Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Archive 81: Terra Incognita

 Awhile back, I wrote about a couple of horror podcasts I was enjoying, and discovered that one of them - Archive 81 - was being developed as a series for Netflix. I was happy to see this, added a placeholder to my list and then promptly forgot about it. So it was a pretty pleasant surprise when it popped up in my queue a couple of weeks ago. The podcast was definitely something off the beaten path - I think I described it as what might happen if the directors of Resolution and The Endless decided to do their own take on the whole SCP mythology in the style of Radiolab. Which is just…so many different references to track. But it largely worked, by turns unsettling and surprisingly touching, with excursions into both Lovecraftian cosmic horror and a somewhat more benign strain of dark fantasy.

So I was excited to see how it’d translate to a visual medium, if a little cautious. The source material is kind of convoluted, a narrative nesting doll where you’re listening to recordings someone has made of their experiences while listening to an entirely separate set of recordings, and it’s all framed as being presented by a friend of the person who was listening to these recordings and has now gone missing. That’s a lot. Also, just to get my own biases out of the way, one of the executive producers is the same person behind a number of slickly-produced, highly commercial horror franchises, the kind of stuff I generally don’t like. I was a little worried that this is would end up being another example of what film critic Mark Kermode calls “quiet quiet quiet quiet BANG!” filmmaking. All jump scares, no atmosphere.

Fortunately, what we get is nothing of the sort. It’s brooding, sinister, and works in areas of horror that I don’t think get enough attention and are absolute catnip to me. It does have some pacing problems, and not everything lands as well as it could, but in general it’s spooky and atmospheric as all get-out.

It’s New York City in the modern day, and Dan Turner works as a film conservator for the Museum of the Moving Image. He has a real affection for old films and television shows, ephemera in danger of slipping through the cracks of our culture. He’s a quiet guy, very private. He had some bad stuff happen to him as a kid, and he’s had his struggles with mental health. There was a relationship, but it’s over. But when we meet him, he’s on his way to work, seeing if a sidewalk vendor has any interesting old VHS tapes. He gets to work and a couple of important things happen in short order. First, he finds out that the museum has acquired the footage for a never-aired horror anthology show called The Circle, something that’s been a bit of a holy grail (or white whale) for him, and second, that someone wants to hire him away from the museum for a year to work on a special project.

The project is to restore a series of damaged videocassettes retrieved from a fire at an apartment building in the mid-1990s. He’ll be working at a corporately-owned research and storage facility up in the Catskills, far away from the hustle and bustle of, well, anywhere. He’ll have living space, anything he needs delivered to him, and $100k for a year’s work. Dan consults with his good friend Mark, and takes the job.

The first thing Dan discovers is that the cassettes are recordings made by a graduate student named Melody Pendras. She was working on an oral history of the Visser Building, an apartment building in Manhattan, and the cassettes are her interviews with residents in the building. At least, that’s what they are to start. The longer Melody is there, the more she starts to notice things - the secrecy of the residents, a sixth floor that’s only accessible via a locked button on the elevator.

Strange singing and chanting coming up through the vents in the middle of the night.

The first smart thing this adaptation does is strip away a lot of the narrative convolution of the podcast. We have two central points of view in this series - Melody, as she discovers more and more about the history of the Visser Building; Dan, as he discovers more and more about the facility where he’s living and working (and the company that owns it), and then there’s the place where these two points intersect, mostly described through segments of Dan restoring and watching Melody’s tapes, at least to start. The shifts between perspectives are also shifts in time - Melody in the past, Dan in the present - and so at points the series plays with chronology by showing us the end of a series of events via Dan watching a recording, then showing us what lead up to it from Melody’s point of view as it’s happening. It’s all handled skillfully and rarely feels confusing, which is good because as it goes on, the division between these two perspectives starts to get thinner and thinner. The broad strokes are that this is a story about two people going down two different (or are they?) rabbit holes at two different points in time.

And the deeper Melody and Dan go, the darker and stranger things become. It takes awhile for things to ramp up, and the first half of this eight-episode series is characterized more by a persistent low-level feeling of uneasiness and paranoia than anything else. At times, there’s a circular feel to it - points get brought up and then abandoned, only to be revisited or recontextualized later. Sometimes it works, giving everything a slight dream-logic feel, like these images or ideas are important, but their specific importance or meaning continue to elude us. But, other times it feels like we’re getting some reveals earlier in the story than we should, and it threatens to undo some of the mystery. I’d say that at worst, there are spots over the eight episodes that feel like the story is spinning its wheels a little and sometimes the narrative gets a little jumbled. A story like this benefits from a feeling of unfolding, or of events escalating, and there are tangents and side trips that undo that momentum a bit and can feel a little like stalling.

But then starting with the fourth episode, things begin to pick up. The story does a good job of introducing new bits of information throughout that change how we perceive Melody and Dan - there’s more to her trip to the Visser than just a research project, and Dan wasn’t necessarily chosen for this job solely for his skills as a conservator, so within any given episode, there are new revelations which piqued my interest even when the broader narrative fumbled a little. The show keeps a lot of balls up in the air, in the form of repeated images and names and places and ideas, some of which pay off right away and some of which don’t pay off until the very end, but do pay off. As it progresses we learn more - about Dan, about Melody, about the Visser, about what happened all those years ago, and what’s going on right now. It might not always come together as neatly as I’d like, but it does come together in a largely satisfying way.

What it does really well, though, is set a mood, doing so through the use of locations, using what at first seem like fairly mundane areas to create a feeling of unease. This is very much a show about navigating a location and unraveling its secrets. I’m reminded of a dream that I had when I was younger, where I opened a cabinet in the basement of my childhood home and inside was an opening to a vast chamber that couldn’t possibly fit within the house, as if I’d opened a door to another world entirely. That feeling permeates this show. It’s like a more sinister riff on the idea of Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter books or the crawlspace that opens up into John Malkovich’s head. Someplace utterly mundane extended into something otherworldly. The compound in the Catskills seems at first like a somewhat musty corporate facility, obviously bought in the 80s or so, but the longer Dan’s there, the more he discovers - basements, sub-basements, hallways hidden behind walls, so over the series the compound starts to sprawl into something much larger and labyrinthine than it first appears, while always maintaining its sense of bland institutionality. Long, dimly lit hallways lined with storage rooms, the files and media contained on the shelves within all pointing to some terrible mystery. The whole thing has the inherent spookiness of an empty office building late at night, spot lighting casting pools of light in the seas of shadow,

Likewise, the Visser seems to sprawl upward and downward at the same time - it’s all wood details and bland drywall in the residential areas and cinderblock and concrete in the stairwells and utility areas. The community room is beige carpeting, a bulletin board, plastic chairs. Everything looks perfectly normal, but there’s too much of it, and there are areas that are off-limits - the sixth floor is only accessible by elevator key, nobody’s allowed in the basement, so many secrets hidden behind the plainest of doors. There’s a history to this building, to the land on which it was built, and there’s a sense that whatever was there before the building was constructed has…infected the building somehow, an idea that becomes disturbingly literal at points to good effect.

