All posts by population40

Aspiring filmmaker/writer from Southern Maine with a love for Euro-trash and honey mustard pretzel bits.

THE POSSESSED aka THE LADY OF THE LAKE(1965) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

Small towns, wherever they may be, tend to carry with them a rather distinctively suffocating burden. Those who have visited such places, either extensively or not, know the feeling; sensory awareness seems to have been filtered out with any discernible definition of time and space upon arrival. You either go with the flow or get caught up in its aggressive vortex, in which case surrendering to your surroundings seems to be the easiest path to contentment.

This particular sensation has enjoyed its share of cinematic representation in the past, though few have captured it as purely as THE POSSESSED (aka THE LADY OF THE LAKE), the haunting debut from Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rosselini (the same pair behind genre-bending phantasmagoria FOOTPRINTS ON THE MOON and boozy Franco Nero-starring giallo THE FIFTH CORD). The coastal village which serves as the duo’s muse is one of exquisite and often unseen (or unspoken of) secrets, home to the same lost souls that it lures into its eternally intoxicating web from the outside. The existential dread exhibited isn’t so much inspired as it is painfully extracted and inseparable from the setting, tightening its grip on the audience until they no longer have ample room to squirm.

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Like many a weary traveler walking directly into the jaws of death, the unlikely hero in this ghastly tale is a writer in search of a lost lover. Bernard (Peter Baldwin) finds himself chasing repressed guilt and ruminating over potentially misleading memories in a place where clear consciences appear to be in rather short supply though, as he makes very clear throughout his unorthodox journey, he is among familiar faces.

This isn’t to say that his obsession is any easier to transcend as a result; almost immediately after setting foot in town, the residents inform Bernard that his woman has committed suicide under some disconcertingly mysterious circumstances, and they don’t wish to elaborate any further on that. Proving himself to be a determined and self-sufficient fellow, the outsider fails to abandon his personal agenda in favor of preserving the nastier secrets festering just below the surface, even when the townspeople threaten its stability. The unwelcoming unease slowly creeps in from the dimly-lit streets to the musky hotel where most of the subconscious digging takes place, in no time obscuring the line between reality, delusion, and dream.

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Although he’s been here before, the writer feels no less alienated by his circumstances or disturbed by the colorful characters that he encounters during his trek towards the truth. A faceless woman in white strolls by the shimmering lake as if bound to its magnetism, the local butcher leers impassively from beneath his enveloping wooden canopy, the innkeeper’s hospitality is quite obviously one built around artifice, and the local drunkard’s abyssal cries in the witching hour may in fact be far less insignificant than they at first appear.. Everyone harbors a perversion that they’re not keen to speak of, and the only “real” people are those not pretending.

When all else fails, and he realizes that those around him won’t be of much help, Bernard decidedly probes his own imperfect perception, rendered beautifully in either piercingly white light or with softer, no less exceedingly hallucinatory intimacy. Leonida Barboni’s appropriately detached yet – when absolutely necessary – delectably invasive cinematography effectively draws more than a few connections between the darkest recesses of a creative mind and the environment it embraces, with the town’s exteriors evocatively photographed in what feels a lot like the twilight. Such as it is, this is a lot like a zombie movie without the zombies, or a giallo thriller without the killer, wherein the deep shadows and snow-covered cemeteries feel so much like home.

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Baldwin makes for an exceptional protagonist, bringing a great deal of introspection and genuine vulnerability to a seemingly cultivated exterior; so much more so than his charismatic demeanor would initially suggest. The commitment to his point-of-view is commendable while simultaneously proving to be one of the film’s few genuine faults; for example, we certainly could do without some of the on-the-nose narration, and towards the end the story gets a little wrapped up in Bernard’s mania for its own good, thus diminishing its dramatic impact.

Even so, these are minor quibbles; this is a hypnotic monochrome nightmare that sucks you in and spits you out entirely at its own will. Some films politely invite us into their headspace whereas this is one that pushes you into it, headfirst. We wander, we wonder, we pace, we lose faith – all to the faint sound of an unloving breeze. It’s a compelling and ultimately hopeless cycle; perhaps not everyone’s cup of (black) tea, but when writhing in such formally arresting melancholia, the experience itself can hardly be equated with misery. Much like the small-town ambience which provides such consistent inspiration, it’s a kind of purgatory  on Earth that one feels almost inexplicably compelled to revisit immediately upon departure. Call it supernatural separation anxiety – as familiar as it is frighteningly unfathomable.

