THE GARLOCK INCIDENT: Broken American Dreams En Route to Las Vegas

The Garlock Incident. 2012. Directed & Written by Evan Cholfin; from a story by Cholfin, Ariana Farina, & Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring Ana Lily Amirpour, Adam Chambers, Sean Durrie, Joy Howard, Alycen Malone, Sean Muramatsu, Casey Ruggieri, & Larissa Wise.
Loudcat
Not Rated. 78 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
FullSizeRenderI’m of two minds: you can make found footage and not worry too much about ‘following the rules’ of the format so long as the story’s good, scary, exciting; or, you can make found footage while sticking to the format’s unwritten rules, working to make the film feel entirely genuine as a piece of recovered footage. The Garlock Incident is of the latter class, feeling exactly as if this film was picked up from a discarded camera somewhere out in the desert.
What makes this found footage better is not only do we deal with an intense, disturbing plot on the surface, beneath there’s much to admire. The Garlock Incident explores themes of the urban v. rural landscape, how societal norms and morality breaks down outside of the city, among others. Most of all, it acts as an overall metaphor about the deteriorating American Dream by contrasting it against the physical space of Old America.
Putting a group of friends on the road to Las Vegas, on their way to make a film directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (herself an actual, awesome director), director-writer Evan Cholfin crafts a sneaky little found footage film that teases all sorts of elements, but ultimately works on suspense, tension, and draws out a psychological horror that will stick with you well after that story comes to a close.
FullSizeRender (1)Straight away, the opening just jumps into footage; as a genuinely filmed road trip would, with no title, no opening scene like a traditional film, none of that. Not even the typical “On such-and-such date a group of…” Rather, we’re thrust directly into the characters and the plot. The immediacy of how we’re brought into the film allows the found footage format a sense of feeling genuine.
Furthermore, setting this as being footage from a film crew, of friends, heading to begin the shoot on a film gives the footage purpose. Found footage without purpose can often wind up feeling dishonest, because if doing found footage, why not make sure to pose it as actual footage that was found? Otherwise, might as well film traditionally. Lily directing the film within a film lends more authenticity.
Best part of the film is its tension, how Cholfin uses vast stretches of desert to allow isolation to take hold of the viewer. Ambient noise from the wind punctuates silent moments filled with suspense. Instead of the obligatory shaky cam filming of many found footage efforts, The Garlock Incident thrives on longer, controlled, still, silent shots. In these moments, these gaps, our imagination runs wild. These psychological spaces are where the best horror of the film works its nasty magic.
FullSizeRender (3)The haunted mining town setup evokes a sense of American Western tales meets the Gothic tradition, starting a spooky atmosphere. Works on another level, though. The old American Dream is symbolised by the gold mining town, the former path to glory which led many to their demise. Contrast that with the new American Dream, being in the movies, obviously represented by Lily and her friends making a film.
Where it all comes together is in the middle, precipitating an existential haunting. Of course there’s the mystery of what’s actually happening, are they going crazy, or is someone messing with them? Mystery gives way to paranoia, which then gives way to worse, the unimaginable. People get hurt. Some may die. As many often do, through drug overdose or otherwise, people die in pursuit of the American Dream on the silver screen. In the ghost town of Garlock exists the allegorical space where these two visions of the American Dream merge, causing chaos. This is illustrated in tandem with the editing of clips from earlier auditions for the film, candid moments amongst the group, as we see the shattered dream v. the idyllic American dream, the before and after, cutting from the happier moments to the later more unnerving and downright disturbing scenes sometimes in the matter of seconds.
Ultimately, in the face of the unknown, a perceived threat, the group’s morality is gradually questioned, some of them teetering precariously on an edge until the film’s shocking climax and quick finale. This all works towards the thematic consideration of what happens to people, socially, when they step outside the boundaries of their urban spaces, into the wilderness of the rural landscape. When these people, city dwellers, go outside their limits, their comfort even, they’re faced with the primitivity of humankind. In the end, this determines what happens to the characters, if they given in to their primitive side or not.
FullSizeRender (2)Cannot recommend this movie more. Found footage will always get a chance, from me. I’m willing to give anything a shot, because there’s a craving for the deeper subjects, the scarier stories, either supernatural or utterly human. The Garlock Incident plays with the audience’s expectations, then by the final frame you’re left reconsidering everything that came previously.
There’s a horrifying climax to the film, shot from a far physical distance. However, this literal distance cannot figuratively distance us from the brutality of its emotion, giving way to a conclusion that’s one hell of a gut punch. The last five minutes challenge us to go back, look at the events which led us and the characters to that moment, and the film’s last shot before a cut to black is expected after what preceded it, yet it’s no less shattering.
Seek this out, it’s available now via Google Play. Waited several years to see this, truly worth the wait. The acting holds up, a dreadful tension full of suspense and isolation fills the air. If you want blood, this isn’t the film you’re looking for, but if you want something that’ll creep under your skin, likely to stay a while, then you’ve found the ticket. A nice, eerie found footage film for the Halloween season.