I’m really pleased to see this explored - this idea of uncanny spaces, locations that look mundane on the surface but reveal greater strangeness the further you go, doesn’t get nearly as much attention in horror as I’d like, so I’m always happy to see it done well. On the other hand, as good as the persistent paranoia is, I don’t think it’s always calibrated as well as it could be. The further we get into the story, the more Dan and Melody discover, the harder it is for them to act like nothing’s wrong, but when the other shoe drops, it drops loudly. Lots of screaming and freaking out in front of people our protagonists should know better than to freak out around. There’s something to be said for depicting the horror of discovery quietly, at having to keep up appearances knowing what you know. There were times, especially in the second half of the series, when I found myself wondering why Melody and Dan couldn’t just keep their mouths shut, and it was a little distracting.

But then again, in addition to the idea of exploring mysterious, impossible spaces, there’s a layer of mystery on this show associated with forgotten media as well, which is another one of my favorite things in horror. The idea that in storage spaces and rummage sales and sidewalk vendor trays, there are things with vast secrets waiting to be discovered. Forgotten books and the grainy film footage of a television show that nobody ever saw. Films of horrible things, screened to a select audience in a secret bunker. Dan restores a set of tapes rescued from a fire, another set of tapes document the work of someone who was cataloguing hours of soap opera footage and slowly went insane, a suggestion that there’s this whole strange world just underneath the skin of this one, waiting to be discovered, This is absolutely my shit, and again, I’m pleased to see people working in this mode and doing so with skill. It beats the shit out of possessed dolls and the ghosts of evil nuns.

In terms of the overall tone, of the show, the word that keeps coming to mind is “subdued.” Performances are mostly low-key and quiet (with some exceptions - some that work, some that, as I outlined above, don’t work as well). We get to know more about most of the characters as the story goes on, and they’re all mostly recognizable as actual people instead of caricatures. The soundtrack is equally understated, consisting most of either diegetic songs (lots from the mid-90s) and a score dominated by ambient music, electronic hums and swells and the sound of audio interference. The cinematography is cold and desaturated in the modern day and warmer and more colorful at the Visser, which helps underline the narrative shifts between Dan witnessing things via tape and Melody experiencing them in real time. There’s very much a through-line that these are two people trying to connect across time and space, and the show does a good job of teasing new information in a way that slowly reveals the scope of what’s happening. Things connect in unexpected ways, things that come up briefly early on come back later as significant pieces of the puzzle, and in the end it’s all made clear, ending on an impressively inconclusive note that, if you’ve listened to the podcast, will give you some idea of what might come next.

And that’s what I’m wondering, where it’s going to go from here. I liked what I saw enough to want to see a second season, if only to see how they handle what comes next in the podcast. Here, they’ve taken the first of three stories and expanded it beyond what happened in the source material. I remember the segment about the Visser Building being the briefest of three stories, and the team behind this show did a good job of fleshing it out into a fuller story, so I’d be interested to see what they do with the far stranger and wilder territories that lie beyond the Visser Building, and I hope we get a chance to explore them.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix
Podcast homepage

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Old Ways: Coming Home

I have to say, I tend to approach any film that has “characters travel to another country and get menaced by primitive, superstitious natives” with a certain amount of trepidation. There are ways to do the tourism-gone-awry angle well, but it’s also really easy to do it poorly. It’s really easy to conflate fear of the unknown with fear of the other, and if the other is distinguished in terms of race or class or nationality, well…if not handled carefully, it can get icky. It’s not impossible subject matter, but it’s not easy either, and call me a snob but I don’t really trust the kind of movies going straight to streaming to handle it with aplomb.

Well, much to my relief, The Old Ways manages to handle its premise well on that front, and ultimately it’s much more about recovery, identity, and belonging than anything else. Unfortunately, there are some pretty big narrative missteps, and the substance threatens to be drowned out by those poor choices. As often as not, it’s sort of muddled and formulaic.

Cristina is a reporter who’s traveled to Mexico to write a piece about the people of a small village deep in the jungle. In the course of her investigation, she travels to a local cave called La Boca to look around. The problem being that La Boca is a taboo place that her local contacts warned her not to visit. She did anyway, and this is why as the film opens, following a brief flashback, we jump right to Cristina in a room, bound, with a bag over her head.

The locals believe she came back from La Boca with something inside her. Something that needs to be...exorcised.

This film makes the interesting choice to get right into the action and to develop Cristina and the story of what brought her here in flashback, over the course of the movie. I don’t hate this choice - it’s certainly a departure from the formula - but in the execution I think it ends up having some drawbacks. Part of the problem is that because Cristina starts off as sort of a blank slate, the revelations about her don’t have as much impact as they could. We don’t know anything about her to start, so there’s no expectations to reverse or things to recontextualize. That the information is mostly communicated through straightforward exposition doesn’t help either. For example, she’s a really good reporter. How do we know this? Well, there’s a scene where she reminds her editor that she’s a really good reporter. It doesn’t really paint a picture so much as just tell you what you’re looking at.

But the biggest problem on this front is that Cristina starts off highly unsympathetic. I think films like this work best when we identify with the protagonist and want to see them escape danger, and here we have a hotshot reporter who goes where she’s told not to go, and who defends her decision to do the exact opposite thing she was warned against doing with what is essentially “I wanted to do it.” Now, there’s a reason for all of this that makes perfect sense once we have more information, but in that moment, it reads like she’s a spoiled, willful kid who’s about to pay the price for her thoughtlessness, and so it’s harder to invest in her. This is compounded by the revelation that she has an opiate addiction on top of everything else, This revelation is actually handled pretty well and is addressed throughout in a pretty understated fashion, which works well and becomes a more important piece of the film as it goes on. Which is all to the good eventually, but it also means that for the first half of the film she pretty much has two modes: “shouty” and “dopesick.” By contrast, her captors are hardly malevolent at all - sure, they’re holding her captive and her accommodations aren’t great, but they don’t brutalize her, and so there’s this weird reversal where the antagonists seem more sympathetic than the protagonist, culminating in something around the halfway point that should be read as “heroine makes a daring bid for escape” but ends up coming off more like “obnoxious tourist commits assault.” It marks a turning point for the film, and what follows is largely better and more thoughtful than what came before, but it’s off-putting.

