All posts by population40

Aspiring filmmaker/bald alien boy from Southern Maine with a penchant for Euro-tinged horror films, spacey psych records from the back of the crate, and honey mustard pretzel bits.

GET OUT (2017) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

Effortlessly articulate in its unabashed social consciousness and fearless in its evocation of delectably dream-like ambience, “Get Out” is something of a miracle in terms of the modern cinematic circuit; a brooding, remarkably intelligent picture that pays its respects to the horror masters of old while making way for the new. That the latter in question is none other than Jordan Peele, one half of subversive comic duo Key and Peele, only serves to make the film’s enduring taste all the sweeter.

While Peele is hardly the most likely candidate that comes to mind when faced with the task of delivering grueling terror, he’s no stranger to the festering racial tensions that his debut actively confronts. In this case, Chris (Daniel Kaluuyah), an established photographer and all around exceedingly likably guy, is the vehicle and the catalyst is the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), who he is soon to finally meet over a weekend getaway in the country.

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While it’s safe to assume that Peele’s influences range far and wide, it’s perhaps most obvious that he’s taking significant pages from the Book of Polanski, as this turns out to be quite the enticing slow-burn. Rose’s family appears to be a jolly bunch – a little too jolly, in fact – and the presence of two African American servants who act as if they’re trapped inside their own bodies is certainly foreboding. Chris’ social isolationism and apprehension toward his partner’s kin plays well against old-timey interiors and a sequence of increasingly odd incidents, one example of which being a collision with a deer on the backroads early in the film, a harbinger of worse things to come, and another being a midnight cigarette break that turns into a trauma-bearing hypnotism session courtesy of Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener).

This is as rich and brave a brew as they come, but at its heart, “Get Out” is a scathing critique of liberal bigotry; a portrait of a toxic mindset which ultimately does more harm than good in spite of assuming the contrary. It’s decidedly serious stuff, though roughly half the fun is watching Peele and company flirt with conventions with such an obvious affection for genre blissfully in-tact. This is an exceptional entertainment that makes no attempt to conceal its intentions, and it shouldn’t have to; simply getting to the heart of the problem, and daring to challenge it like Peele does here, is more than enough.

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Besides, there’s plenty of intimate deception, nosebleeds, and blind man’s bingo to tide one over until the storm.  There’s also no shortage of humor to allow the darkness to go down a bit easier, most of it courtesy of Chris’ friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) back home, but what’s admirable is how the film doesn’t once let its meticulously crafted guard down. Peele commits to his anger and anxieties all the way to the bittersweet end, and if nothing else, his passion is the unmistakable mark of vision.

If this is his entrance onto the scene, then it’s an unforgettable one; and if this is his voice, it’s been heard loud and clear. More terrifying than the film’s implications where racial politics are concerned – like the best the genre has to offer, “Get Out” envisions cinema as a mirror – is the fact that Peele can only get better from here on out. If it can even be argued whether or not he displays a master’s hand now, just wait a few years. He’ll surely attain it in no time.

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THIRST (1979) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

 

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Blood of bright red flows throughout the frames of Rod Hardy’s sublime and seemingly undervalued THIRST. An imperfect but no less enthralling gem excavated from the tail end of the 70s, this is the kind of film that oozes with all sorts of salaciously surreal potential. Midnight madness is no stranger to twisty tales of vampirism, but few come so dangerously close to evoking the quality of the feverish day-dream of a deeply disturbed flower child (one with a penchant for paranoid conspiracy and aesthetic occultism) and that’s barely penetrating the surface.

If the director’s name is at all familiar, it might be because Hardy was behind the Daniel Radcliffe vehicle DECEMBER BOYS (2007); quite an unexpected change of pace from his acid-tinged debut, which is far more interested in entertaining elements of science fiction, psychedelia, and even the legend of Elizabeth Bathory than it is in conventional empathic rumination.