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There’s Twice the Psychosis WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK

When A Stranger Calls Back. 1993. Directed & Written by Fred Walton.
Starring Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Jill Schoelen, Gene Lythgow, Karen Elizabeth Austin, Babs Chula, John Destry, Duncan Fraser, Jenn Griffin, Gary Jones, Terence Kelly, & Kevin McNulty.
Krost-Chapin Productions/MCA Television Entertainment/Pacific Motion Pictures.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
poster1979’s When A Stranger Calls is a favourite of mine. There are far too many people who either don’t know it, or they don’t appreciate it enough. Tony Beckley’s performance as Curt Duncan, the titular stranger, is the stuff of pure nightmare. And somehow, 14 years later, Fred Walton’s sequel When A Stranger Calls Back nearly hits all the same eerie notes with a different story and some of the same characters.
Walton gets a bit wilder in this sequel, although just about every bit of it works. Charles Durning and Carol Kane return again as John Clifford and Jill Johnson respectively, each hardened and experienced due to their experiences with Duncan in the first film. In the position of Kane’s Jill this time around is Jill Schoelen as Julia Jenz, a woman whose life becomes a horrorshow at the hands of a demented, relentless stalker.
The sequel goes for a more outlandish stalker. His psychosis is much stranger than that of Curt Duncan’s urge to kill. Some might find the stalker’s gimmick cheesy. Me, I find it terrifying.
screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-2-29-25-amMimicking the original, Walton starts off with a suspenseful opening sequence with Julia babysitting. However, he sets it apart from the first film by not opting for an outwardly foreboding, unnerving phone call. So much so that Walton’s actually taken the phone out of the picture by literally having it cut dead. This allows the sequel to tread its own ground rather than march straight through the original material all over again. It’s the same, yet isn’t, and the familiarity solely helps as a jumping off point for the tension. At one point Walton cuts back to shots of the doorknob, ratcheting that tension to a maximum. The viewer waiting on seat’s edge to see it turn, or move even in the tiniest way. This moment never comes. Sidestepping the payoff leaves Walton with unresolved tension, poised for a wicked crash once the perverse and threatening action of the titular stranger breaks loose.
When it gets genuinely disturbing is the second stalking. Like Duncan, this stranger comes back again after the first time. But what this guy does as opposed to Duncan is play a far more psychologically threatening game with Julia than Duncan did with Jill; not to say she didn’t suffer, but boy, this stalker is a doozy. Here, the stranger plays sick games to ingratiate himself with Julia, to put himself in her life, somehow in a twisted frame of mind. When you find out what he’s doing later in the film, it is a trip.