Following this, then, the tone of the movie (and of the protagonist) shifts, and here’s where Cristina’s drug addiction fits in - it’s never really signposted or made too obvious, but this shift suggests that what we’ve been watching all along is a metaphor for addiction - the idea of an all-consuming need that feeds on pain and despair, denial, hitting bottom and realizing what you’ve become, and then turning to something better, including making amends and being of service. To the film’s credit it’s never made blatant, and it gives it a bit of thematic heft, which it sorely needed. And as possession-as-addiction metaphors go, it’s handled well. And as we learn more about Cristina, from this also comes some interesting stuff about identity and belonging and who family is as well. But I feel like the choices made in the first half of the film - how Cristina is portrayed, not having a fuller picture of who she is outside of what’s revealed - mean the back half of the film doesn’t have the emotional impact that it could have had. Mostly there’s just relief that Cristina isn’t so relentlessly awful anymore.

Apart from some of the unfortunate characterization, this film never really develops much of a mood, either. The things that are supposed to be scary are so rote that you never don’t see them coming, and it’s not especially inventive in its imagery. It’s kind of demonic possession 101 - there are nightmare sequences, mysterious figures lurking outside, stuff moving around in the shadows, strange things getting vomited up, and you can see it all coming a mile away. Things do improve somewhat on this front as well in the second half of the film, adding some tension to the mix, but it’s sort of too little too late. And then just when it feels like it’s getting good and is going to stick the landing, the ending - which I think had the right idea in its broad strokes - goes on far, far too long and throws in some dopey “badass Final Girl” cliches for good measure. There’s a good movie in here somewhere, a thoughtful, understated, unsettling movie about where home really is, about finding where you belong. But, like Cristina, it’s lost in something else.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Thing (2011): That Which Should Not Be

(Note: If you haven’t seen John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, go remedy that immediately, then come back and red this. because I’m probably going to lightly spoil that film, and it’s excellent.)

I have a sort of quasi-tradition where I try to make a point of watching John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing after the first real snowfall of the winter. It’s one of my favorite horror films, and goes perfectly with the freezing cold and snow piled high outside. Well, the first snow we’ve had this winter was pretty anemic, so it made perfect sense for me to take a look at the 2011 prequel to that film, which also shares its title.

Okay, that’s kind of a cheap shot, but honestly, I think it’s a fair summation. The Thing (2011) shares some features with the film it simultaneously precedes and follows, but it’s all in surface details and it misses a lot of what makes its inspiration so good.

We start off with a bunch of Norwegian researchers at Thule Station, in Antarctica. They’re out for a drive, swapping dirty jokes, running some kind of errand, when their vehicle crashes into a crevasse in the ice. A crevasse which, at its bottom, holds what appears to be some kind of enormous, well, let’s just say it - spaceship. They find a UFO in the ice. Following their rescue, the crew of the station surveys the site, and some distance away from the craft, finds something else under the ice…a form.

Something that doesn’t look human, and does look like it was crawling away from the wreckage.

Right off the bat, this film’s an odd duck. It’s clear that it got made on the back of John Carpenter’s film, in the way that the inevitable churn of sequels and remakes and reboots seek to capitalize on the nostalgia we have for the original films. But it’s not a remake, per se, or a sequel - it’s a prequel, and one that is clearly trying to hew faithfully to elements of the original film. And it’s a prequel with a built-in narrative hook, in that it’s telling the story of the Norwegian camp that the protagonists of the original stumble upon early in the film. In the original film, we see aftermath, and here, we see those events as they play out. So it’s not a case where someone’s had to gin up an origin story or a reason for some antagonist to come back, it’s a story that takes place in a natural narrative context. Carpenter’s The Thing begins with a helicopter containing two Norwegians flying into their camp, shooting at a dog that they appear to be chasing. That’s what starts everything in the first film, and so here what we’re getting is everything that lead up to that moment.

And this was my first problem with the film - it’s telling a story that didn’t really need to be told. The sequences in the Norwegian camp in the first film were highly effective on their own, no elaboration necessary. I mean, it’s a less contrived addition to the story than a lot of sequels or prequels are, but sometimes less is more, and not knowing exactly what happened there was a lot creepier than knowing would be, especially since anyone who’s seen the first film has a pretty good idea of what probably happened there. In that sense, it’s a film that isn’t really telling us anything we didn’t already know. But even so, if it’s a well-told story, it could at least keep us engaged, even if we do have a pretty good idea of where it’s going and how it’s going to end. But that’s the next place it falls down - this is a film that knows the details of the first film well, but not why the first film was so good.

There were a couple of things that made the original as effective as it still is. First, the first film is ultimately more about people than the monster, the extraterrestrial that’s come into their camp and is assimilating everyone in the station, one by one. The monster is the instigating force that gets the men to turn on each other, since any one of them could be infected, but that’s really its central purpose. The majority of the original film is a story of paranoia and distrust, and how the already-contentious relationship between those men lead to their deaths. The monster only really shows up to reinforce their paranoia, to remind them it could be anyone or everyone, and that it would be extremely bad if it got loose. The characters in the first film aren’t necessarily explored in depth, but they’re distinct people with their own personalities and their own humanizing touches, so we’re invested in seeing what happens to them.

Second, when it does address the monster, it leaves a lot to the imagination, because the limitations of special effects at the time required it. For every vivid, well-lit instance of some horrible mutation, there are two or three of things barely glimpsed on-camera, or attacking from the shadows, and again, no special effect is ever going to be as horrifying as what you can cook up in your head. It’s pretty much all achieved through practical effects as well, which makes the original feel grounded, and why the creature effects (though certainly not flawless, and some are pretty dated at this point) are so disquieting - it’s something physical, it’s inhabiting the same space as the actors, but it’s so alien in design that we can’t quite get our heads around what we’re seeing. It’s as Lovecraftian as you’ll find outside of actual adaptations of Lovecraft.