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KUSO (2017) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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As it turns out, even three years after his masterful Tibetan-tinged acid jazz odyssey YOU’RE DEAD, Flying Lotus is still very much in the headspace of bringing the beauty of our shared fate out with the existential anxiety and the bile. The unapologetically ambitious electronic musician (real name Steven Ellison, credited on-screen simply as Steve) seems to have dug about as deep as one can go before approaching critical damage with his marvelously grotesque directorial debut, and the results are as hypnotic as they are genuinely horrifying.

The framework for this loose tapestry of absurdist revulsion is remarkably simple at its core. KUSO begins in the aftermath of an LA earthquake of apocalyptic proportions and proceeds to subject the audience to a seemingly never-ending stream of increasingly disturbing vignettes. These tantalizing tales flow into one-another like transmissions via vintage television sets, the impression being that everything and yet nothing at all is connected.

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In one story, an impressively mustached man (Zack Fox) seeks to cure his fear of large breasts via the psychoactive juices of a cockroach named Mr. Quiggles that resides in the rectum of a seedy doctor (George Clinton) and can only be coaxed out with a song. In another, horrorcore rapper The Buttress gets high with furry inter-dimensional entities (voiced by Hannibal Burress and Donnell Rawlings) and ponders artistry and abortion simultaneously. Elsewhere, a young boy (Shane Carpenter) smears his feces onto a strange blob-like creature growing in the forest, which brings us to the creation of the new world. Or something like that.

Throughout his musical career, and especially on the aforementioned Captain Murphy album, Ellison has never held back when it comes to getting down with his bad, bad self; as a filmmaker, what with KUSO’s rampant display of animalistic sexual fetishism and exceedingly surreal animated segments (courtesy of Jimmy Screamerclauz and Cool 3D World), he simply turns this up to eleven. This is the kind of film that drags you into its weird world mercilessly, and with little regard for conventional standards of “good taste”.

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There’s a considerable amount of kick that the filmmaker seems to derive from riling up his audience – as would be the case with just about anyone willing to entertain such bizarro atrocities in the first place – and yet the film is clearly made out of joy rather than spite. Sure, it’s consistently abrasive and often just plain gross, but it’s also genuinely amusing and at least makes conscious efforts to be subversive. It’s more REN & STIMPY than torture porn, and Ellison is able to make more than a few astute observations in regards to the African-American experience which effectively compliment the excess.

Indeed, a talking boil voiced by David Firth (creator of SALAD FINGERS) which appears on a woman’s (Iesha Coston) neck and promptly felates her boyfriend (Oumi Zumi) isn’t a particularly pleasant notion in theory, but viewers who have made it that far will know whether or not it’s possible to find humor in such things. On the opposite end, a story involving a sickly Asian woman (Mali Matsuda) searching for her lost child behind closed walls is anything but droll, and features some of the most disconcerting imagery on display (legs growing on legs, munching on concrete which results in the loss of multiple teeth, etc).

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The film is probably best described as an absurdist anti-comedy; true to this, not every joke sticks the landing, but enough of them- such as a scene in which Fox’s character attempts to have a conversation with a particularly noisy blow up sex doll – hit their mark just right. In a way, it’s sort of charming that something this transgressive could also possess so much unorthodox warmth. In the end, it’s a film about regression and rebirth, about accepting the ugliness that lies within and making it work, and anyone whose sensibilities are even remotely similar to its creator’s will surely take comfort in this.

Ultimately, Ellison’s history serves him well, as he’s able to summon an impressive slew of memorable sequences set to an elaborate and often haunting original score. Featuring contributions from the likes of Aphex Twin, Thundercat, Akira Yamaoka, Ellison himself, and Busdriver (who steals both the intro and the tail-end of the film with a song and a poem, respectively), the soundscape here is rarely stagnant for long. Perhaps it’s a testament to Ellison’s unfailing ability to allow the colorful sounds to compel his visions that the most disturbing moments are largely the result of his sonic world-building; take for example a tit-filled nightmare trip wherein the subconscious implications are the most immediately frightening quality aside from the grotesque 3D animation, or a blissfully confrontational Buttress music video which comes totally out of left field in the best way.

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This may not ultimately be suitable for mass public consumption, and it’s true that a few of its stories could have been certainly benefitted from a more clear sense of closure, it nevertheless amounts to a unique cinematic experience; a multi-faceted body-horror collage that, by lacking any discernible pretense as to what its aspirations are, achieves a very specific sort of purity. Ellison is maybe the only one who could have channeled something so unabashedly soaked in its own oddity and achieved the level of humor and pathos that he does here. KUSO just is, and you’re either immediately immersed in its perverted portal or you’re not. “Do not fear the feces”, advises a dapper cockroach at one point; wise words, all things considered.

