Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A Wounded Fawn: Hell Hath Plenty Of Fury

It’s tempting to say that the fables and fairytales we’re told as children have been sanitized (and there is some evidence that the original stories by the Brothers Grimm were, well…really grim), but if you stop and think about it, there is some heavy shit in those stories. It’s just that as kids the gruesome can be as entertaining as the relatively innocuous can be frightening. So when the Big Bad Wolf wears the grandmother’s skin to deceive Red Riding Hood, it isn’t necessarily met with horror by children. But present someone wearing someone else’s skin to an adult and it’s a whole different vibe. Gretel And Hansel knows this...that fables and fairytales are generally really fucking scary.

And that’s why I think A Wounded Fawn works as well as it does. It’s an interesting, surreal fable that nestles neatly in between Piercing and Fresh, while going to darker and stranger territory than either of them.

The film sets out its stall early, beginning in an high-end auction house, where a sculpture of the Erinyes is up for bidding. Lots of people representing very wealthy people, one hand holding their phones, the other gesturing to up their bids. The sculpture is finally sold to a woman named Kate for more than twice the opening bid, and we follow her home, as she sets the sculpture down and opens a bottle of wine. A knock on her door brings Bruce, the representative of another client from the auction. He wants to make Kate a backdoor deal for the sculpture, paying her twice her bid and throwing her a bonus on top of that. She asks for a percentage of his commission on top, and he winces, but agrees. She asks him why the additional effort, and he says that his client saw something beautiful, and wanted it. Kate does not live to see the sunrise.

Cut to Meredith, a museum curator out with some friends. She’s met a guy - handsome, charming, who has invited her on a weekend getaway. She’s looking forward to getting some for the first time in awhile, even if she doesn’t know much about him. He was at a recent antiquities auction for whom her museum had done some provenance work. His name is Bruce.

He sees something beautiful, and he wants it.

So right off the bat, you’ve got your dude who is obviously not what he seems and the woman that he takes somewhere for nefarious murder-type purposes. And, like in Piercing and more recently Fresh, things do not go like he planned. Which is, in and of itself, not that surprising. There’s definitely an audience for films where someone takes a woman to a secluded location and then tortures her for an hour and a half before killing her, but those aren’t really my kind of film. So the reversal of expectation is in and of itself expected. But where Piercing and Fresh were both battles of will between the protagonist and antagonist, as well as studies of weak, fragile men who commit violence against women, this film almost immediately gets weird with it, showing us everything that follows from Bruce’s perspective. And it’s kind of a doozy. Like I said, the film really is giving you an idea of what’s going to happen by beginning with an image of the Furies, and this is mythology given teeth. Kate was not his first, not by a long shot, and what follows is a long night of retribution that dives into imagery that is equal parts classic Greek mythology and surrealist art. We aren’t sure where it’s going to go, but it isn’t going to be anyplace good.

Part of what makes the film work is the degree to which it is stylized. It’s shot on film, which in addition to the grain and texture gives it a slightly retro feel. Much like Piercing, this looks like a solid remaster of a much older film, and the only real concessions to modernity are mentions of ridesharing services and smartphones. Otherwise, this could easily be a giallo-inflected horror film from the late 70s or early 80s given a loving restoration. Warm lighting and appropriately bloody, gooey practical effects add to this feeling and lend the film an immediacy that underlies even its most surreal turns. The performances are solid, and though the dialogue’s a little purple (much moreso as the film gets stranger), it’s not to the point of distracting and even makes sense given the nods to classic mythology. It also benefits a lot from a very crisp editing style and cinematography that favors alternating longer takes with vivid stills and quick close-ups, almost like punctuation marks, which creates tension even if it does rely a little too heavily on at least one type of shot.

It's not clear how much of what is happening is supernatural and how much could be explained by the hallucinations of someone who is badly injured, but I think that’s sort of the point – the most practical explanation is that we’re watching someone finally have a reckoning with the life they’ve lived up to this point in a way that combines memory and art and myth into a nightmare fugue, another is that the myths are all real and this person’s time has come in the ways of old. The conclusion does land on one particular explanation, but only at the very end, with a long final take that reminds me of a more blackly comic version of the ending of Pearl. But in this sense it reminds me of the better parts of As Above, So Below, harnessing classics and myth to tell a horror story.