This film, by contrast, invests a lot more in the monster than in the people. The protagonists in the original weren’t what you’d call fleshed-out, but they had distinct roles and personalities. In this film, you’ve got the leads and then…a lot of interchangeable Norwegian men. Half of them, I think, didn’t even really have names. Everyone’s an archetype, nobody has an inner life to speak of. We don’t really get to know them before the shit pops off, either. There’s a scene of a bunch of them drinking and singing, but that’s kind of it. We learn a lot more about life at the station in the original before things get really bad, and it makes a difference - there’s enough of a sense of them as people that the paranoia carries some weight once they realize what’s going on. Here, they’re mostly just…cannon fodder. And the monster begins its predations much sooner and in a much louder fashion than in the original. Yes, there are nods to the idea that they can’t trust each other, but here those moments really just serve as interstitials between monster attacks, rather than being what carries the film. So, even though it doesn’t end up being quite as rote as it could be, it comes close at many points. We don’t know these people, so we don’t care about them, and whether one of them has been assimilated or not is reduced to a guessing game, signposted by sequences that inevitably end in yet another gory reveal. You could almost set your watch by it.

And the monster in which they invest so much is a lot less effective than it is in the first film. The monster is clearly and plainly depicted, on-camera under well-lit conditions for extended periods of time. It’s clear that the filmmakers did their homework and tried to stick as closely to the design of the original creature as much as possible, so it’s at least a good design, but it’s also pretty clear that what we’re seeing is almost entirely digital effects. It’s not terrible CG work, but it’s also clear that that’s exactly what it is, and so all of those moments (and there are a lot of them) have an artificiality that the original film didn’t, and in some ways it makes the monster less frightening. I mean, it’s certainly gross, all waving tentacles and mouths where you wouldn’t expect mouths to be and limbs in equally unexpected places, but it never feels as real as the practical work did in the original film. So what we’re left with is a bunch of people we don’t care all that much about alternating between creeping around, yelling at each other, and shooting or burning creatures, and setpieces where an obviously-artificial monster chews on them in various disgusting ways. In some ways, it’s the more action-oriented Aliens to the original film’s slow-burn Alien, but the characters in Aliens had way more personality than these poor bastards do, so what we get is less a story and more a series of beats that happen in mostly-predictable sequence.

Otherwise, this film can best be described as competent, with a good eye for detail in terms of the original film. The acting is fine, nothing nuanced but nothing wooden or cringeworthy either. and the dialogue is perfectly serviceable, without being awful. Everything is well-lit and clean, which takes some of the atmosphere out of it. But the setting closely resembles the original sets from the original film, and everything plays out in a way that slots neatly into what the protagonists of the original film discover. If anything, one of this film’s bigger strengths is the degree to which it honors the source material (at least until the very end, which takes a goofy and unnecessary detour into the original spacecraft). The music cues call back to the score of the original, even the font for the credits and the animation for the opening title. So the filmmakers are at least respectful of the original and its legacy.

But the question remains: Why do this at all? The story of the ill-fated Norwegian camp was certainly untold, but does telling it really add anything to the original film? And if you haven’t seen the original film, well, now you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for when you watch the original, at least in the broad strokes. I don’t necessarily blame the filmmakers for all of this - apparently, the director was so beset by studio interference that he swore he’d never work with an American studio again, and hasn’t since - but apart from being an opportunity to trade on the reputation of a much better film, there’s no reason for this to exist. This is the thing that should not be, largely well-executed but profoundly empty.

IMDB entry

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

L’Aldila: A Place Between

I’ve been doing this for awhile, and though my guiding principle has always been “write about the films you feel like writing about, when you feel like writing about them,” as time’s gone on I’ve started to recognize the importance of also paying attention to the breadth and history of the genre as well. Not that I’m gonna claim to be any sort of expert but increasingly I’m coming to feel like if I’m going to write about horror movies, I should probably be pretty literate in horror movies. And the longer I do this, the easier it is for me to see where I’m not as literate as I’d like to be. One of the biggest areas I need to work on is classic Italian horror films. They’re damn near a genre of their own, and having only seen Suspiria and Profondo Rosso, I’ve only begun to even scratch the surface.

So it’s sort of an ongoing project, and this week, that brings me to L’Aldila (The Beyond). In a lot of ways, this feels like something between the other film’s I’ve seen in this style. It’s not quite as bonkers narratively as Profondo Rosso, and it’s not quite as riotous visually as Suspiria, but I feel like I’m starting to get a sense of what the style is all about. I know I’m still barely into the canon, but I’m beginning to think that the word “subtle” is just…never going to apply to these films.

It opens on a flashback, shot in tones less sepia than deep, tarnished gold. It’s Louisiana in 1921, and a crowd of townsfolk are approaching a big hotel. This is intercut with someone inside, feverishly painting a blighted landscape, and a woman reading from a mysterious old book. The crowd breaks down the door, drags the painter from his room. We learn that this hotel is built over one of seven gates to Hell found on Earth. And then the crowd takes the painter to the hotel’s basement, whips him with chains, burns him with scalding pitch, and crucifies him to a wall. The book bursts into flames.

And then it’s Louisiana in 1981, and a young woman named Liza Merril is directing a renovation of the hotel. She’s inherited it, and she sees it as her big break, or last chance at some kind of prosperity and success. Oh, sure, there are problems - the wiring is faulty, the plumbing is completely blocked up, the exterior needs to be repainted, and the interior desperately needs an updating, and she has no budget to speak of. But she’s doing what she can to get the hotel up and running as soon as possible. Which makes the obstacles that much more frustrating, like the workman who falls off a scaffold after glimpsing something inside the hotel.

Like the plumber breaking through a wall in the basement, into where the painter was crucified. And the dead, beginning to walk.

There’s really not much of a plot to this film, beyond “woman inherits old hotel in New Orleans, and as soon as the remodeling begins bad shit starts to happen.” That’s pretty much it. There’s very little character development to speak of, although at least this time the sexism isn’t quite as pungent as it was in Profondo Rosso, and the film sort of moves from one scene to another without a lot of narrative contiguity. Here’s the setting, here’s the cast, now here’s a lot of mayhem. But somehow, it works better than it should, and I think a lot of that is down to an atmosphere of persistent strangeness driven both by deliberate choices and by the byproducts of the type of film it is. It’s an Italian production set in the U.S., and to their credit, it looks like at least some of the film was shot on location, which was more than I was expecting. But as a result, the acting and dialogue are all extremely stilted in that way you get when everything’s dubbed. Almost everyone in this film is a little off in one way or another, even if it’s only in that they talk and act like people do in films set in a specific place but written and directed by people who only have a passing familiarity with that place. Even the blandest of characters, then, feel at least a little strange, and some, like the hotel’s two caretakers, are right out of a gothic novel.