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The infamous Blood Countess provides a great deal of essential framing for the story, which concerns the kidnapping of Australian housewife Kate Davis (Chantal Cantouri) by a shady organization which refers to itself as “The Brotherhood” who later inform the distraught heroine that she is in fact a descendent of Bathory and that she is to be kept in the confines of their compound in order to undergo a series of mysterious though revealing medical experiments.

Roughly the first half of the film is soaked in pervasive ambience and ambiguity, and for better or worse, we feel about as lost as Kate. Those behind the operation seem to be harvesting the blood of their “patients” and it would also appear that Kate is unique for her hereditary ties. One of the professionals on site, Dr. Fraser (the ever-reliable David Hemmings), takes a shine to her and even makes a commendable effort to subvert the character’s increasingly grim fate.

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Then, the illusion is shattered and the screaming starts; with the ingestion of psychoactive substance comes a positively remarkable phantasmagoria that segues into a somewhat underwhelming conclusion that almost seems to actively acknowledge that what came before was a uniquely hard act to follow. It is, along with the silly glowing red eye effect applied to the vamps as they make their immediate transitions, one of the only real blind spots here but it’s a biggie. It might be difficult to imagine, with a premise as unabashedly outlandish as this, that the lackluster home stretch would be borderline detrimental to its lasting influence, but here we are.

On a whole, however, this is just exquisite. The widescreen compositions are absolutely divine, just jam-packed with essential information, and some would argue the oddball ideas on display here are not quite worthy of their grandeur; but it all made sense when an IMDB search informed me that Vincent Monton had also lensed the excellent LONG WEEKEND just a year prior. Brian May, best known for his work on the first two installments in George Miller’s MAD MAX Trilogy, also provides an alternatively elegant and haunting musical accompaniment to the madness which unfolds on-screen. It’s a perfectly perverse and meticulously crafted spectacle, and one which knows all too well that not every trip – and this is certainly a memorable one – is thoroughly pleasant.

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Sure, this could just as easily be chocked up to drug-addled nonsense as it could be to an effective late night entertainment but one man’s bullshit is another man’s benefit. THIRST dares to descend into the rabbit hole and emerges with an intriguing cinematic brew; and if it’s one that doesn’t entirely work, because admittedly mileage may vary among viewers, it’s at the very least an inspiring effort that does well to provide a substantial amount of audio-visual fodder for those who simply, and constantly, crave the wild side of celluloid. Nothing, and nowhere, is safe from the liquid red; not the chicken drumsticks at the picnic, not the bottle of milk delivered to your doorstep, and absolutely not the suburban shower. The nightmare certainly seems never-ending, but it remains a powerful prospect. Sometimes you gotta go get mad, and it’s films like this which just make it all the easier.

THE FITS (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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If Anna Rose Holmer is simply testing the waters with her marvelously brooding first feature, then let it be said that she isn’t content to merely leave it at that and swims around a little; and even if the New York native isn’t quite as fearless as her outstanding work would suggest, and it’s likely that she is, she’s quick to conceal it for the entire duration, which is just a few minutes short of seventy.

THE FITS is a bold and totally committed portrait of isolation, maturation, and an inexplicable outbreak of hysterics – all filtered through the curious, abstracted gaze of an eleven year old girl. Tony (Royalty Hightower) exists in what is unmistakably a “man’s world” and yet the temptation of normality is never too far. Day after day, she trains with her brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), a boxer, in their local community center, but a trip down the hall to retrieve a water jug could inevitably lead to a voyeuristic view of the dance team which also functions there.

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What is initially a grim reminder of the character’s introversion is soon turned into an outlet for pent-up frustration and desires alike, until the titular epidemic begins to spread throughout the building’s female population. As one can probably infer, this is certainly a weird one, and one can also imagine it might have been a bit of a tough sell; as much a coming-of-age narrative of remarkable posture and patience as a disturbing psychological horror film that never steps over into discernible genre territory.

