, and capable of taking care of themselves. That said, you get the sense that there’s some restless, some dissatisfaction there. Anna wonders if Renee wouldn’t be better off going to school like any other kid her age, and it’s getting harder and harder to make a living off the land, and maybe a house in town wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. Joseph doesn’t want to hear it. He’s got his pride, but that idea that the modern world is pushing in, imposing itself on nature, is an idea that runs throughout the film. 

It’s a very tense film - it’s mostly about Joseph’s attempts to survey the forest, to try and find signs of the wolf, and Anne and Renee’s attempts to keep the household going while he’s away and radio silent. In either case, you’ve got people in a forest that is very still, very quiet, and where that quiet is likely hiding something that sees them as food. The slightest sound could portend disaster, so things (especially in the first half) operate on a constant low boil, the awful waiting before the even more awful action. The music is minimal, mostly ambient hums and understated strings (with one especially striking exception at the very end), and the cinematography alternates sprawling shots of the woods and ominous, cloudy skies with more claustrophobic moments, all in a mostly drab, desaturated palette. This isn’t the nature people go to on vacation, this is the nature people live and work in, unsentimental at best, cruel at worst. 

At first it doesn’t seem like a horror film - some horror films announce themselves from the opening credits, others take varying amounts of time to reveal themselves, and this one takes its own sweet time to get there, but make no mistake, this is a monster movie, but you don’t really see the monster all that much, and that’s to the good - a lot of this film is in little things, in inference, things briefly glimpsed, so the few really graphic moments hit that much harder as a result. The characters are all believable as regular people - Joseph might be a little bit of a caricature, but not much, and there are a number of beats that underscore the fundamental humanity of the people on screen, for better or worse. There’s some denial here - Anna and Joseph want to protect Renee, and so maybe they aren’t as honest with her as they should be, but in the end it isn’t really their undoing. These are competent, capable people who think they understand the world they live in and the rules of that world. 

When it turns out they don’t, it upends everything in a climax that I can only describe as shocking, as trite as that word is, for as sudden and intense as it is. The end is jarring, even, and probably really polarizing. I go back and forth on it - the majority of the film has been constant simmering tension, so when the turn comes, it’s startling without feeling totally inconsistent to the rest of the movie. I think it’s shocking, but also that it plays fair - and it sets off something that builds the film to a primal howl before ending on a smash to black and total silence, leaving me with an empty feeling in my stomach for what I just witnessed. Remember: It’s about predators, and prey, and whether or not that relationship can adapt to the modern world moving in around all of them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Void: Older Than Time

Appeals to nostalgia are tricky things. At their worst, they’re smug, shallow surveys of clichés, attempts to reproduce a style or time period without capturing any of their soul. But at their best, they not only capture a specific aesthetic, but the mood and sensibility that accompany it. A truly affectionate look back gets the feeling right, along with the look. It feels less like somebody’s take on a bygone style of filmmaking and more like some recently unearthed relic from that period, a filmic artifact out of time.

The Void, fortunately, falls into the latter camp. It’s a very solid homage to 80s-era cosmic horror that contains a few missteps, but nothing serious. It’s suitably eerie, not just in its story and imagery, but also in a production design that makes it feel like an artifact of another time, rather than a modern attempt to ape a style. Much like the last movie I wrote about, Piercing, it feels like it could be a loving hi-def restoration of a cult classic.

We open on chaos, on what appears to be a murder in progress. Two men gun down a woman and set her body on fire. Another man escapes, wounded but not dead. The men resolve to pursue him. They don’t think he’s going to get far. Meanwhile, police officer Daniel Carter is finishing up his shift, getting ready to head back in for the night, when he spots that very same badly wounded man crawling along the road. Naturally he bundles him into his patrol vehicle and hightails it to the nearest hospital. It’s odd - the nearest one shouldn’t even be receiving patients, it’s a small community hospital that’s recently undergone a bad fire. But they’re listed as active and receiving and the next nearest hospital is over an hour away. This guy doesn’t look like he could make it another hour. So it’s an easy decision.