The nature of the production, then, helps create a vibe even if unintentionally. But it works because that vibe is only amplified by the intentional choices made by the filmmakers. This film doesn’t waste a lot of time, telling us within the first ten minutes that this hotel is built on top of one of seven doors to hell, and hitting the ground running from there. It’s a very no-nonsense, no-filler approach. In pretty much every scene, something weird or violent (or violently weird) is going to happen, and it’s got just enough of a throw-it-all-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks vibe to it that it does a good job of resisting predictability. Does it all make a whole lot of sense? Not really, though it’s at least thematically cohesive. Images reoccur in a way that might not make for a linear story, but do at least give the film a consistent vocabulary. Within setpieces, the rhythms vary enough (plus it’s all just so fucking weird anyway) that you don’t really see too much coming, and the filmmakers manage to keep some fun (if largely inconsequential) twists secret for the last act. Shots get held a little longer than you’d expect, the action moves more slowly sometimes, then more quickly at others. There’s a fair amount of graphic violence, and even though it’s all done very much on the cheap and that’s readily apparent, the very specific, personal nature of the violence (this director really, really hates eyeballs) means it’s still pretty squirm-inducing, even when it doesn’t look at all realistic. 

In some ways, this is a very impressionistic movie, more about evoking a feeling and using a fairly limited palette, heavy on the repetition of specific images and ideas, to sustain that feeling. It’s less stylish than Suspiria or Profondo Rosso, but individual shots and setpieces do evince some visual flair. One especially vivid moment sees a pool of blood (the consistency of a cherry Slushee) crawling slowly across a marble floor toward the feet of a young girl, but for every moment like that, you’ve got a bluntly depicted gore sequence, and though some are still very effective, some are downright laughable. It’s a much earthier, funkier movie than Suspiria or Profondo Rosso. Instead of stylishly modern apartment buildings you have a run-down hotel with a basement you can practically smell, and all of the graphic violence has a real tactility to it - bodies ooze and drip, blood flows and spills and runs, body parts squish. I wouldn’t call it art, and even when it’s risible it's still pretty fucking gross, but it’s intensely specific and personal.

This extends into the production as well. The camerawork uses a lot of quick zooms and pans to keep things tense, the editing uses a lot of sudden cuts to striking images (especially close-ups on pairs of blank, unseeing eyes) and extreme close-ups in the more violent scenes to keep things uncomfortable. Apart from the gross old hotel, some of the action takes place at a hospital whose interiors are stylishly modern and relentlessly white by comparison, and the contrast throws both into sharp relief. There are just enough establishing shots of New Orleans and the surrounding area to keep it from feeling too much like a film where one city is being played by an entirely different city, so it doesn’t feel as silly as it could. Like other film in the style, the soundtrack is mostly something akin to jazz fusion, all keyboards and uptempo drums and slap bass, which in some instances is innocuous, and in others (usually instances where someone is being dispatched in gruesome fashion) makes the whole thing feel even stranger.  The pacing is pretty good throughout until it hits a snag in the last act. It feels like the producers told the director to insert an entirely unnecessary chase sequence, and according to IMDB trivia, that’s exactly what happened. You can tell -  it drags on for entirely too long, and it means the protagonists have to mysteriously end up someplace else entirely, but the film still ends on a pretty striking note. It doesn’t quite have the impact it would otherwise because of the pacing issues, but  the imagery is still surprising and evocative.

I’m only three movies (and two major directors) in, but I think I’m starting to get a sense of what to expect when I go into films like these now, even if that sense is “shit’s gonna be weird, don’t think too hard about it.” I’m starting to see why this style of film is held in such high regard in some circles, and I’m looking forward to more.

IMDB entry
Available on Tubi
Available on Amazon

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Black Christmas: The Nightmare Before Christmas

As was the case with Halloween, I find myself sitting down to watch the movie I’m going to write about for the coming week on the day after a holiday - this year that happened to be the day after Christmas so, well, ‘tis the season and all that. And like Halloween, Black Christmas is an early example of the slasher film, a type of horror film of which I’m generally not very fond - I don’t find the prospect of a bunch of unwitting teenagers getting mowed down by a silent, hulking presence with some kind of gimmick all that compelling. 

But I do feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least look at seminal examples of the type. That’s usually where you’re going to find the most interesting films, before they’ve been codified into some kind of genre with rules and clichés and expectations to be met. And, though I don’t know that Black Christmas works as well overall as Halloween does, there are some really interesting choices here alongside early examples of the sort of things that would become slasher film cliché.

The film begins sort of in medias res, as the young women of Pi Kappa Sigma sorority are throwing a holiday party before Christmas break. There’s drinking, conversation, the mood’s mostly festive and relaxed, though one sorority sister named Barb is having a tense phone call with her mother, and another sister, Jess, seems to be considering breaking up with her boyfriend Peter for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Meanwhile, outside the sorority house, we cut to a first-person perspective of someone walking around the house, looking in the windows, trying the doors. 

Inside, the party is winding down as most of the sisters begin packing up to leave for the holidays, and then there’s a phone call. An obscene phone call, by the sounds of it. The caller breathes and grunts and moans, as the young women gathered around the phone listen with something between bemusement and numb resignation. The grunting and moaning escalates to surprisingly graphic ranting obscenity, and just before the caller hangs up, one last thing, almost whispered…

“I’m going to kill you.”

In some ways, Black Christmas really does create a lot of the template for future slasher films - even apart from setting the film during a holiday, which would go on to become a staple of the genre, we have a group of young people -in this case, young women - in a fixed location being stalked and murdered by an impersonal killer. The use of first-person perspective, which figured heavily into Halloween and shows up as a device in many other slasher films as well, is a big part of this film. Law enforcement is largely ineffectual and doesn’t really take the protagonists’ concerns seriously, and people get picked off one by one leading up to the climactic confrontation between the last protagonist and the killer. 

But there are some important departures as well, things that future copycats wouldn’t include in the formula. Like Halloween, it is a much more deliberately-paced film than its successors would be, with a fairly large stretch of the film given over to the reactions of other characters to the disappearance of the first victim and efforts to locate her. It isn’t immediately clear what’s going on, and because they aren’t in an isolated location, there’s a sense that life continues to go on around this young woman going missing. There are subplots as well, which you generally don’t get in slasher films, about the first victims’ father, who came to campus to pick her up and then stayed to assist with the search effort, and Jess’ relationship with her boyfriend. They’re somewhat tangential to the main story, but end up becoming part of it as well, sometimes in surprisingly effective ways. For long stretches, it feels more like a mystery and how this group of people reacts to it than it does a horror film, except we know right off the bat what’s happened and are sort of waiting for it to happen again.