That said, there are some definite flaws. The second half of the film goes a little slack with an extended pursuit sequence that consists of someone just sort of running through the woods and seeing things, which feels a lot less interesting after the close tension of the film’s first half, It also use some of the same jumpscare-adjacent shots a little too often, and there’s one sequence involving a wood-burning stove that ends up just being silly, but it ends well, and the strange turn it takes works in its favor. Not a complete success, but its ambition is impressive and it has a strong, consistent vision that makes me want to see more takes on myth in horror. Fables and fairytales and myths are intended to be instructive, and scaring the shit out of people is certainly one way to teach them that their bad deeds will lead to a bad end.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon 

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

God Told Me To: Deus Ex Machina

A deus ex machina is a plot device in which an improbable or unlikely occurrence resolves a difficult plot point, and is literally translated “god from the machine.” Usually it’s considered a bad thing, a lazy way of resolving a part of a story, the sort of thing that happens when someone writes themselves into a corner. And I’m sympathetic to that - the best stories to me are the ones where you don’t see the resolution coming but in retrospect was in front of you the entire time. You know, the polar opposite of High Tension.

God Told Me To manages to take the idea of the deus ex machina in a couple of different directions. It’s a down-the-rabbit-hole movie that in its increasing weirdness provides an improbable explanation for a series of events. But it also deals with the idea of god in relation to the machine that is the social structure and power dynamics of modern society.

It opens on a bustling day in 1970s New York City. People are going about their business, crowding the sidewalks and hailing cabs and all of the other things a shitload of people in a sprawling city do. And then a shot rings out. Someone falls. And then another shot, and another person hit. And another, and another. People scatter, panicked, and the police are called in. Eventually they locate the sniper, perched on top of a water tower, and Detective Peter Nicholas climbs the water tower against everyone else’s orders to try and reason with the shooter. All Nicholas manages to get out of him is that “God told me to,” before the sniper jumps to his death.

This is tragic, of course, but it’s also the big city. Mentally unstable people lashing out violently aren’t really anything new in that respect. But then Peter is called to the scene of another crime - a series of mass stabbings at a supermarket. And then a police officer opens fire on the crowd at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. And then a man murders his wife and children, sitting placidly waiting for the police to arrive. They all say the same thing…

“God told me to.”

Needless to say, Peter immediately becomes obsessed with figuring out exactly what is happening. One delusional person acting out violently? That’s one thing, but when people from different walks of life all get up one day and start killing on the behest of what appears to be God, that’s something else entirely. And Peter Nicholas is a religious man - a devout Catholic in a place and time where faith doesn’t have the heft that it might once have. For him, this isn’t just about the mystery of what is driving apparently random people to kill, it’s also about the mystery of faith, about God’s will, and what it means when God doesn’t just let good people die, but seems to be taking a more proactive role in the process. Peter is tormented by this, and there are already signs that he’s got some baggage that he needs to work on. He was an orphan, raised in a Catholic boys’ home, and although he is separated from his wife (who is as secular as he is religious) and seeing another woman, he can’t bring himself to divorce her. There’s more guilt and regret between them than enmity, and well…the church frowns on divorce.

And this is the machine - the institutions of power upon which the city is built. New York City in the 1970s is a place beset by multiple ills – the immediate fallout from the social upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s, institutional corruption, a failing infrastructure and a restless population. Cynicism abounds as people mock Peter for his faith, and urban decay and crime both thrive as well. It’s a city in turmoil, and the Catholic church is an extremely powerful part of the city’s power structure, and the realization that maybe people like the archbishop and the mayor and other wealthy citizens know more about this than they’re letting on emerges gradually over the course of the film. For Nicholas it’s a journey toward discovery and understanding, and it’s safe to say he’s not discovering anything good. The rot runs deeper than he could ever know.

It's definitely a film of its time - there are some attitudes that are unfortunate by modern standards, but it holds up surprisingly well in a number of ways. The filmmakers had almost no budget and shot guerilla-style, so the whole thing has a raw immediacy to it. This also means minimal effects work and a reliance on colored lighting and quick cuts to get the point across, but this adds to the feeling of urgency rather than seeming cheap. There are some moments of body horror where the effects they do use are work well, and it all takes the film to some pretty unexpected places.