When he gets there, the hospital is all but deserted - it’s already small, but it’s staffed by a skeleton crew, one doctor, a couple of nurses and a nurse trainee. There’s a young woman - hugely pregnant - and her father, and that’s it. They hustle the badly wounded man into a room and get him stabilized. It’s apparent there’s some history between Daniel and one of the nurses. The doctor knows them both very well. It’s just another busy third shift at a hospital in a community small enough that everyone knows each other. Until the two men from the beginning show up at the hospital.

Until the figures in robes start to show up outside. Until the other nurse begins to…change.

Everyone is trapped inside the hospital by the mysterious figures outside (who are carrying what appear to be ceremonial but wholly functional knives) and threatened from within by something not really human, and so the basic backbone of the film is one in which the threats within and without become more insistent, there are revelations, some surprising, some not, and a sense that something cosmically horrible is coming to fruition. It’s difficult to tell if it’s a deliberate stylistic choice or a function of budget (or both), but the film really nails the grittiness of the kind of horror getting made in the 1980s away from slasher films, the darker, weirder, less-obvious stuff like From Beyond and Prince Of Darkness, the latter of which it’s especially beholden to in its siege-film setup and sense of persistent uneasiness and dread. It relies on lots of single-location shooting and practical effects (which are far more effective than I thought they were going to be), the lighting and film stock are period-appropriate (which again is as much about limited resources and technology as anything else) and the soundtrack is largely the kind of pulsing synthesizer that characterizes John Carpenter’s earlier films. All of this really does evoke the memories of a prior age to its benefit. There’s a nostalgia factor, sure, but it also feels like some kind of relic, a forgotten classic of the genre given new life, the kind of film half-remembered from 3am viewings on cable, where you can’t be sure if you actually saw the film or just dreamed it, isolated images from it stuck in memory. It’s a story about things from beyond space in time told in a style itself out of time.

But - and this is important - it isn’t slavish or winkingly self-referential in its homage. It plays things completely straight, like a film made in the 80s rather that a film about the 80s and so, period trappings regardless, it largely works as an eerie siege film that descends further and further into cosmic horror as it goes on. Not everyone is who they seem, time and space start to fray around the edges, and things with impossible biologies begin to crawl into our world. 

As befits a film made on a very small budget, it does a lot of work with little things - stark imagery, sudden outbursts of violence, a reliance on suggestion over explicit depiction - that also serve to make it effective. It’s sort of a cliché that our imaginations come up with far more disturbing things than anything you can show us, but it’s a cliché because it’s true, and it does a lot of heavy lifting here. The filmmakers seem to know how much we can see before the artifice of practical effects becomes apparent, so all we get are glimpses of…things…and our imagination does the rest. There are a couple of instances where something’s on camera maybe a little too long, but not long enough or often enough to really undo the conceit entirely, and there are periodic hallucinatory interstitials that, although maybe a little more sophisticated than you’d expect from this sort of film, help to really cement the vibe when it starts to flag. 

It’s got a lot of tricks up its sleeve, from sudden startling moments that break the quiet (not the same thing as a jump scare, of which there are almost none here) to mounting dread to plot twists and reversals, all of which serve to keep you on your toes, and it doesn’t really descend too much into cliché (at least not until the antagonist really starts monologuing, but more on that in a bit). By and large, the characters are believable - nobody’s wholly heroic or villainous or hyper-competent either way, just a bunch of people who are fighting back panic at being totally out of their depth, thrown into a situation nobody could possibly ever be prepared for. Hospital surrounded by robed cultists? Tentacled things sprouting out of bodies? Of course they’re freaking out, and they don’t get along all that well, for that matter. It never reaches the point that their failure to work together is their undoing, but their prickliness and discomfort feel real.