CATHY’S CURSE (1977) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

During the first five minutes of Eddy Matalon’s CATHY’S CURSE, a father hits the road with his young daughter in an effort to escape the presumebly destructive mania of his wife. Prior to the fatal car crash which takes both of their lives, he consoles the panicked child in her bedroom and then suddenly takes a few unseen steps back, at which point he blurts out “Your mother is a bitch!”

Though this is hardly the first offbeat note in a film that’s essentially made up of them, it can be easily pinpointed as the moment when the majority of viewers will tune either in or out of its oddly alluring frequencies. As singularly strange as what basically amounts to a French-Canadian riff on CARRIE and/or THE EXORIST sounds, nothing on paper could possibly exceed the film’s baffling execution; as it is, it’s like a never-ending sequence of happy accidents.

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The girl from the beginning turns out to be the late aunt of the titular Cathy, who’s now about as old as her ill-fated relative when she went up in flames. Along with her overbearing father and “neurotic” mother, Cathy returns to the house from before only to happen upon the same supernatural forces which plagued the previous generation as they set their sights on her soul.

Much of the routine that follows seems familiar, what with the creepy dolls that can possess unassuming children or, even more disconcerting, the nosy spiritual medium neighbors. Then there’s the house these people occupy, with its bedrooms bathed in blood red and vomit-yellow kitchen interiors. The atmosphere, often flooded in uncomfortably over-exposed light, feels simultaneously obscure and attainable; it invites us in if only to inspire notions of escape.

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Those who put sensory satisfaction over conventional narrative logic will surely have a field day with this one, seeing as it’s an absolute structural nightmare that nevertheless gets by on its own unique vibrations. Scenes cut in and out of one-another abruptly, the set-up is so vague that it requires intertitles in order to get the viewer on the same general wavelength, and not a single human being present acts like one. It’s best to let things happen on their own terms; and oh, how they do.

An elderly handyman who gets a little too close to Cathy for comfort is set upon by snakes from inside a kitchen drawer and the bottom of a bottle, bath water turns to blood (and lots of leeches) in the blink of an eye, the finale delivers the scorching, appropriately nonsensical goods. And yet, even with such consistent eccentricities on display, it’s the dissociated direction that makes this that special kind of weird. Beverly Murray, playing Cathy’s mother, is an exceptional case, shrieking her way through this mess as if she’s trying to dig her way out of it; and who would blame her, seeing as her character is subject to so much excessive cruelty?

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The men at the heart of this ghastly tale aren’t much better; there’s a rather concerning undercurrent of casual misogyny that runs throughout, and it hardly ends at the aforementioned opener. If the film had a little more sense, it might have served as a scathing commentary on the broken concept of Family, but no dice. Instead what we get are fragments of ideas, snapshots of excursions that never were, co-existing in a world where everyone and everything is associated with unnaturally powerful properties, and in a sense this is far more compelling.

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One is left wondering if Matalon had spent much time around people, or if the finished product reflects a troubled production rather than lack of artistry. Either way, the film isn’t merely behind on the times – it’s not of this world. Like a half-remembered dream; lost in its own haze and ultimately incoherent, but also inexplicably addictive. Even if this isn’t one of the most unintentionally psychedelic films ever exposed to the unworthy general public, there’s still truth to be found in those glowing green eyes, those over-lit doors, and mother’s cold, soulless gaze. In a most peculiar sense, this is a lot like coming home.

KEDI (2017) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

Much like the feral felines that amount to its core, “Kedi” is as pleasant and fleeting a documentary as you are likely to see in 2017, which is to say that it’s thoroughly charming and big-hearted if not particularly confrontational. As a nice tonic, it goes down easy – effectively anthropomorphizing the animals without placing them above or below their human counterparts – and as a debut, it shows confidence and restraint in equally promising measures.

Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, is home to thousands of street cat, and yet, as we are meant to see here, they are far from neglected in this environment. We spend much of the time on ground level with seven specially selected subjects as they navigate the urban landscape, fending not only for themselves but also for their offspring, and the beautifully constructed footage speaks for itself. Cinema is certainly no stranger to the cat, and this may be as close as we’ve ever been to understanding their point of view.

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Of course, the primary focus – aside from the aforementioned – is the connection that the good people of the city feel between themselves and the tricky little devils which surround them, thus providing the irresistible cuteness with a welcome undertone of inspiration, optimism, perception, and what-have-you. Although the beasts aren’t bound to any master, there are those who feel a longing for them when they’re gone; one man even found solace in the animals after an intense midlife crisis.

