It’s always neat when a filmmaker gets to direct a feature for the first time and gain traction with their debut, one can sometimes get a sense of a fascinating career to come from an artist’s initial output. German director Fritz Böhm scores huge points in this arena with his debut feature Wildling, a wonderful concoction of folk horror sensibilities, a coming of age tale, lycanthropic creature effects, moody ethereal atmospheres and odes to Grimm Fairytale lore. It’s a lot to take on but never feels like too much for him or his accomplished cast of actors who all give beautiful performances.
Ana (Bel Powley) is a young girl who is raised alone in a remote cabin by a man she knows only as Daddy (Brad Dourif). He tells her her she cannot go outside for fear of the Wildling, a monster who eats children and hunts for her as she is the last of her kind. When she becomes a teenager things get complicated and through circumstance she finds herself in the outside world, a small town whose Sheriff (Liv Tyler) takes her in. She’s changing though and as the encroaching Northwest wilderness surrounds the town like an elemental spirit, so too does her emerging true nature haunt these people and cause fear and hatred, especially in a few folks who have hunted her race in the nearby mountains for generations while a mysterious, silent woodsman (cult actor James LeGros is right at home in this type of thing) hover around the woods around them.
This is an absolutely gorgeous film and hits hard for a number of reasons. Powell is a great find and turns confused naïveté into fearsome, raw primal power in a very physical performance. Brad Dourif is legendary and pretty much incapable of work that is not astonishing, and here too he provides a tragic, violent, conflicted and very intense portrayal of a man whose actions and decisions follow him like a storm. The film is beautifully shot, fluidly edited, the story is rich, deep yet never over complicated or stuffed with any stale exposition. Paul Haslinger, formerly of Tangerine Dream, composers an earthy, ambient and altogether classic original score full of nature’s essence, the danger of forests at night and the visceral thrill of discovering ones very own identity for the first time. It’s drama, horror, folklore and more in one seamless package and I love it.
Drew Barrymore has a few interesting, edgy credits early on in her career, one of which is Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy, a lurid little slice of run down, rural life on the outskirts of the big city, as well as civilization it seems. A ‘lovers on the run’ riff in the tradition of Bonnie & Clyde, True Romance and Natural Born Killer, it’s admittedly like the Miller Lite version of large scale films like them but still manages to pack somewhat of an offbeat punch. Barrymore is Anita, a restless adolescent whose humdrum existence in a dead end California town has led to promiscuous behaviour and self destructive tendencies, especially when her convict pen pal boyfriend (James LeGros) is released and joins her for some hell raising. She has a stepfather who’s abusive to her in a way that seems unnervingly normalized to the both of them, high school classmates who are nothing but trouble and a life that most would consider squarely placed on the wrong side of the tracks. The story sees the two of them pretty much fed up with everything, engaging in a murder spree that just won’t end well. It’s not too hot blooded or hyper violent though and there is nothing sadistic in what they do, in fact there’s an innate innocence to the way they view life, their crimes and morality in general, or lack thereof. Barrymore has always had star-power since day one, but she shows a maturity here as she gets older and a complex control over a role that could have been cartoonish. LeGros is an indie poster child and is so prolific he’s probably been in ten or twenty things you’ve seen but just didn’t spit him, he’s a straight up chameleon and does a good job here too. Michael Ironside shows up as his jaded parole officer and the great Billy Drago is cast rarely against type as the town’s local preacher who doubles as both a mechanic and a snake charmer, it’s a bear bit of character work from him and I always enjoy his performances. This film got really good reviews when it came out and caused a minor stir in indie land, which is interesting because I don’t find it all that noteworthy. Usually I’m that guy to champion garbage films based on a few aspects because I love obscure stuff, but this one is kind of your run of the mill cheapie made decent by Barrymore’s charisma. Good score too.