It’s not often that a low-budget horror film also traffics in big ideas, but this one is a film about an unseen force spurring people to kill while also being about faith in the face of its absence from society as a whole, institutions that serve only themselves (everyone in this film acknowledges the church’s power but very few are believers). It’s simultaneously a fable about the corrupting influence of power, and a down-the-rabbit-hole investigative film and the sort of it-could-be-anybody exercise in paranoia of predecessors like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and successors like Fallen. I was pleasantly surprised at how much there was to unpack.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Dabbe 6: Too Much Of A Good Thing

One of the reasons I don’t think sequels and remakes work well in horror is that a sense of finality is important, and the impulse to take the same characters and drag them through a series of increasingly improbable events dilutes that, and it starts getting harder and harder to explain how all this weird shit keeps happening to the same people. The horror is lost and replaced by “welp, here we go again.” And that’s why I think the Dabbe series works well - instead of putting the same people in increasingly contrived situations and piling up elaborate, pointless continuities, this series puts different people into variations of the same basic situation. You start fresh each time.

Well, up to a point. Dabbe 6 (or Dab6e: The Return) has all of the cinematic strengths of Dabbe 4 and Dabbe 5, but at this point, the degree to which each film tells the same basic story is becoming formulaic, and at almost three hours long, it’s…too damn long.

We begin, as always, with something that happened in the past. Here, a man sits in his house surrounded by magical paraphernalia, and a woman, hidden behind a screen, is handing him personal objects and clippings of hair and nails belonging to someone else. She’s paying him to curse someone named Mukadder, and it sounds like a pretty gnarly curse. Flash forward an indeterminate amount of time, and Atye is, along with her husband Cafer and sister Ayla, taking care of her ailing mother…

…whose name is Mukadder.

You can probably guess where this is going, especially if you’ve seen Dabbe 4 or 5. Ayla is in the room when Mukadder dies of something horrible, and Ayla immediately starts suffering from visions and hallucinations and waking nightmares. Her behavior becomes violent and erratic, and Atye begins to wonder if she’s possessed. Her husband - who is an unfaithful scumbag - is dismissive of the idea, insisting that it’s psychological - a traumatic response brought on by witnessing the death of her mother. The psychiatrist treating Ayla is running out of ideas and rational explanations. Against her own better judgment, she refers them to a psychiatrist who has been, essentially, professionally disgraced for considering possession and curses as a possible explanation for mental illness. Once the pieces are all in place, shit goes berserk.

And that’s really the strength of this film and the other films in the series I’ve seen - the filmmakers use the camera like a blunt instrument, packing in dramatic lighting, unusual framing and angles, ghostly manifestations, interludes of total chaos and startlingly visceral moments of violence, all with the kind of raw, frenetic energy captured in the original Evil Dead. It’s got its first-person moments, but it isn’t really a found-footage film, not as aggressively stylized as the rest of the film is. Lots of deep red and green lighting and the frame is often heavily vignetted, which lends a bit of claustrophobia to the whole affair, like the darkness is creeping in around the edges. It’s not afraid to mix up the subtly creepy and the absolutely in-your-face, gory close-up stuff, and it gets a surprising amount of mileage out of things like jump cuts and skipping frames. Reviews on IMDB (for what that’s worth, which isn’t much) reduce it to a jump-scare film, but it’s not that predictable or mechanical. Yes, there are a lot of scary things popping up out of the shadows, but it feels relentless and confrontational, and the film manages to be simultaneously expressionistic and gross. The performances aren’t especially nuanced, but that’s fine - the actress playing Ayla goes at her scenes with the gusto necessary to keep that out-of-control feeling going. The translation is a little clumsy, but gets the job done, and only gets embarrassing around the psychological or psychiatric material, which is kind of part for the course for horror in general.

And so if this were as tightly constructed a film as the other two, it’d be solid. But it suffers because everything takes much longer than it needs to. The film goes back to the nightmare sequence well a little too often (with an extended multi-person sequence that spills into the ludicrous), and films like this benefit from being tightly paced. This one isn’t. At two hours and forty minutes, there’s plenty of air between moments, and a lot of the tension drains out of it. This unnecessarily slow pacing also robs the climax of a lot of tension, going on for so long that by the time the twist is revealed, it sort of feels nonsensical and then gets dragged out and out and out and out.