So you see, as wild as they may at first appear to be, there’s more humanity to the cats than there is in most actual people; a familiar message which simply cannot be reinforced enough. They collectively represent a simpler, freer lifestyle that one can’t help but envy, and it’s one that the gorgeous cinematography represents in the most positively delectable manner.

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While there’s no shame in a feel-good affair with little complication, there are enough glimpses of something more tragic and understated that might leave a certain kind of viewer wanting more. It’s often so slight that it almost seems to approach emptiness, and on a technical level, it’s somewhat inconsistent; as mentioned before, the photography itself is impressive, but the excess of drone B-roll and occasionally distracting visual effects are certainly less appetizing in comparison.

Ultimately it gives off the impression of the uncomfortable marriage of innovation and the unprofessional; the sign of a film with simultaneously a lot to say and not quite enough up its sleeve. Even so, where those for whom the subjects are furry friends are concerned, this is damn near essential. Reservations aside, the filmmakers (a husband and wife duo; Charlie Wuppermann and Ceyda Turon, respectively) should certainly be commended for their efforts, as even the softest breeze requires a significant amount of care and consideration. There are less productive ways to spend a mere eighty minutes, as well as less adorable company.

PREVENGE (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

The ever-reliable Alice Lowe has carved quite a meaty role for herself in PREVENGE, a perversely amusing and multi-faceted exercise in genre defiance which also happens to mark the renowned British comic’s directorial debut. While past work on the ingeniously strange GARTH MARENGHI’S DARKPLACE and even more recently a collaboration with Ben Wheatley (with whom she wrote SIGHTSEERS) have undoubtedly rubbed off on her over time, this is Lowe’s own wonderful slice of weirdness to claim. If it doesn’t hit every one of its targets with ease, it at the very least wastes no time finding new ones.

Lowe plays Ruth, a widow who’s a good seven months into her pregnancy as of her opening confrontation with the sleazy proprietor of an exotic pet shop, with remarkable conviction. You see, she’s not carrying around just any old fetus; this is a fetus that speaks to Ruth, telepathically, in the voice of a little girl and compels her to do its evil bidding.

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As any good mother would, Ruth is willing to mercilessly slaughter any man or woman who crosses her path in the hopes of satisfying the most carnal desires of her beloved monster. If at first there appears to be little method to the madness, it’s surely a result of Lowe’s insistence on favoring viscerally compelling storytelling over a series of utterly banal exposition dumps. Ruth keeps a notebook on her person at all times, in which the specificities of the kill list are better defined, and the influence of the absent father and husband surely shouldn’t be ruled out entirely. Most of the victims are – in fact – men, though it’s soon made quite clear that gender is hardly a factor into the unborn child’s insatiable bloodlust.

It’s both a blessing and a curse that Ruth’s motivation isn’t explored in more explicit detail; a blessing, because this way the film is able to effectively maintain a consistently exhilarating pace, and a curse because it can tend to leave a bit of an empty pit in its wake. Nevertheless, the film’s emotional pallet is a most impressive one. It would be far too easy to pass this deeply disturbed odyssey off as shallow misanthropy, or merely a wryly amusing riff on Alain Robak’s great BABY BLOOD, just as it would be misguided to claim that Lowe’s point-of-view remains elsewhere where the human experience is concerned.

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This sort of angry, slippery satire – in which Lowe goes after the likes of corporate drones, fitness junkies, millennial hipsters, and thinly veiled misogyny – is thankfully accompanied by a great deal of empathy, as the film is really a confrontation of grief as well as the dangers of solitude.  That she was actually pregnant at the time of principal photography is just the icing on the cake where such a uniquely engaging talent is concerned, and Lowe is able to balance her apparent adoration for cynical splatter with deeper undertones of sadness. It’s rather beautiful, how Ruth is capable of existing in her own world up to a certain point, and the film does well to explore how truly crushing it can be when these isolated walls are suddenly broken down.

It certainly helps a lot that Lowe has such a talented team behind her at all times, ranging from the likes of Ryan Eddleston – whose cinematography is equally understated and effectively surreal whenever either, or both, is apt – and the efficient editing of Matteo Bini to the always welcome acting chops of Kate Dickie and fellow British comic Tom Davis (who makes for a delectably sleazy downtown disc jockey), among others.

Of course, one imagines that Lowe could do so much more with a more generous budget as well as more time allotted, but if this is the quality of entertainment that she is capable of producing in just eleven days, then it’s quite apparent that she has a bright future at the helm ahead. Articulately merging influence with graceful naturalism, PREVENGE is a deranged delight. It certainly hits the spot, if only to stomp it to pieces soon after.

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.

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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