And yet, these prove to be rather attractive qualities in the end. There isn’t a single moment that goes by when we aren’t seeing the events through the eyes of our charming protagonist, never a time when her loneliness and pursuit of social acceptance isn’t felt deep in the gut. Cinematographer Paul Yee’s work here should not go unmentioned, as virtually every frame is packed with pulsating tension, and every hypnotic movement registers as the purest expression of a singular soul. It threatens to alienate through suppression, but so do most films that commit this thoroughly to it.

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The film’s potent sense of dread is thankfully complemented by something comparatively sweeter but not so much that the atmosphere loses density as a result. THE FITS has a great deal of merit as a testament to the relationships that young women forge during their formative years, as evidenced when Toni takes a shine to Beezy (Alexis Neblett), a younger dancer. Their friendship is simultaneously a complicated and beautiful one; in other words, it’s entirely believable, no small thanks on the part of the efforts of the cast.

Hightower is an exceptional find, her presence positively demanding your attention with the kind of naturalistic swagger that would suggest a successful career in the cards, further enhanced by the actress’s intrepid gamble with the unfathomable void which surrounds her.  If there’s any price at all that Holmer must pay for such gratifying results, it’s that sometimes her interest in crafting exquisite tonal stagnation occasional gives way to sequences which border on relatively mild tedium. Luckily, this doesn’t speak for the experience on a whole, but in a film that is otherwise so intoxicating, it has the tendency to induce a distinct sinking sensation.

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Nevertheless, this is an exhilarating and audacious first-timer, even more poignant afterwards than it is in motion. So much of it – especially that oddly enticing ending, which is certainly more cathartic than downright odd in retrospect  – can seem cold and uninviting, when really it embraces a spectacularly unorthodox existence. Holmer’s decidedly different beast isn’t always the easiest to pin down, unless the rather blunt central metaphor is taken into consideration, but getting anywhere close to doing so works just fine. Simply put, it’s a peculiar pleasure, getting lost in the film’s depressed depths. If Holmer doesn’t have all the right answers, she at least does well to ask all the right questions.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

Though it’s been a decade and a half since he remade the quintessential J-horror gem “Ringu”, Gore Verbinski has never strayed too far from the path of hallucinatory dread throughout the duration of his subsequent career, whether he’s entertaining the misadventures of Captain Jack Sparrow or those of a computer-generated chameleon by the name of Rango.

Yet, for all the macabre flourishes those films do indeed possess, one might have desired a return to darker waters for the director; the sort which seem at first to be uncharted and positively delectable. The answer to this is, alas, “A Cure for Wellness”, which is the sort of film that seems to wear its exquisitely dressed grime as if it were a badge of honor.

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Following the sudden death of a colleague, we are thrust headfirst into the life and times of Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious young executive for one of New York City’s most successful financial firms who is given the task of retrieving the company’s CEO from a mysterious wellness center located somewhere in the Swiss Alps where the treatment provided to its many patients (most of whom are the elderly) simply seems too good to be true. Shortly after arriving, he’s ready to get out of there, but a fatal car crash on the way back down the mountain adds a couple days, months, maybe even years to Lockhart’s stay.

Verbinski is no stranger to spectacle, in fact he revels in it, but the prospect of a major Hollywood player such as himself honing his craft for something more appropriately brooding and artful is an enticing one. Bojan Bazelli’s crisp yet sleazy cinematography speaks for itself, delivering the kind of transgressive art-horror aesthetic that is so sorely lacking in mainstream cinema today, and truth be told he conjures more than a few genuinely horrifying images.

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However, it’s Verbinski’s indulgences which also prove to be his greatest downfall. In this case, it’s containing his mystery, keeping it as tight as possible. Lockhart is hardly the most immediately sympathetic fellow, which is quite alright, but we’re meant to see the events through not only his subdued vision but occasionally that of a younger patient (Mia Goth) whose own problems are more deep-seeded than the film cares to acknowledge. This is a film that is more interested in the thrill of the kill than it is in more profound emotional engagement, but in the absence of the latter it can feel detrimentally one-note.