Having both Kane and Durning back brings with them credibility, as well as a degree of continuity instead of a sequel that feels like a cash in, put together to get a quick payday for everyone involved, maybe boost the sales of the original. This way, their characters make the story more interesting; there’s more depth, more at stake. Of course it works out well because Jill’s experience in When A Stranger Calls is sort of how we also saw Sydney Prescott in the Scream series eventually become a victim counsellor over the phone – she provides a unique perspective that plays into Julia’s predicament with her own stalker. While the stalker feels weirder in a spooky way, this sequel is less psychological horror – even though there’s plenty of that – and more a dark, emotional thriller full of mystery.
Still, Walton does play well with the psycho-horror of this screenplay. He makes Julia’s apartment into an ominous, paranoid location where each shadow means potential danger. With lingering shots and choice edits, the apartment is like a haunting character in and of itself, which lurks around the viewer, and of course Julia. Walton and cinematographer David Geddes (Legends of TomorrowHalloween: Resurrection) give the film a great look, especially considering this sequel is a TV movie after all.
There are quite a few spectacularly creepy moments and scenes. At one point, the stalker stands over Julia as she lies in a hospital bed – he slaps her over and over, and it’s so horrific because you can clearly see the psychotic behaviour brimming along the edges, past ready to break out fully. SPOILERS! SPOILERS AHEAD! When we get a look at the stranger in his element – a ventriloquist painted black, a dummy on his knee with no facial features – there’s a shocking element to this revelation. Suddenly you understand, all of it. Honestly, this scene starts out funny. Then gradually it becomes unbearable. Totally unsettling shit. Particularly once people start leaving, weirded out by this ventriloquist act, and the owner of the club all but kicks the hell out of the stranger, there’s a sad, pitiful aspect to this man. Sort of emotionally crushing because he’s obviously got issues. Although there’s no connection, no empathy for him – we’ve seen what he does. The final showdown between him, Jill, and Julia is crazy. Very fitting and just as intense. A legitimately frightening finish, at times as frightening as Curt Duncan from the original.
screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-2-29-57-amI’ll always love the original most, and I do feel that it is rightfully the better film. That being said, When A Stranger Calls Back is one of the more underrated sequels to a classic horror that, for whatever reason, never gets its due. That’s probably in part because this went out as a TV movie. Not sure why it ended up that way, because it has the makings of a genuine film and Walton follows his own footsteps lightly, treading carefully in most of the right places.
My only complaint is that I wish we were given a bit more insight into the stalker. We do get plenty later once everything kicks up a notch. But there easily could’ve been more. Perhaps that’s part of it being a TV movie. If we got a full fledged theatrical release movie from Walton on this sequel, there may have been changes in that department. We’ll never know.
Despite any small complaints, this Halloween you need to see When A Stranger Calls Back. This one gets a bit more disquieting simply for how it gets a bit more out of control with a stalking stranger even more unhinged than Curt Duncan; if you can believe it.

Of Shadows & Smart Directors: Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS

Carnival of Souls. 1962. Directed by Herk Harvey. Screenplay by Harvey & John Clifford.
Starring Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Stan Levitt, Art Ellison, & Herk Harvey.
Harcourt Productions.
Rated R. 84 minutes (Director’s Cut).
Fantasy/Horror/Mystery