It does have some problems, though even these feel period- appropriate. The dialogue is pretty stagey throughout and painfully expository in places, mostly around filling us in on character background, very “you know he hasn’t been the same since his father died” type of stuff, and the quality of the acting varies somewhat across the ensemble, so some people feel more like characters in a movie, and others feel more like people. It can be a little distracting in the moment, but again, nothing that ruins the film. And, like a lot of horror films, it sort of loses its way in the final act, cutting between three groups of characters, one of whom may be starting to lose their connection to conventional space and time, so what had been a solidly constructed story starts to get really messy - the individual segments are good, but they’re sort of jumbled up in a way that makes the whole thing feel less uneasy than it could. And then in the denouement, the antagonist - who has had sort of a running monologue through the back half of the film, made sinister and effective by being presented in brief glimpses - sort of gets a bully pulpit toward the end and what was made creepy and unsettling by inference and suggestions turns into exactly the sort of villainous monologue you’d expect. Things also very much take a turn for the 80s toward the end in the set design and makeup, and it felt a little alienating and less visceral (ironic for some of what happens), like I was distanced from the film, thinking about the quality of the prosthetics and how aesthetically faithful it all was instead of being caught up in the film itself. But again, it’s a relatively small complaint and the film ends on a note that earns back a lot of goodwill. 

It's a tough balancing act to pull off, to make something feel like an artifact of another time AND a satisfying horror film - after all, the sort of stuff we find terrifying as kids often doesn’t age all that well. But this really left me saying “man, if I’d seen this as a teenager I’d probably be shitting my pants.” It’s a film about a nightmare from beyond time that is itself a nightmare from beyond time.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Piercing: Everyone Has A Plan

(Sorry about yet another delay - my second vaccination dose packed enough of a kick to make me sleep all weekend)

Conventional wisdom has it that serial killers work up to their first murder through extensive use of fantasy. They imagine what it’s going to be like, they plan and plan and plan, linger over the details, imagine how it’s going to feel, until the day they work up the courage to make the fantasy reality. And then as often as not, the plan falls apart. Intended victims have minds of their own, not as pliant and obedient as in fantasy, and it’s a lot harder to kill someone than you imagine it will be. Bodies are hard to get rid of too. I suspect this is especially a problem for most serial killers, because so much of serial murder seems so often to be about control and dominance, and that’s a lot easier to accomplish in your own imagination, where the props in your fantasy don’t have agency and circumstances always seem to bend exactly to your needs. Reality isn’t like that at all, so all of the planning based on fantasy crumbles. Control is lost. In the words of Mike Tyson - “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Piercing is a stylish, unsettling film about best-laid plans and how they go awry. It largely lands well, though I’m not sure it quite sticks the ending.

The film opens with a man standing over a baby in a red-lit room, icepick in hand. So you know we’re in for some shit. The man is Reed, and the baby is his child. Reed does not stab the child, but you can tell it’s taking some restraint. His wife comes into the room and he hides the icepick behind his back. He’s a family man, but he wants to kill, very badly. He’s preparing to take a trip out of town that his wife thinks is for a business conference, but is in reality his opportunity to book a hotel room, hire a sex worker, and then murder her. He’s thought it all through very carefully. He packs for the trip - clothes, toiletries, rope, chloroform, his icepick, a journal detailing the steps he’ll take to the letter - and kisses his wife and child goodbye.

Once ensconced in his hotel room, he rehearses what’s going to happen - what he has planned to happen, what he has fantasized about happening - before calling the agency. The woman he’d asked for is unavailable, they tell him - would he prefer another woman who could be there right away? It’s already starting to go wrong. But he’s waited too long for this, so he agrees. Cut to Jackie, sleeping on satin sheets, awoken by a voice mail from a pimp with none of the unctuous civility of the person who talked to Reed. He’s got a job for her, and she’d better get there quick, and she should bring all of her toys. So Jackie pulls it together and heads to the hotel.

Jackie has her own ideas about how tonight is going to go.