Most disappointing of all is that Verbinski and company had the chance, and the resources, to make something more genuinely audacious than this, and seem to be constantly touting that they have. It’s yet another film that feels so very into the notion of allowing differences to define who we are rather than give into certain accepted (but no less toxic) social constructs, and yet at nearly two and a half hours and what with all the ham-fisted exposition and lazy gaps in logic, it’s no more distinctive than the average, overblown multi-million dollar affair; a nasty, decidedly cynical fashion statement masquerading as high-brow psychological horror that could have surely benefitted from a little more humanism to counter its contempt. As much as the desire is there to see more transgressive subject matter explored on a generous budget, this tedium simply isn’t the antidote to that particular drought.

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DEMON (2015) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

It’s difficult to imagine that the most disturbing films would fail to catch up with their makers at some point. Indeed, these works of oppressively bleak terror eat away at the minds of those who dare dance with them long enough for something substantial to come of it, and some artists never return one hundred percent in-tact. One such case is Warcin Wrona, the up-and-coming Polish director who took his own life in a hotel room at the age of 42 following the premiere of his latest endeavor, DEMON, in September of 2015.

Why is it productive to take note of this tragedy? Well, for starters, its influence unquestionably hangs over the finished product at large; it is, after all, a tale of the supernatural taking place over a single unconventional wedding night, dealing directly with the consequences of digging up old ancestral bones (literally and figuratively), as if it were an exorcism for all of the filmmaker’s fellow countrymen. This may strike some as being a considerable stretch, but the film in question defies conventional categorization. Uninterested in being merely a work of exceptional social consciousness and empathy, or simply an above average genre picture, it’s an exhilarating roller coaster ride to say the least, and its most deep-seeded anxieties rest just beneath the surface.

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The titular entity, to be even more specific, is identified as a dybbuk, born of Jewish lore. The wandering soul takes hold of the body of Piotr, a groom arranged to marry his sweetheart in their homeland after years spent working in the United Kingdom, over the course of their reception; which, to be fair, was far from the norm to begin with, what with the alcoholic doctors and morally ambiguous best friends who appear to be harboring nasty secrets.

The atmosphere of this particular party is one drenched in vodka, heredity, and hallucination. Dragged under the earth by something unseen on the evening prior to the big day, the groom-to-be returns the following morning not entirely sure of himself, but it’s not until the night rages on that he begins to exhibit odd, unexplainable symptoms (initially passed off as epilepsy and/or the results of having taken hard drugs, based on his erratic convulsions on the dancefloor). Itay Tiran, in a committed and intensely physical performance that should rightfully garner a great deal of attention, initially plays Piotr as the fool, but the grace in which the performance slips into feigned innocence and alienation is nothing short of impeccable.

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Furthermore, the unlikely and unassuming hero’s descent into detachment is so exquisitely realized. Pawel Flis’ cinematography seeps through to the deepest recesses of the mind, and has the tendency to soar with genuine magnificence, especially in the earlier scenes at the reception, much like the work of another madcap Polish director (Andrzej Zulawski, responsible for such glorious spectacles as 1981’s POSSESSION and 1988’s ON THE SILVER GLOBE). The more desolate the dusty basement, the wetter the ground as a result of pouring rain, and the more thoroughly occupied the barn, the deeper the creeping phantasm’s presence is felt.

Wrona doesn’t appear to be terribly interested in delivering the all-or-nothing fright-fest that his overseas audience might anticipate; which is their loss, really. He exercises impressive restraint here, tempted less by the prospect of building up to individually striking moments than he is by conjuring some terrifyingly obscure force to pervade every frame of his meticulously constructed swan song. The subtly unnerving score, courtesy of Marcin Makuc and Krzysztof Penderecki, only improves the film’s lingering influence; overall, the tone at play here is an unusually ballsy one, but Wrona orchestrates it masterfully, breaking it down when he must and seamlessly channeling all varieties of strange energies.