Greg Harrison’s November is one of those frustratingly opaque, reality bending sketchy thrillers where a metaphysical shudder is sent through someone’s fabric of existence, in this case that of photography professor Courtney Cox. Driving home late one night, her husband (James LeGros) runs in to a Kwik-E-Mart to grab her a snack right at the same moment a burglar (Matthew Carey) brandishes a gun, and then open fires. After he’s killed, you feel like the film is in for a run of the mill grieving process as she visits a therapist (Nora Dunn). Events take a detour down Twilight Zone alley though when a spooky photograph shows up amongst one of her student’s portfolios, a snapshot of that very night at the store, apparently zoomed in on her husband. Who took it? Is the man actually dead? Will the film provide the concrete answers that some viewers so fervently salivate for in these types of films? Not really, as a heads up. As soon as things begin to get weird, they pretty much stay that way for the duration of the exceedingly short runtime (it clocks in under eighty minutes!). Cox’s character revisits that fateful night from many different angles and impressions, either reliving it, recreating it or simply stuck in some sort of alternate time loop chain. There’s a policeman played by Nick Offerman who offers little in the way of help, and she’s left more or less on her own through this fractured looking glass of garbled mystic confusion. The tone and aesthetic of it are quite something though, a jerky, stark Polaroid style mood-board that evokes ones like The Jacket and Memento, with an art house industrial touch to the deliberately closeup, disoriented visuals. It’s a bit maddening from the perspective of someone only looking for answers, and if that’s why you came, you’ll be left wringing your hands and losing sleep. If you enjoy the secrets left unravelled, and are a viewer who revels in unlocked mysteries left that way, recognizing the potent energies distilled from unexplained ambiguity, give it a go.
Nature fights back in Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter, a vaguely supernatural cautionary tale of of environmentalists and oil workers besieged by some unseen forces in the great north. Fessenden also brought us Wendigo back in the day, another snowbound chiller, and a keen sense of the eerie corners of the natural world and it’s unexplored areas comes built in with his skill set. Ron Perlman doggedly plays Ed, the headstrong leader of a research party scouting arctic land for Big Oil to plant an ice road and pipeline. Connie Britton is his second in command and former flame, now shacking up with wildlife journalist James Legros. When the dead, naked body of a team member is found near their camp, natural gas emissions from the ground are suspected (so logical, guys). Yet, people continue to die, and some ominous presence gathers in the night just outside the perimeter of the station, inciting rising dread and distrust among the team and claiming victims with gathering speed. It’s fun to watch Perlman slowly come unraveled, his grim sense of control slipping away as quickly as his rational explanations for what is happening. We never get a good look at whatever is out there, which is the smart way to go about your horror. The snow boils, strange sounds are heard and the natural world itself almost seems to be taking on angry life of it’s own. It’s obviously meant as a metaphor, but works just as well as a literal creature feature thanks to the sleek direction and well placed moments of chilly terror. Shades of The Thing, infused with this theme of the earth lashing out at the arrogance of human industrialization is a delicious flavour indeed.
Thursday is one of the great forgotten neo-noir comedies of the 90’s, floating on the wake of everything from Tarantino to Verhoeven. It’s almost impossible to find these days (I watched an old youtube version years ago), but worth hunting down for its vehement hedonism, mean spirited dark humour and cast members who take a walk down the dark end of the street, and clearly have fun with the shamelessly disgusting material. There’s a spirited willingness to be nasty, a bottom feeding urban sleaziness that almost reminded me of Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, or Joe Carnahan’s Stretch. Thomas Jane, riding the wave of a supporting role in Face/Off, plays Casey, an ex drug dealer trying to go straight and adopt a child with his wife (Paula Mitchell). Suddenly his old buddy Nick (a ferocious Aaron Eckhart) blows back into his life with big ideas and an even bigger amount of heroin he stole from god knows where. This sets off a wild and exceedingly weird chain of events including convenience store robbery, murder, a psycho named Billy (James LeGros) with a penchant for elaborate torture, a kinky femme fatale (Paulina Porizkova) and a scary rogue cop (Mickey Rourke). It’s a big bloody hot mess, but a brilliant one that nails the feverish tone of stuff like Natural Born Killers, a complete disregard for discretion or moderation, tossing everyone and everything into the fire until the audience feels like they need a big collective shower. Eckhart is a treat to watch, taunting the laid back Jane with a knowing glee, waiting for that inevitable revert to bis old, crazy self. Rourke is relegated to what is essentially an extended cameo, but he makes the most of it with quiet tension and the menace of a junkyard dog. This film has what is probably the weirdest sex scene I’ve seen, which the youtube version won’t show (being the sicko that I am, I had to track it down elsewhere). Brutally reckless stuff, and a howl if this is your type of thing. Watch for a brief and hilarious cameo from Michael Jeter.