Not that it’d be a surprise anyway, because although the way the story is told is distinct, this film hits all the same beats as the others. It seems like in any Dabbe film, you’ve got a pair of sisters, possession by a djinn, a tension between science and faith, a curse laid on somebody in the past, the need to return to a shunned, abandoned village, and a last-minute twist revelation that reveals someone unexpected to be evil. And this one checks all the boxes. The first time it was enjoyable, the second time it was “oh, this is familiar,” and this time it’s “wow, they really do just stay telling the same story over and over, don’t they?” Which is too bad, because there’s energy, intensity and vitality to it that’d shine if it had received a more aggressive edit, and if they played with those elements some more - familiar doesn’t have to mean predictable - it’d be proof-of-concept for a much better way to keep a (ugh) franchise going. But it is starting to feel a little churned out.

IMDB entry
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

We Need To Do Something: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual competition to see who can write the worst opening sentence in fiction, named for the author of the novel Paul Clifford, which begins “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s been going since 1982, which is a lot of genuinely awful opening sentences, and I’ve found it pretty entertaining in the past, but to my mind, a sentence written to be deliberately awful is never going to be truly awful. Knowing it was constructed to be bad makes it entertaining to me. It’s sort of a corollary to the idea that a film made explicitly to be a cult film will never actually be a cult film. There’s an earnestness that you need and can only get when the filmmakers are being utterly serious. It’s the gap between ambition and execution, not to mention disregard for filmmaking convention, that makes bad films into cult sensations. If the Bulwer-Lytton contest is an example of something being funny because the people are in on the joke, films work the opposite way.

But nobody’s going to mistake We Need To Do Something for a cult film, or a comedy, really. It takes place on a dark and stormy night, and it’s just a misfire. It’s clumsy and muddled, with a few good moments, but not nearly enough to redeem it.

I’ll say this, it’s got a nice opening shot of a woodsy suburban neighborhood at dusk, as gray storm clouds start to roll in. It’s foreboding, but not overly so. Cut to a family walking into what appears to be a nice, if small bathroom in someone’s home. Lots of brick, tile, glass block, sort of evoking Spanish style alongside angular modernity. They’re laying down a blanket, and appear to be settling in to ride out a storm. It’s a married couple - Diane and Robert, and their two kids, Bobby and his older sister Melissa. They’ve got boardgames, and Robert’s sipping from a big insulated water bottle, but it’s already clear that something’s a little off. Melissa was late getting home and keeps insisting she was doing homework at her friend Amy’s house, but she’s evasive about it. Robert’s kind of abrasive and short-tempered, and Diane keeps messaging someone on her phone, but won’t let Robert see it and it turns into a whole thing. Meanwhile, it’s getting dark outside and, well, stormy. Then there’s a loud crash outside the door, and when Robert tries to see what it was, he discovers that a tree has crashed through their house and is now solidly blocking the door.

They’re trapped. And there’s something else out there.

It’s not impossible for movies that start off being about something that could actually happen and escalating into the supernatural to be good (see, for example, The Descent), but it doesn’t feel like this film can make up its mind about what it’s trying to accomplish. It doesn’t help that the entire family starts off annoying going into it. Robert and Diane begin the film deep into the first act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, all sidelong looks and snapping at each other about things they won’t say out loud. Robert is especially bad – it’s clear right off the bat he’s an abusive alcoholic trying to be in charge of a family that stopped respecting him a long time ago, Melissa is your basic sullen, nobody-understands-her teenager, Diane is brittle and a little shrill, and Bobby is an odd duck in a way that is slightly off-putting. If there’s one through-line to this entire film, it’s the feeling of being stuck in a small room with a bunch of very irritating people, and the result is impatience as much as it is tension. You’re trapped in there with them, but not in a way that promotes sympathy.

So you’ve got protagonists who are various shades of unlikeable, and a story best described as confusing. It begins as a standard survival story – you’ve got a bunch of people trapped in the same place, without enough resources to go around, and on the one hand, it makes sense that this family holes up in the bathroom when the possibility of a tornado is on the table. That’s what you’re supposed to do. But on the other, they bring a blanket and…some board games. No water, no snacks, no flashlight, no radio. As someone who grew up in prime tornado territory, those are the basics. But, to be fair “suburban family has no fucking idea what the basics are” is a plausible narrative, and if the filmmakers had committed to that, slowly drawing the families’ secrets out as things got worse…well, it still wouldn’t have been a slam-dunk, the writing is broad and the performances not especially nuanced (Robert especially threatens to chew the scenery), but I think the clarity and focus of that kind of story, especially in such a claustrophobic environment, would have had some punch to it.