The majority of this film is centered on Reed and Jackie, and what happens that night, and they are a study in contrasts. Reed is all control and precision, at least on the surface - he’s an architect, he’s meticulously groomed, and he rehearses how the murder is going to go extensively, walking through it step-by-step, what he’s going to say, where he’s going to stand, even down to timing how long it takes. He’s taken notes. He has it all worked out in his head. And what a place his head is - beneath all of the neatness and precision is a roiling mass of murderous impulse revealed in brief glimpses that lie somewhere between nightmare and flashback, painting the picture of someone who was born…wrong, and wants nothing more than to sate his homicidal impulses. But it’s not an especially great disguise - he can keep it in place for his wife, but he’s obviously very uncomfortable with human interaction (which makes sense, because other people are outside of his control), and almost the instant that Jackie - a living, breathing human being, not a passive object of fantasy - walks into the room, his carefully constructed scenario starts to fall apart. He didn’t expect any of this.

Jackie, on the other hand, wears her torment right on the surface - you don’t get the same insight into her that you do into Reed - she is as opaque as Reed is transparent - but there’s a strong self-destructive streak and a lot of pain visible in her face and voice and actions. She is careful and thoughtful in her environment, but she is no stranger to self-harm, and she flirts with oblivion. So there’s an undercurrent of will she/won’t she throughout the movie, shifting in implication as to what that means as the film goes on. It’d be too glib to say that Reed represents order while Jackie represents chaos…it’s more like Reed typifies an approximation of life, the mask of sanity, while Jackie is actual life in all of its messy, complicated, imperfect glory. The film doesn’t over-exposit, doesn’t tell us exactly why these two people are the way they are, not in any conclusive way. We get much more of a look at Reed’s inner world (as nightmarish as it is) than Jackie’s, but overall it just gives you enough to hint at the depths, at how bad this could go, and then plays with the tension between these two people over an economical run time. It’s not exactly a battle of wills, more a battle of desires - who wants what they want at any given moment, and how badly they want it.

So there’s a pretty strong narrative and thematic through-line, but what I think really gets this film over is the strength of its vision. It’s relentlessly non-contemporary - from the credits to the cinematography to the music, it looks and sounds like something from, say, the late 1970s, but not obtrusively so. It’s not self-consciously retro like so many grindhouse “homage” films end up being. From the wardrobe to the set decoration to the lighting and soundtrack, the lurid preoccupation with the intersection of sex, death, and style, it looks and plays like a really nice hi-def restoration of some forgotten giallo - indeed, some of the music is taken directly from other films in that genre, so it’s hardly coincidence. There’s a strong commitment to a specific aesthetic and a striking use of imagery that combines fetish gear with body horror in a way that sort of reminds me of a David Cronenberg take on The Cell, but it’s not overplayed - the imagery tells a story about the inside of Reed’s head and then it’s gone - alongside a tug-of-war between someone who wants to kill but has lost all control of the situation, and someone who may or may not want to die, it’s hard to tell because even in the world outside of Reed’s head there are definitely moments where what’s going on may very well be a hallucination, and there are points where it’s hard to tell whether Jackie is being sincere or following some S&M script that she thinks this is all about. The result is unnerving - Reed isn’t quite sure what’s happening, when or how he lost the plot, and we aren’t really sure what’s happening either because the relationship between reality and homicidal delusion is, throughout, pretty damn shaky, and so there’s no place for anyone to get comfortable..

When Reed and Jackie meet, Reed’s plan goes right out the window within minutes. Jackie is the one in charge here, and it couldn’t be any other way - a plan is just a plan, that’s all, and Reed’s need for control is fundamentally at odds with any unpredictable variable. And realistically speaking, any other human being is an unpredictable variable. He can imagine and fantasize all he wants, but the instant it becomes real, at least some of it will be out of his control, and he loses control quickly. He didn’t account for Jackie. That mostly makes for a pretty strong movie, but the ending feels…abrupt and anticlimactic. I think it hurts it a little, after a first act that is Reed’s building anticipation, a second act that is everything failing to go the way he imagined, and a third where the masks come off. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in this film, a lot of uncertainty, and I think I expected a punctuation mark - maybe a period, maybe an exclamation point, not an ellipsis. I expected to get punched in the face, and I think the film suffers for its absence.