★★★★★
posterCertain films need their elaborate style and screenplay in order to elicit the wanted response. Others make perfectly do with a more minimal and simplistic style, opting to use that bare bones ethic to do wonders. In 1962, Herk Harvey took a break from making industrial and educational shorts, as well as documentaries, to direct the only single feature film of his career: Carnival of Souls.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the story, the execution, all of it. I don’t think that you can watch this flick without paying attention to how great a job Harvey did as a director in terms of stretching the budget every inch possible while still making the whole production work to the best of its ability.
Harvey’s unexpected cult classic was the precursor to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and to a lesser extent Eraserhead from the twisted mind of David Lynch. Not to mention probably a dozen other movies; those are simply the closest ones after this picture. Carnival of Souls doesn’t need any blood, it came before the genre exploded and some horror relied too much on the jump scare. On – approximately – $33K Harvey filled his tale of life and death with enough atmosphere, creative camerawork, and unnerving imagery to match that of five films. If you don’t find it scary, that’s fine; to each their own.
But me? I still see those pale faces sometimes when I’m looking for things lurking beyond the veil of darkness.
pic1Low budget and a minimalist approach can sometimes push a director to make smart, economic choices which in turn make a film better as a whole. Harvey’s use of light and shadow is impeccable. Along with the makeup, this creates an otherworldly black-and-white film that feels akin to watching one of your own nightmares; maybe one from when you were a kid, one that plays all grainy in the back of your mind while you try and remember all the little bits and pieces. Right as the title ripples onto the frame over the water of a river you can feel yourself dropping into another place, another time. The graininess of the movie’s look isn’t a hindrance. It’s part of the charm.
Another large part of that charming effect is the score from Gene Moore. It’s all done with an organ, and that’s cool for a couple reasons. First, it fits with Mary (Candace Hilligoss) being a church organist, so that is kind of fun switching from music in the movie itself played by her character to the actual score; a seamless move between the same instrument becomes an interesting aural aspect. Secondly it’s a spooky background that pulls the viewer into the gloomy, morbid – though fascinating – atmosphere.
pic2Perhaps the best of Harvey comes in his directorial choices. For instance, in the scenes involving a moving car he opted not to use rear projection; this was, at the time, an industry standard for such scenes. Instead of that Harvey had these scenes shot with a hand-held, battery powered Arriflex camera, so that the scene could literally be shot in an actual car. Of course at the time these cameras and some of the techniques Harvey used were mostly involving newsreel footage, so on. These scenes give the film a nice look, different compared to other similar films at the time. On top of that, there was no need for composite shots in the car scenes, driving the already tiny budget down further. Harvey – always with his eye on the prize.
Aside from that there are a bunch of gorgeously conceived shots, too. The whole script began from Harvey seeing that old empty pavilion from the carnival, it’s only natural a big part of the movie would end up being centred around specific imagery. One shot I can never get enough of is a weird yet effective couple cuts, as we see Mary staring out her window while we cut and zoom closer, closer into the deserted carnival, to a strange, ghostly view of an empty, foggy boardwalk. It’s moments like these where you realise Harvey was firing on all cylinders.
pic3Aside from Candace Hilligoss, none of the acting is anything special. However, they don’t have to be, and she carries the full weight of the story, as her character Mary is the centrepiece. Her performance reminds me of a cross between Maria Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc, and what we’d see in Judith O’Dea’s character from the later groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead (as I said, Harvey definitely influenced Romero to a degree). Hilligoss appropriately leaves the viewer feeling in a state much like her character: dazed, lost as if wandering a dream. Without having to need dialogue, she does best when it’s her face, her eyes, the body language talking; she emotes so well that the performance works in conjunction with Harvey’s directorial choices to give the film that penetrating atmosphere of absolute dread. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Harvey himself plays the quietly terrifying man whose pale, horrible, grinning face haunts Mary; the makeup is so perfect, falling in line with the film’s minimalism and working incredibly with the dark shadows of the black-and-white cinematography. He doesn’t even have to speak and yet the pale-faced man is nightmare fuel.
Carnival of Souls doesn’t feel like it was shot in three weeks, even if it feels rough around the edges at certain points. What Herk Harvey accomplished was making of the best psychological horror movies there has ever been, all without falling into any of the conventions the genre would later become known for, to our great dismay. We watch Mary’s descent into madness with the eerie man and his similarly unnerving friends creeping along the periphery of her mind, and vision, almost constantly. This is one of my all-time favourite film, especially horror. But on admiration alone for Harvey and what he did, it’s still a great piece of independent cinema, one that ought never be forgotten or underappreciated.