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It’s mostly pretty grim stuff, so much as to make the moments of dark humor all the more invasive upon first impressions. DEMON is something special, something more consistently disturbing than the standard possession pic, because it faces the darkest implications of the void with genuine ferocity. Those very implications seem to say a great deal about Poland’s complicated relationship with its fascist past, that which the elders would prefer to sweep under the rug, as they always have. Like the dybbuk to the bridegroom, guilt eats at them from the inside out, until it simply cannot be ignored.

There are few clear – read: easy – answers to a few of Wrona’s more decidedly universal questions, but in the ingeniously cold and collected home stretch of his final film, his point is made perfectly clear. The spirit may be gone, it may have vanished from sight, but in truth it will never leave this place or these people. It’s hardly the most optimistic outlook, but it’s an admirable one. After all, how often is it that a horror film truly hangs its audience out to dry in such elegant fashion? It’s not the mark of laziness, or unnecessary ambiguity; instead, it signifies the work of an artist who is utterly fearless, more than capable of backing his merciless nihilism with moments of quieter intimacy, and whose career was unfortunately cut short before it could flourish to the fullest. One can only hope that he would understand the magnitude of his creation, how utterly entrancing it is, and how it is almost single-handedly able to zap new life into a sub-genre that has been dried up for some time.

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SPLIT (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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The cinema of M. Night Shyamalan has always been marked through thick and thin by the embrace of warmth where exploitation and cynicism would simply be an easier alternative. With one foot planted firmly in reality and the other in the prospect of paranormal phenomena (and even more specifically, its application in our daily lives), the Philadelphia native’s latest endeavor is simultaneously a sign of purest artistic reinvigoration and a most welcome return to form; magnificently erratic form at that, and most remarkable of all is how the man who was once dubbed “The Next Spielberg” balances his own conflicting muses amidst the deliberate chaos.

James McAvoy is absolutely intoxicating as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder who kidnaps a trio of teenage girls – Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – after a particularly awkward birthday party and keeps them confined to a single locked cell underground for some undisclosed higher purpose, revealing more and more about his intentions through his various alter egos – including but not limited to a nine year old boy, an obsessive compulsive psychopath, and a woman with protective instincts not unlike a mother – which are constantly competing against one-another for dominance.

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Due in no small part to the exquisite precision of “It Follows” cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, the walls, floors, closed and opened doors of Kevin’s seedy lair never breathe easy; in fact, they retain an intensely suffocating, sleazy ambience throughout that fits Shyamalan’s intentionally alienated (and perhaps alienating) direction like a glove. The director has always displayed a knack for manipulating the frame in unorthodox ways, and it serves him well for the purpose of immersive claustrophobia.  Even the open air of the outside world feels tainted by palpable pulsating paranoia, as if escapism is utterly inexcusable in this disturbed domain.

A few of the more gleefully over-the-top indulgences in the film’s delightfully demented third act might prove to be slightly problematic, especially in regards to how seriously the connection between mental illness and childhood abuse is treated on a whole, but it makes for an unusually compelling spectacle. Only the final moments, which clumsily attempt to meld the preceding events with the enduring legacy of an earlier Shyamalan joint similarly about harnessing supernatural abilities, feel out of place in an otherwise exceptional example of exercising restraint and boundless, off-kilter ingenuity in equal measures.

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As much as he goes for the jugular when he wants to get weird, it’s Shyamalan’s intuitive empathy that makes his best work utterly unforgettable. “Split” doesn’t claim to have all the answers to some of its bigger problems, and one suspects at times that its tongue may be planted firmly in its cheek, but it nevertheless stands as a satisfying exploration of inhuman actions and their potentially horrific repercussions; a mostly successful attempt to envision “monsters” inherent in our society as something more than that. It’s true that we’ve been here before, and so has M. Night, but what can you say? He’s damn good at what he does and it’s rather exhilarating to see him get in touch with the same unique gifts – as a storyteller, a preserver of perversion and perception alike – that he exhibited at a more tender age and elaborate on them in such a thoroughly satisfying way.