It’s also a lot less graphically violent than the films that would follow it - a number of people do die, but the murders are rarely lingered upon and in at least two cases occur entirely off-camera. Almost all of the action takes place in the sorority house, an actual house rented and remodeled for the film, which gives it a tremendous sense of geography. It gives the film a real feeling of…not claustrophobia, exactly, but confinement. There’s someone in the house with these young women, and all it would take would be opening a certain door or climbing up into the attic of this sprawling, labyrinthine house to reveal everything, but because there’s no real reason to, people don’t. A lot turns on small details - open doors, the sound of heavy breathing - to cue what’s about to happen, and much more than the films it inspires, this film really leans into the power of suggestion and imagination. There’s something nightmarish about it, this idea that there’s a maniac up in the attic, creeping down when people aren’t looking and lurking in the shadows, just watching. And what a maniac he is. One thing that Halloween does seem to be responsible for is the killer as a silent, implacable hulking figure. That is definitely not the case in this film. We almost never see the killer at all from anyone else’s perspective - just a hand or eyes peering out from the shadows. But we do see a lot from the killer’s perspective, and he rants, babbles, makes strange, inarticulate animal noises, speaking in multiple voices like a man possessed. There’s a horrific energy to this that exists in counterpoint to the fairly restrained depictions of murder. The obscene phone call that begins the film is surprisingly nasty for the time in which the film was made, and it continues in a way that best describes the killer as unhinged. The violence is in the killer’s portrayal, not in his actions, and because the killer is never really revealed in a meaningful way or explained at all, it’s really unsettling. 

It’s also interesting to observe how the subject matter of this film interacts with the time in which it was made. It came out in 1974, and mid-70s ideas about gender are very much on display here in a way that communicates with the film. There’s the weary resignation the sorority sisters exhibit at yet another obscene phone call, the way that most of the men are occupied with dictating the lives of the women in the film, from the father’s prudish disapproval of his daughter’s fellow sorority sisters to Peter’s callous narcissism, the way the police dismiss the protagonist’s complaints about obscene phone calls and even the first sister going missing, or even just total strangers acting creepy. These women exist in an environment where they’re constantly under siege as it is from the men in their lives, never mind an unseen killer. And the men in this film mostly exist on a continuum of arrested development, from the police sergeant flustered by the word “fellatio” to the fraternity brother who can’t help but play Santa Claus while spouting obscenities, to Peter’s utter failure to consider anyone’s needs but his own, to the way the killer keeps regressing to a child as he rants and raves. Almost any of the men in this film could be a monster, it’s just a matter of degree.

So even though there is an interesting, almost theatrical feeling to this film (I really could see this being adapted for the stage if it hasn’t been already), it also makes a number of mistakes. The use of first-person perspective is pretty clumsy, and especially overdone at the start, where we basically know about the killer’s existence before we’re even properly situated with the characters and the setting. It burns off some of the suspense, and continually reverting to it throughout the film threatens to take us out of the story since it feels so artificial. Characterization in this film isn’t especially deep across the board, sometimes bordering on caricature, but there are occasionally some exchanges that feel pretty real, especially in the back half of the film when it becomes clear that there’s something going on. But the housemother is almost played for comic relief, and the protagonists aren’t really so much fleshed-out people as they are either a single personality trait or their relationship with another character.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a film that moved along at a faster clip, but because the whole second act consists mostly of people talking to each other, things start to drag quite a bit. The tension does start to ramp up in the last act, accompanied by good use of long shots of empty hallways from different perspectives, which accentuates how big the house is and how many hidden nooks and crannies it has. I think more of that and less of the first-person stuff would have made it even better, and to its credit it ends strong on a creepily inconclusive note, something a lot of horror films fail to manage. 

On its own, this is an idiosyncratic film that does slightly more right than it does wrong, but for as much as it’s contributed to a thoroughly overdone style of horror film, it’s also very much its own thing, and something about it has stuck with me ever since I watched it. That doesn’t happen all that often. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Creep 2: Collaboration

(Note: This is going to be mildly spoilery for the 2014 film Creep, and if you haven’t seen it - well, you should, it’s really good and it’ll inform how you see this film. So maybe go check that out and then read this.)

If you’ve spent any amount of time reading this thing of mine, you’ll know I don’t like sequels to horror movies. If you haven’t spent much time reading this thing of mine, well…I don’t like sequels to horror movies. I think horror works best when there’s mystery and finality to it, and sequels (and prequels, for that matter) undo both of those, diminishing what made the original so powerful. Plus, there’s a tendency to reprise the original - another group of campers come to the cursed summer camp, another group of people with dodgy pasts get snared by the evil mastermind, another family moves into the haunted house. It tends to be more of the same, and again, no finality or mystery. We’ve seen this already. There are the occasional exceptions, as there always are, but as a rule, I don’t do sequels.

Creep was one of those films that made me consider an exception, mostly because it falls so far outside of conventional horror filmmaking in so many ways that I was genuinely curious what another story by these people in this world would look like. And in a lot of ways, Creep 2 doesn’t disappoint, primarily because it elaborates on the first film, rather than reprise it. It’s like variations on a theme, or someone improvising on an existing riff, and it goes some places the original film didn’t. It does have the problem inherent in any sequel in that some of the surprise is lost, but what replaces it works more often than not. 

We open on a young man named Dave, who’s just received a package in the mail - we can’t see what it is, because our perspective is being shot from inside the box. He pulls out a DVD, and though we can’t see what’s on it, it has Dave pretty rattled. So he calls his friend Aaron to come over. We’ve seen Aaron before - the last time we saw him, he was calling himself “Josef.” There’s a conversation, there are revelations, there’s a knife, and soon enough, Dave is dead.

Cut to Sara. Sara is a video artist, sort of a documentarian. She’s making a web series called Encounters wherein she answers Craigslist ads put up by lonely men and documents herself spending the day with these men, finding out how they got to this point in their life. It’s very raw, very honest, and pretty much nobody is watching it. She’s losing faith in her ability to do this, in her ability as an artist. She needs something to really push the boundaries, something really compelling.

And then she answers a Craigslist ad from someone named “Aaron.”