DAHMER: The Eerie Psychological Biopic

Dahmer. 2002. Directed & Written by David Jacobson.
Starring Jeremy Renner, Bruce Davison, Artel Great, Matt Newton, Dion Basco, Kate Williamson, Sean Blakemore, Christina Payano, Tom’ya Bowden, & Mickey Swenson.
Blockbuster FIlms/DEJ Productions/Peninsula Films.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
Biography/Crime/Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-7-50-50-pmI’ve long been interested in the criminal psychology of serial killers. In no way am I ‘fans’ of them, as certain sick puppies out there describe their interest. What’s so compelling is trying to figure out how the human mind could possibly warp so savagely, twisting into the wretched form we find in serial and spree killers, vicious murderers, criminal sociopaths, so on.
Jeffrey Dahmer is someone I studied in high school, as well as university. I wrote a long paper on him for a Law course, which brought me into the hideous world of his crimes. He is one of the most reprehensible of all American killers; that’s saying something, too. A lethal concoction of alienation, an inability to accept his own homosexuality as normal, and a deep, sick desire to find a willingly compliant sexual partner led Dahmer into the darkest path possible.
Director-writer David Jacobson’s Dahmer is far more powerful than most give it credit for, and if this was your first time seeing Jeremy Renner – as it was for me – the quiet intensity of his performance is a massive part of that power. The film takes us headlong into obsession, cannibalism, on a journey through Dahmer’s memories of a dangerously wasted existence.


Starting out we get a brief view of Jeffrey Dahmer (Renner) working at the Milwaukee Ambrosia Chocolate factory, where he was employed in January of ’85. It isn’t simply the job that makes this starting point interesting. A few minutes into the film Jeffrey sits in the break room. He has three chocolate men (Santa maybe) in front of him on the table, as he starts in on chowing down on a sandwich; saving the chocolate fellas for a succulent dessert. An uncomfortably scary moment. A bloody, chocolatey metaphor for his crimes, like we’re about to see a horrific Willy Wonka prequel. Perhaps the best way to start out the events of Dahmer’s life.
What’s scariest to me about the screenplay is how well it makes Jeffrey appear outwardly normal – quirky, odd, though normal. And the disarming looks of Renner, his charm, they him all the more worrying; his seemingly normal qualities to the outside world are what many peopled noted about him later in real life. Before the first 15 minutes are out, the viewer’s been immersed in the criminal life Dahmer crumbles into, already too familiar with his nasty routines. The first turning point is when Jeffrey eyes a department store mannequin, long before those who don’t know his real story discover his affinity for mannequins – and why – further leading into his ultimate fantasy of an unmoving, quiet sex partner, or a sex zombie, as Dahmer himself believed.
screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-7-53-58-pmI love that Bruce Davison plays Lionel, Jeffrey’s father. He and Renner have wonderful chemistry. Their scenes together ratchet up the suspense because there’s this wait, a hope that maybe Lionel will discover these atrocities. Yet, as we know by the real story, this will never come. For instance, the box scene where father and son, alongside grandma, argue over a little box the former kept as a boy – clearly, Jeffrey has something inside he doesn’t want his father, or anybody, to see. There’s so much tension here, a lot of emotional acting from both men. A real heavy dose of personal drama, likely akin to what Lionel truly experienced with his son. It’s the revelation of what’s actually in the box afterwards which truly shocks, disgusts, and the tip of that Dahmer iceberg suddenly grows into a mountain.
However, the gay bar scenes are the most unsettling. This is one of the really psychological scenes, as Jeffrey seemingly steps outside of himself. He sees the image of himself, a bit younger and nerdier, standing alone across the street. He then heads inside the gay bar. While this is an exploration of Jeffrey’s sexuality, worse than this it is his discovery of the perfect hunting grounds. Jacobson directs this to perfection, as the alienation of Dahmer becomes painfully clear. The social awkwardness of Jeffrey is evident, and then his menace reveals itself after he starts initiating non-consensual encounters with gay men he drugs. Moreover, Jeffrey longed for a willing sexual partner, one that goes beyond consent: he wanted a lifeless man, to use, to not be judged by, and to degrade at his own will. The sexual violence here is sickening, although there’s a slight bit of restraint. During this sequence, Andrea True Connection’s “More More More” playing over top, the editing and the lighting, everything is so eerie. We watch as Jeffrey finally transforms from that awkward, shy, closeted gay man into an unfeeling, drunk, hideous monster right before our eyes. Later, the monstrous qualities of Dahmer come through even better – the lighting in his apartment, his bedroom and bathroom specifically, are tinted red, like a men’s room in Hell’s basement. And while the movie wears on, the lighting gets darker, as we get a further grip on this man’s evil.