Instead, the filmmakers inject a supernatural element (with, to be fair, one of the more effectively startling moments of the film), and again, if they were to commit to that, that’s fine too. But the film vacillates, giving neither narrative the room it needs to breathe. The build-up works, at first, but then takes this unnecessary elaborative detour that takes the supernatural element and scrambles it all up until you aren’t sure what the fuck is happening apart from the actual suffering being experienced by these four people. The survival story doesn’t work because they’re so angry with each other to start that you can’t really tell the story of a happy family descending into savagery. The supernatural story doesn’t work because, apart from being confined to two or three moments in the film, it can’t commit to a particular logic or direction, it’s just spooky shit that is initially revealed to be due to one thing, but no, maybe it’s another, or maybe it’s the first thing, or…you get the idea.

And this lack of focus even shows up in the narrative fundamentals. This is a film that, at different levels, doesn’t really think through the details. We get a shot at the beginning that establishes the bathroom door as opening onto the interior of the house (as one would expect), but once the storm is over it seems like the door is looking out onto an exterior, as if the tree demolished the entire house, which…that’s not how collapsing trees work. A trapped snake conveniently becomes un-trapped, blindness disappears as soon as it arrives when it’s necessary for the character in question to act, a smartphone lost in the rain is found perfectly functional. And the supernatural piece gets all of its development in flashback (said flashbacks containing some stuff about self-harm that borders on romanticization, at least enough to feel icky) and that part of the story ends up being all muddy because it’s not satisfied with a very simple, straightforward cause, it piles stuff on and ends up close to incoherent.

There are bits here and there that could be pieces of a better movie, a couple of effective set pieces, some details that are actually nicely underplayed, and some repeated imagery which could be leveraged into a suggestion of dream logic and the idea that this might not be what it appears to be, but nope. It’s not funny enough or strange enough to be a cult film, not deliberately outrageous enough either. It’s just as banal and clumsy as “it was a dark and stormy night.”

IMDB entry

Available on Hulu
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

From Beyond: Pushing Boundaries

As a teenager, one of my favorite horror movies was Stuart Gordon’s adaptation (if you can call it that) of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West: Reanimator.” It was the first in a series of Lovecraft adaptations he would do, and he had a very definite style. You could rely on them to be full of melodramatic acting, effects that were probably about as good as he could manage on the budgets he had, and a weirdly sexual undercurrent that was more unsettling than titillating.

In this respect, From Beyond is sort of the platonic Stuart Gordon Lovecraft adaptation. It doesn’t have the black humor of Re-Animator but it also doesn’t have the pervasive nastiness of Castle Freak. It’s a film about appetites and a hunger for stimulation and experience that gets increasingly more deranged, and the film getting more deranged right along with it.

It is late at night, and Crawford Tillinghast is working in the attic of a large, old house with what appears to be an array of very sophisticated computer equipment. He is assisting Dr. Edward Pretorius with experiments that would allow them to, upon attuning to exactly the right resonant frequency, view things normally invisible to human beings. Generate a magnetic field that vibrates large tuning forks, throw open the doors of perception. That’s the idea at least, and as Tillinghast runs the equipment through its paces, the room begins to fill with a queasy purple light, and suddenly the air is filled with swimming and floating…things. It’s working. He calls out to Dr. Pretorius, who comes into the room, sees their success and promptly turns everything up to 11 against Tillinghast’s protests.

There’s something out there in the ether. Something big. And now it can see them.

Needless to say, it does not go well for Pretorius or Tillinghast, and by the time a neighbor has called the cops to report more weird lights and noises, they arrive to find a distraught Tillinghast trying to flee the house, and Pretorius’ body upstairs in the attic, his head…twisted off. So, of course, Tillinghast ends up locked up in a mental hospital while awaiting trial for Pretorius’ murder, explanations for how he managed to twist another person’s head clean off be damned. Dr. Katherine McMichaels is assigned to evaluate him to determine whether or not he’s competent to stand trial. But McMichaels has a reputation for a degree of brilliance matched only by her disregard for ethics. She’s compelled by Tillinghast’s account of what happened, and want to take him back to the house to see this equipment for herself. She wants to know how it works. So Tillinghast and McMichaels return to the scene of the crime, accompanied by police officer and hearty skeptic “Bubba” Brownlee. It doesn’t go well for them either.