Initially, then, we’re sort of working from the bones of the original. An unsuspecting videographer is invited out to a house deep in the woods on the pretext of spending the day filming the person who hired them. That’s not entirely where the similarities end, but it’s where most of them end. One of the things that I thought made Creep work so well was how it gave the audience a first-person perspective on someone gradually realizing that this person they initially thought was just sort of needy and awkward is actually something much worse, and how grounded that was in actual human behavior. It was very much about someone coming to realize too late that they were in over their head, and that’s not exactly what’s going on here - well, it’s not not what’s going on here, but it’s a very different dynamic.

The dynamic in this film feels much more actively collaborative, insofar as both Aaron and Sara are trying to get something out of each other. Aaron’s trying to meet his needs, as in the first film, though here he’s depicted as someone headed into middle age, realizing that he doesn’t have the same joy in his work as he used to, and he’s wondering what’s happening to him. He wants Sara to tell his story. But Sara’s also trying to meet her needs as well, and it’s something more complicated than just a day’s filming for hire - she wants her show to work, she wants something really challenging and maybe even dangerous to make for a compelling episode. She’s already in a place where she’s accustomed to walking alone into potentially dangerous situations, so she’s not naïve, but you get the sense that maybe she has a little more confidence than she really should, based on all of the previous times she was able to handle herself. From what we see of Encounters, she’s mostly been dealing with sheep, and we know (from the first film and from the prologue) that now she’s dealing with an actual wolf, and so the simmering discomfort at all of the boundary violations from the first film are replaced with a simmering discomfort at us knowing exactly how much trouble she’s really in and wondering how it’s all going to play out. On that level, we’re watching a predator toy with its prey for a little over an hour. It’s more nuanced than that, though, as Sara both acknowledges how dangerous it is for her as a woman to walk into a strange man’s house in the middle of nowhere, but also at the same time recognize how well this could pay off for her, paired with an immediate dismissal of the idea that this guy could actually be dangerous. It’s like a much more grounded version of the feeling you get in more conventional horror films right before one of the protagonists opens a door that you absolutely know they should not open. It’s not so much blithe ignorance as you being able to see Sara talking herself out of her better instincts in real time. 

But on top of that, there’s the way that Aaron continues to weaponize the idea of intimacy as one of his ways of manipulating his victims. Just as in the first film, he’s extremely confessional and open, affectionately demonstrative and given to SoCal touchy-feely psychobabble as gestures toward vulnerability. And as in the first film, he pushes Sara to be just as revealing, a way of brute-forcing the trust he’s going to exploit eventually. But because Sara essentially has an agenda of her own, she gives as good as she gets, and her fearlessness serves her well. She’s more assertive and directive, she challenges Aaron, she doesn’t back down. She’s someone who’s also used to using intimacy as a tool, used to using trust and vulnerability to her own ends. So there’s much more of a back-and-forth there than in the first film. 

Another advantage to this film is the way it makes our antagonist more of a mystery, rather than less. One of the problems I have with sequels to horror films in general is that they tend to reveal more and more about the antagonist until there’s no horror left because it’s all choked out by the backstory. Here, though, we can never, ever trust anything Aaron says or does as being true. As in the first film, he uses intimacy as a tool, not just to lull his victim but also to maintain his own distance. When you choose what to reveal to someone about yourself and how, it’s still a process under your control. If Aaron wants to share an uncomfortable incident from his past he can, and it will seem as though he is being vulnerable, but if it’s a total fiction then we’re no closer to knowing him than we were before. It isn’t playing fair, and as in the first film, those violations of the interpersonal contract of disclosure are uncomfortable. But now that we see Aaron’s entire narrative with Sara is very different from the one he has in the first movie, it means he’s still as much a mystery to us at the end of this film as he was at the end of the first film. All we know is that he kills, and all the rest is up for grabs, If anything, he’s even more of a mystery than he was in the first film. At least in terms of the details - there’s a very clear vocabulary around intimacy and interpersonal connection and specific imagery and ideas to Aaron that provides a through-line, but there’s no myth-making here, no lore to bog down the story. At whatever level he’s consciously revealing things, he’s still a cipher, and that’s chilling.

There’s a pretty strong metatextual undercurrent as well - we are watching a film about the making of a film, and in some ways that makes us, the audience, collaborators as well. Sara’s complicit in helping Aaron to memorialize his killings, and we’re complicit in watching her do it. As in the first film, the majority is shot from the perspective of a single camera, we’re watching footage as it’s being shot, we’re seeing when it works and when it doesn’t work, and when there’s artifice, it’s captured both as part of the film Sara’s making and the film we’re watching. So where the first film felt more immediate, like we were watching everything unfold as it happened, here there’s a bit more of a remove to it, it’s a little more self-conscious, which takes some of the immediate tension out. I don’t think it really harms the film, because it’s an expression of the dynamic between these two people, but it does rob the story of some of its immediacy. It’s more of a head film, and less of a gut film, if that makes sense.

And on top of all that, the performances continue to be very strong. They have to be, since it’s really just two people talking to each other for most of the film. As in the first film, the dialogue was improvised from an outline, so it feels very natural throughout, and Sara’s more proactive, directive role here means we see sides to Aaron that we didn’t see in the first film. In some ways, this is as contrived a depiction of a serial killer as any other serial killer film (man invites someone with a camera to his home so he can have a record of both his attempts to bond with him and then their murder), but the character of Aaron really nails a lot of the real psychological ingredients of serial murderers here - there’s an underlying emptiness or vacuity and constant need, an intense desire for control, and a harmless, unassuming persona that slips when nobody’s looking. We don’t know the facts of his life, we don’t know how much (if any) of the things he revealed in this film or the first one are true, but we see what happens when he and Sara have trouble filming a sequence and he completely loses his cool, we see how Sara’s unflappability and willingness to take charge of the situation puts him on his back foot, and there are moments where the friendly, open, good-vibes persona drops and the darkness underneath, the rage, are clearly visible, if only for a moment. Again, it’s chilling when it happens. Just like the first film this is not an especially gory film by any stretch of the imagination. The horror here is in what people say and do, in the details carefully observed. 