What I love most is the screenplay. Jacobson gives us a full look at Dahmer’s life in the way that we follow the killer through his mind. Flashing from past to present, back, forth, is not only a narrative choice. Jacobson gets the viewer into the headspace of Dahmer. The past events of his life obviously affected his psyche deeply, and so we slip in and out of memories – mostly bad to rotten – in order to make the film feel like an experience of Jeffrey’s life through his thought process. Notice the significance of the events which bring him back to specific stories. Through this, we see the uncomfortable pain that at least partly dragged Jeffrey into a life of depraved murder.
Dahmer is a hugely underrated bit of horror. The entire film as a whole is upsetting because you’re forced to both watch Dahmer commit horrible crimes and simultaneously peer through the window of a despicable man’s undoubted, deep sadness. You’re never asked to like him, but the narrative makes us have to watch his story from a certain standpoint. A great move from director-writer Jacobson.
There’s a lot to enjoy about such a macabre horror, from cinematography to the music (which really helps the atmosphere; the score and soundtrack alike work well in combination). It’s the imagery I find most striking. So I leave you with this: watching his first murder, Jeffrey becomes a tragic sort of figure (even if he was an inexcusable cyst on the human race), and skipping to the present timeline of the film after witnessing that event we then see him cut a dead man open, reach inside, all to literally try touching someone’s heart. Maybe not a pretty image. A deafening image in its own right.