This film is contemporary to the original Hellraiser, and both films are very much about the hunger for sensation and experience. About wanting to feel more, the lengths people will go to accomplish that, and the often terrible costs. Hellraiser explores it through the supernatural, this film uses weird science instead, but BDSM figures prominently in both as a signifier for exploring the outer realms of feeling. As it turns out, Dr. Pretorius had some pretty serious kinks, and it even seems to be the case that this was the whole reason he was pursuing this line of research in the first place. And the more McMichaels works with the resonator, the more she develops the same urges. So this is a film that is very much about appetite. We witness McMichaels develop something almost like an addict’s dependence on the resonator device, one that produces dramatic shifts in her behavior. Brownlee is constantly talking about food, cooking hearty dinners for the three of them. The resonator ultimately produces radical physical change, and radical hungers to accompany them. In one particular scene, these hungers are sated while an alcoholic in the throes of delirium tremens looks on in horror. All examples of the wreckage caused by appetites.

There’s also some examination of the ethical concerns of research and patient care in the margins. Parallels are drawn between the strange science that drives the film and the state of mental health care at the time, in the form of a psychiatrist who holds McMichaels in contempt for her disregard for the well-being of the people upon whom she experiments, but also does not hesitate to dismiss the idea that Tillinghast isn’t culpable for Pretorius’ death, and is more than happy to use equally injurious methods in the name of “treatment.” The real difference between Pretorius’ resonator and ECT, for example, is that one is legally sanctioned and the other isn’t, but they’re both technology that gets into the brain and stirs things up.

Which is a lot for a film that is best described as “lurid.” The resonator paints everything in purples and magentas (the color out of space), one character’s perspective is depicted in smeary thermal-camera vision, the dialogue is as purple as the resonator’s glow, and the acting is done in the broadest of strokes. The effects are reminiscent of those in John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing on a somewhat lower budget, but with a couple of exceptions work pretty well even to modern eyes. It’s all slimy and goopy and full of things that look somewhat human until they erupt into something that isn’t human at all, and even if it’s clear that they’re effects, they still have a grungy power to them. I don’t think any of this is a problem – I actually find it kind of endearing. That might be nostalgia talking, but it’s exactly the intersection of melodramatic, violent and bizarre to which such loving homage was paid in Malignant. It’s bonkers and still has the ability to startle all these years later. There’s more than a little uncomfortably nonconsensual behavior, and the way mental health is discussed hasn’t aged especially well either, but that was pretty par for the course in 1986.

The first time I saw this, I was 17 or so, and expected another Re-Animator, but wasn’t really prepared for what I got. It’s a much more straight-faced affair, with a suitably bleak ending, and there are some moments that are still pretty startling and transgressive today. It’s sort of equal parts Hellraiser, The Thing, and early Cronenberg, which makes it much better than I thought at the time.

IMDB entry
Available on Tubi
Available on Amazon 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Be My Cat: Only Make-Believe

I’ve written (at length, possibly exhausting length) about the problems I have with most found-footage films. Long story short, it’s a style of filmmaking that aspires to mimic reality, so when it works it really works, because there’s something viscerally upsetting about watching terrible things happen without the comfort of the distance that conventional moviemaking affords. But a lot of the time, the filmmakers don’t go far enough to make what they’re doing realistic, instead falling back on the usual filmmaking toolkit or lazy workarounds. And those take me out of it immediately. Nothing sucks me in like making it easy to forget I’m watching a movie, and nothing loses me faster than reminding me that no, I’m just watching a movie.

Be My Cat (subtitled A Film For Anne) does a pretty nice job of playing to the strengths of the style, and the result is mounting dread, a story of obsession and the blurring of performance and reality.

The film opens with a title card indicating that the footage was assembled from 25 hours’ worth of raw footage found at the “Be My Cat” crime scene. Understated, straight to the point. The little detail about there being 25 hours of raw footage is never elaborated upon, it just sort of hangs there, an unsettling little detail. I like that. It immediately cuts to Adrian. He’s a filmmaker in Romania, and he appears to be recording a pitch, directed at actual real-life actress Anne Hathaway. He wants to make a film with Anne.

A film about a Romanian filmmaker who is obsessed with an American actress.