THE LOVE WITCH (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

 

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Anna Biller may be one of the cinema’s last truly exceptional auteurs. Sure, the term itself is thrown around a lot, and sure, it’s particularly challenging to register as one when dealing almost exclusively in homage. Somewhere and somehow, Biller – born and raised in Los Angeles – finds a way, but regardless of the individual viewer’s tolerance for the director’s unabashed parading of influences and intent, her voice is positively one-of-a-kind.

Nearly an entire decade may have separated Biller’s feature debut (2007’s VIVA) and her latest oddball offering, but the same powerfully progressive voice remains unmistakably in-tact. THE LOVE WITCH concerns, as you could probably guess, a contemporary (?) witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) pursuing a suitable male companion by means of black magic. Holed up as the new tenant in a gorgeous Victorian-style mansion, she practices making potions, but as we learn from her voice-over narration in the coastal cruise intro, Elaine’s still got a lot to learn.

The heroine’s quest is initially driven by the desire to be desired – preferably by all who should happen upon her but more specifically by men. The trail of gullible bastards she leaves in her wake – including but certainly not limited to suave University professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a police inspector (Gian Keys) perplexed by the prospect of a tampon submerged in a bottle of piss, and even her own ex-husband – ultimately leads the witch on a path to reclaiming individuality that is as hysterical as it is genuinely insightful.

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Firmly rooted in a bygone era (or several), the film features, among other seductive delights, exceedingly over-the-top performances, vintage costumes and décor, music borrowed from the likes of classic gialli A LIZARD AND A WOMAN’S SKIN and THE FIFTH CORD (both scores courtesy of Ennio Morricone), and M. David Mullen’s photography is spot-on in recreating even the most seemingly insignificant ticks of 60’s/70’s occult-sleaze cinema to a tee. It’s a seamless evocation of everything it claims to be, but there’s much more to this beatific brew than an ornate toast to the silver screen of yesteryear.

A great artist is always flourishing, and flourish is precisely what the writer/director/set and costume designer/composer/etc. has done in her absence. True to such developments, this is perhaps the furthest extension of Biller’s vision that she’s graced us with yet; more interesting than the obvious parallels between a witch and the contemporary female is, well, just about everything else regarding the patriarchy that the film dares to challenge under the guise of an amusing, consistently vibrant entertainment.

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Biller would rather her indignant criticisms fester on the surface, which allows for a remarkably articulate confrontation of gender stereotypes that feels empathetic where it could have just as easily been perceived as preachy. THE LOVE WITCH neglects to give off the impression of a work influenced too much by invasive contempt, instead seeking to explore equality by way of humility. A medieval-style wedding late in the game, complete with faux duels and a puppet-toting jester, holds the key to the filmmaker’s stance on both passion and passiveness alike. Elaine’s maturation, twisted as it is, is hardly glorified; in fact, she’s just as damned as her predominantly male victims. Nevertheless, the argument appears to be that it’s time the sorceress had her day as well, however demented and morally conflicting it may be.

It’s easy to surrender to the film’s campy, hallucinatory charms but Biller’s decision to balance her immanent cinematic fetishisms with such a biting, subversive critique is the true stroke of genius. Getting lost in WITCH’s candy-colored ocean is one thing, extracting individually invaluable observations is another. Once again, the filmmaker reaches into the past in order to look to the future – that of man, woman, and our relationship with one another – and the culmination of this particular excursion speaks for itself, loud and clear. It announces its spectacular existence until it knows that it doesn’t have to, and if this is indicative of where we’re headed, we might just be in good hands.

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