It’s not as intensely minimal as the first film - the production qualities are higher, there’s a prologue and an epilogue, which gives it a more conventional feel, but not to a degree that hurts it. The last thing you want to do (and the first thing so many filmmakers do with horror sequels) is just make the same movie again. The settings are similar, again it’s mostly set in someone’s vacation home, and apart from the credits all of the music is diegetic, so it still feels pretty naturalistic. As in the first film, the firs-person perspective sometimes feels a little weird, but not to a degree that pulls you out of the movie. The first film wasn’t really a conventional horror film and neither is this one, they both mine pretty conventional horror-film territory in unconventional ways, but even though this one’s maybe a little more distant than the first, underneath there’s still that constant hum of unease and discomfort, wondering when the other shoe is going to drop, and the characters are acutely enough observed that it’s painful to watch in many of the ways the first film was. It ends on a suitably messy, complicated note, underscoring the idea that there aren’t many neat, tidy answers to be had, and that we’re as much a part of this as Aaron and Sara were. Apparently there’s a third one in pre-production, and I gotta say I’m at least curious.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Creep (2014): This May Seem Weird Now

When you think about horror movies, the horror of new relationships probably doesn’t come to mind immediately. Sure, there are films like Honeymoon that use monstrous transformation as a metaphor for the realization that maybe you don’t know your brand-new spouse as well as you thought, or thrillers like Fatal Attraction that describe how a casual encounter can have horrible consequences. But, broadly speaking, embarking on any kind of new relationship - not just romantic or sexual ones, even just friendship - can be scary, because it entails revealing things about yourself to another person, making yourself vulnerable. And there’s always an element of uncertainty there. How are they going to respond? Being intimate with someone is scary.

As is the case with Creep, a strange, persistently uncomfortable film that doesn’t really look or play like much else, and that’s very much to its credit. This is not to be confused with the (somewhat misogynistic) 2004 film of the same name that told the story of a young woman trapped in a disused part of the London Underground with something extremely nasty. No, the monster here, while certainly nasty enough, is something entirely plausible, which makes the whole thing hit just that much closer to home, to great effect.

It’s the story of a young man named Aaron. He’s a videographer by trade, and we pick up with him as he’s traveling out into the woods of what is presumably northern California, though it’s never really made clear, for a private gig. “Discretion is appreciated,” the ad said. And when he gets where he’s going, to an isolated vacation home, there’s nobody around. Nobody answers the door, nobody answers his calls. He’s just about to leave when the client, Josef, shows up. He’s very friendly…very, very friendly. He pulls Aaron in for a hug, saying “this may seem weird now, but by the end of the day it’ll be totally normal.” Josef explains to Aaron that he’s terminally ill, his wife is pregnant, and there’s every chance that he won’t live to see his child born. So he wants to make some video diaries of himself so his unborn son can get to know him after he’s gone. Aaron’s going to spend the day following him around, recording him, as a keepsake.

“This is a partnership,” Josef says.

To start, this film isn’t so much scary as it is, well, really creepy. And it’s not really the creepiness of your garden-variety horror film - Josef’s vacation house is bright and airy and modern, and there’s nothing strange out in the forest. This is the creepiness of a certain kind of person who actually exists in the world. Josef is uncomfortable to watch almost from the first moment he’s on screen, combining the bland amicability of a youth pastor or children’s program host with glimpses at some deep-seated psychological issues and a talent for ignoring social and interpersonal boundaries. There’s a real weaponization of intimacy at work here - Josef shares too much too quickly, and encourages Aaron to do the same. He asks uncomfortably personal questions and makes odd remarks. There’s a childlike quality to him, a vulnerability that suggests he was wounded very badly at a very young age and maybe he’s never really known how to relate to people.

So right from jump, something feels very, very off, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel like a horror movie. You hear stories of people who strike up friendships, acquaintances, work relationships, or even just passing encounters with people who don’t seem to know where and when to stop, who call at all hours, who keep asking if you like them or not, who share embarrassingly personal things about themselves and pressure you to do the same. That happens in everyday life all the time, and the effectiveness of this film lies in how it takes those kind of uncomfortable, but highly relatable encounters and spins them into something much worse. Most of the heavy lifting, then, is in the persistent uneasiness that accompanies really awkward, uncomfortable social situations with people you realize might not be totally stable. There are some jump-scare moments but they’re sort of….not exactly telegraphed, more like they’re integrated into the story in a way that makes sense so they’re as much a part of the character as they are jump scares. Josef’s the kind of guy who thinks it’s funny to leap out at someone as they walk through a door, so you get the jolt in a way that feels narratively plausible. And it suggests a certain meanness, the way certain types of teasing are presented as being all in fun, but sting nonetheless. Or how you can tickle someone until it stops being funny and starts being genuinely distressing. They’re all violations of trust, of intimacy.

The importance of intimacy to the story comes through in the cinematography as well. It’s shot almost entirely in the first person, using a commercial-grade video camera. So it’s nominally a found-footage film, at least in terms of its perspective, but it’s not really presented as such. It feels more like a film that’s just shot mostly from a first-person perspective, as if we’re privy to a video diary. Maybe now and then you’ll wonder “why is he filming this?” But since it isn’t explicitly one of these “all that remains of the night of that horrible tragedy is the footage the missing teenagers filmed” kind of movies, I found it easier to sort of just roll with it. It’s a personal film shot from a personal point of view.

It’s also an extremely minimal production. The whole film is just two people (and one voice on the phone), both of whom also wrote it (to the extent that it’s written - they improvised around a basic outline they came up with ahead of time) and one of whom is the director. There’s no score, there’s one camera, and there are minimal effects. It’s two people interacting with each other in increasingly uncomfortable ways and it feels extremely natural, which makes it work even better. If it reminds me of any other film I’ve written about for this thing, it’s probably Leaving D.C., which is similarly minimal, though this film is tenser and more unsettling, but like the former film, it’s very much centered in believable human experience and that’s why it works so well. This doesn’t scan like most horror films - it’ s set in sunny, cheery suburban environments and it plays for most of its runtime more like an indie drama about someone who finds themselves becoming increasingly entangled with a very lonely. awkward, emotionally arrested man, someone who has a real problem with boundaries for reasons hinted at obliquely in the beginning of the film. It seems more like something you’d expect from Mike White or Todd Solondz, as Aaron tries his best to navigate Josef’s feelings in a way that extricates him from the attentions of this incredibly needy person without hurting him. This is a horror film where most of the horror is expressed in conversations, which is a hell of a thing.

It’s a relatively short film, not even 90 minutes, but it does have some pacing problems. It starts to lose its focus a little in the back half, and so things meander for a bit before a fairly strong ending. There’s also going to be some “why would he do that?” questions asked of Aaron, but Aaron doesn’t know he’s in a horror movie, and once things get extremely strange he does start to fear for his safety. But to look at Josef, so lost and hangdog and forlorn, how could he possibly be anything other than just…kinda creepy?

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix
Available on Amazon