We know from the title card that this isn’t going to end well, but it isn’t immediately apparent how. At first Adrian just seems kind of goofy and awkward, the kind of person whose dreams so far outstrip the possibilities available to them that you sort of want to laugh at him, but that doesn’t last very long. He engages in constant, almost insistent monologuing, punctuated by the nervous, reflexive giggle of an adolescent boy seeing porn for the first time. It’s easy to imagine getting stuck talking to him at a party and being unable to extricate yourself as he prattles on and on with no interest in letting you get a word in. And the more he talks, the more the cracks start to show. We learn that he was bullied in childhood to the point of agoraphobia, and that he developed a fixation on Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, a fixation that calcifies into seeing both girls and cats as innocent and sweet and cute, not like nasty, aggressive boys and dogs. He still lives with his mother because it’s difficult for him to leave the house for any amount of time, let alone leave town. He’s troubled, seriously troubled, and it isn’t too long before it becomes apparent that his grip on reality is tenuous. 

So this isn’t a film with any dramatic twists or anything - you pretty much know what you’re getting right off the bat, it’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take Adrian to crack and how bad the damage is going to be when it does. It works as well as it does because it’s presented as found-footage, and as found-footage goes, the execution is solid. It looks like it really was all shot on the same camera (and might very well have been), the sound isn’t perfect, the editing is choppy and the performances all emerge from improvisation so there’s a real naturalism to it. There’s background noise and passers-by, not everything is always captured neatly in frame, there are plenty of shots of the camera pointed at the sidewalk, forgotten in the midst of an argument. It feels homemade and the locations are all grubby hostels and apartment buildings in Eastern Europe. It is easy to forget, moment to moment, that you’re just watching a movie.

Even when you’re aware that you’re watching a movie, it’ s likely because a large part of this film is examining the blurred line between image and reality. Everyone uses their real names or variations on them, so we’re watching a Romanian filmmaker named Adrian make a film about a Romanian filmmaker named Adrian who is obsessed with an American actress who is himself making a film about a filmmaker who is obsessed with an American actress. And throughout the film, the character of Adrian displays a confusion between fiction and reality fueled, it seems, by the idea that fiction is much more comforting. There’s a line in The Blair Witch Project about how things don’t seem so bad when you’re looking at it through the viewfinder of a camera, and that’s a big part of the text here. The camera is a distancing tool, and it seems like that’s what Adrian is doing, at least initially. He’s making a film to convince Anne Hathaway to come to Romania to star in a film that he wants to make about a filmmaker who is obsessed with an actress, and he’s definitely working out his obsessions through the filmmaking process, using the fiction that this is a fiction, that it’s all make-believe, in order to put some distance between himself and the violence that results from his obsessions and his tangled, thorny past. It’s clear to the audience from early in that the actresses he hires to play the role of Anne are not in safe hands, beginning with impossible acting demands, moving on to an insistence that things not look fake, which becomes a need for the actresses to be “transformed” when they are not perfect enough. It’s my understanding that part of the progression that serial killers often go through is rehearsal of their fantasies, as a midpoint between fantasizing and acting on those fantasies. They’re working up the courage to do it. And that’s what it feels like we’re watching - we’re watching someone taking the first steps toward acting on their fantasy, and justifying it by telling themselves that it’s not them, it’s a character. Not that it matters to his victims.

In some ways, it’s sort of a less-cartoony Sorgoi Prakov, and though it doesn’t reach the heights of feral lunacy that film does, I think it’s the better film, because it is more believable. Adrian doesn’t really go full maniac at any point, he’s the same giggly, oddly insistent nobody throughout, evoking pity and irritation and horror in equal measure. It drags a little at the very end, but I think it comes good with an ambiguous ending that denies us anything neat and tidy, leaving us with the feeling that the film didn’t so much end as we were shut out of anything that came next, and that what seemed like a breakthrough for Adrian could be anything but. It’s an intelligent film that works well within the limits that found-footage prescribes.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Fresh: Men Only Want One Thing, And It’s (Really) Disgusting

Last month was full of varying flavors of cinematic disappointment at this here thing of mine, and it was starting to annoy me a little. I can handle the occasional stinker, sure, but after awhile it starts to wear on me. I like watching good films, not dunking on bad ones.

So I’m really grateful for Fresh, a very tense, sharply pointed story about women as commodity and objects for consumption. It isn’t subtle, and it’s pretty straightforward in its construction, but it’s very well-executed.

We meet Noa on what is clearly not a good date. There’s awkward silence, a lack of chemistry so absolute that it creates a vacuum, and it goes painfully downhill from there. Dating apps are full of inane come-ons and unsolicited dick pics. It’s tough out there for her, and she commiserates with her friend Mollie about it. Mollie thinks she needs to be more willing to take risks, to just say “fuck it” and follow her heart. And that’s how she finds herself in the grocery store one night, talking to Steve. He’s handsome, charming, funny…a plastic surgeon, so he does well for himself. There seems to be some chemistry there. And so they go out for a drink, and he’s still handsome and charming and funny, so Noa says “fuck it” and takes him home. And that turns into something more promising, so when Steve invites her away for a romantic getaway out in the country, Noa - despite Mollie’s concerns - goes for it. One snag, though - Steve’s got something he has to do, so instead of heading out directly, they’ll overnight at his place and leave first thing in the morning. Mollie’s really concerned at this point, but Noa’s sure it’ll be fine.

And Steve has a really nice house, as befits a plastic surgeon. It’s modern, sprawling, but still feels pretty cozy. There’s easy conversation, some dancing, some drinks…and the next thing Noa knows, she’s waking up in a windowless room, shackled to the floor next to a futon mattress.

As it turns out, Steve services a very particular clientele, made up of people with very specific appetites. He’s not going to kill her, because his clients prefer the taste of the meat when it’s fresh.

This is a great example of what I like to call a film that isn’t a horror movie until it is. Most of the first act could be any kind of romantic comedy - you’ve got the dating woes, the supermarket meet-cute, the flirty chemistry. If you just happened across it, you’d think it was a rom-com. It’s only as it starts to move into the second act that notes of unease really begin to creep in, and then it all snaps shut like a steel trap. And once it does, it is firmly and unapologetically about women as something to be purchased and consumed. As I said, this is not a subtle film, but it does manage to both make observations about the things women have to deal with every day, large and small, while at the same time being a tense, economical story about survival. The men in this film don’t fare very well, but it’s in ways that are entirely believable, and speak to the ways that male selfishness and entitlement constantly betray women.. The date Noa is on at the beginning of the film is excruciating in and of itself - we wouldn’t call it horror, but it is an especially mundane, banal form of horror, the indignities waiting for you out there as a woman.

And as the film progresses, the horrors become more explicit, but no less rooted in the ways male selfishness and entitlement cause suffering on whatever scale. Men who only want one thing, men who can’t handle rejection, and the women who sell out other women to maintain their own comfort and prosperity, it’s all very much up there on the screen. There’s maybe one moment during the climax when it’s more than a little on-the-nose, but it doesn’t really ruin the moment or anything, and the film manages to mine a narrow but deep vein of black humor throughout that runs the usual problems with dating in the modern world through a bloody funhouse mirror.

It's not an especially flashy film, visually, but it’s got a consistent identity and a nice sense of place. A lot of the film takes place in Steve’s house, which looks like something out of a relatively restrained Michael Mann film, all brick and earth tones and natural rock and moody lighting. He’s a well-to-do man whose relationship with an attractive woman rides this woozy line between captor/captive and suitor/courted, which gives it a seductive element that seems adjacent to what (little) I’ve seen of Fifty Shades Of Grey and in that sense could be seen as a sardonic comment on it. That’s the fantasy, this is the reality. The rich man will keep you in his red room because you are meat to him. And we get sporadic flashes of his customers, lovingly unwrapping the parcels they’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars for and consuming them in ways both crude and impeccably refined. The soundtrack is an impeccably curated mix of the sort of pop songs and ballads you’d expect in romantic movies combined with foreboding ambiance and sharp, discordant stings. Flashes of its romantic comedy beginnings shine through in what doesn’t quite ever broaden out into grim parody, but definitely creates a feeling of discordance that almost seems mocking. And late in the game, it presents a nice juxtaposition between the idea of the object (women as actual meat) and the subject (the personal effects left behind), how behind dehumanizing terms like “the product,” there are actual lives and identities and futures lost, which takes what is already a pretty harrowing experience and makes it sobering as well.

For me, this film brought to mind the use of the phrase “body count” to describe the number of sexual partners someone has had. That strikes me as gross, but it seems apt here. Steve’s got a high body count, and even if it isn’t sexual conquest, the women are still objects to be consumed and discarded, commodities to be purchased in order to satisfy desires, and the film makes that point with the confidence of a cleaver chopping through the meat on a block.

IMDB entry
Available on Hulu