EXHIBIT A Offers Emotionally Superior Found Footage in a Sea of Mediocrity

Exhibit A. 2007. Directed by Dom Rotheroe. Screenplay by Rotheroe & Darren Bender.
Starring Bradley Cole, Brittany Ashworth, Angela Forrest, Oliver Lee, Jason Allen, Charles Davies, Emily Button, & Belinda Lazenby.
Warp Films/Bigger Pictures/Screen East/UK Film Council.
Not Rated. 85 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★★
posterThe found footage sub-genre is filled with movies which range from awful to great. I’d likely say found footage has a bigger ratio of bad to good than most other sub-genres out there. Depending on the premise, a movie using this style can really grab you. Too many try emulating the most popular offerings, such as Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project (as well as Paranormal Activity in the post-2000 landscape), rather than forge new ground on their own.
Exhibit A is a fascinatingly horrific look at the regular lives of a British family, whose patriarch is hiding a secret; one that proves to be devastating. Like a socioeconomic found footage movie. Instead of looking for ghosts in the woods or having a group of people filming while running away from an unknown force/serial killer/something else, this little flick, with chilling focus, peers into a normal world that may even hit uncomfortably close to home for some viewers.
Because of the plot’s humanity, director Dom Rotheroe (My Brother Tom) is able to tap into an element of us all, touching deeply on fears many feel – of rejection by our own family, of failing those we love; the fear a father may have of not being able to provide properly for his family, as well as what that does to his imagine in the eyes of his wife, his children, his friends. Within the normality of these peoples lives, Exhibit A manages to burrow under the viewer’s skin, scene by scene, until arriving at the shattering and shocking finale.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-3-43-42-pmOne of the major reasons I love this film is how it really plays up to the sub-genre of found footage. There’s lots of found footage teetering along the edge, playing with the conventions (or merely forgetting them a moment), which still ends up being excellent. What Rotheroe does is keep things consistent, as we view the entire film through the lens of the family’s daughter, Judith King (Brittany Ashworth). In fact, the immediate first scene shows us an official-looking stamp and print from the Yorkshire Police. This lays out the plot as actual evidence from a crime scene at the King family home. There are no opening credits. The title comes directly from the police report as Exhibit A, which is what you’d normally see when a tape is viewed in court. All of this helps work towards a genuine effort of found footage, pulling us into a natural atmosphere, as if it’s all real, actual people, instead of a contrived film’s story. From there, we witness all sorts of moments through Judith’s eyes, or that of the camera’s more specifically. This encompasses her own private moments, such as the burgeoning crisis of her sexual orientation, and then casts an eye on the private moments of Judith’s father Andy (Bradley Cole), as she tapes him secretly when he goes out to the shed by himself, when he’s confronted by an angry man from the office in which he works, and so on. Instead of wondering why the camera is always filming in this slice of found footage, there’s a perfect reason at all times, and as opposed to a lot of found footage already out there this is a welcomed addition to everything else enjoyable.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-3-44-20-pmThe biggest and most effective portion is how well both Cole and Ashworth play their characters. If it weren’t for the performances this could easily have become a dragging endurance test of boring scenes. The entire cast are fairly believable in their roles, but it’s these two who shine most. Ashworth is great because she has a difficult character to play, a young woman growing up in a family with hidden problems and at the same time trying to figure out herself sexually. The character Judith’s development is expertly presented through the images her camera captures – for instance, she stalks (too harsh a word but the only good description I can think of now) a girl next door by watching her through the video camera, and when confronted with her face to face Judith all but freezes completely. Later, the fact she is likely lesbian becomes a larger, more significant family event, although I’m not going to ruin that for you.
But this leads to Cole’s performance as the King family father, Andy. Truthfully, this may be at the top of the list of great performances in the sub-genre. All too often we’re treated to the same screaming, bickering, shaky cam (et cetera) and the performances are only mediocre (if we’re lucky). Cole transforms into a wildly charming yet secretive family man, his energy with his kids and his wife is evident from the get go. Gradually as the film progresses we start to see behind the mask, and Cole is the gatekeeper to let us in. He starts becoming more and more strange, both to the viewer and his family (especially daughter Judith). When the last 15-20 minutes come around, Andy King turns into a monster of epic proportions. It’s the way in which Cole as an actor draws us towards the semi-delusional state of living that Andy falls into throughout the course of the plot, making you feel for him even if he’s a liar and imagining how tough it must be for him to accept what’s happened in his life. The final moments are nerve wracking, in large part because of Cole’s emotional acting; you still feel for him, but the finale’s events erase any sympathy for his situation, as he brutally wipes out any chance of that.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-3-47-10-pmCole as Andy King is one of the best performances in any found footage film I’ve seen. His convincing portrayal of a man losing a grip on his family and his entire life, his career, is both sad and incredibly grim. One scene particularly, involving a party in his backyard, pushes you to the limit of being uncomfortable, as he dances around like an idiot, trying his hardest to be NORMAL and yet falling far outside of any pattern of normality. This is the turning point. After this, Exhibit A dives headlong into the morbid thrills of watching a family self-destruct at the hands of dear ole dad.
There are a number of intense scenes, ranging from well-meaning father behaviour to the desperate clinging of a man trying to make sure he never loses his family. So many scenes are perfectly played to make you feel the maximum amount of ruination. Ultimately, the position of trusted parent is at the middle of the violent cyclone and we’re privy to an examination of how Andy violated that position.
Exhibit A is a cracking film, one of the greater efforts in found footage since The Blair Witch Project. The acting, even how it’s shot (most camerawork was literally done by the cast), is near perfect. Ashworth and Cole as the daughter and father respectively are fascinating to watch; they lead us down the garden path into terror. The finale is completely unsettling because of how far we watch Cole’s character fall, comparing the end to the beginning is like watching two entirely different men. I suggest if you’re looking for a found footage movie to wow you, or at the very least step outside of the typical format and plot we see on the regular, this is one you have to check out. But I warn you: the end is disturbing, and those sensitive to family issues might actually find it tough to watch. Yet I urge you, watch. This is a gem if there ever were one.

Brian De Palma’s Sisters is One Hell of a Fractured Psychological Journey

Sisters. 1973. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by De Palma & Louisa Rose.
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, & Dolph Sweet. Pressman-Williams/American International Pictures.
Rated R. 93 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER
Brian De Palma is a quality filmmaker. That quality hasn’t been kicking around much as of late. Doesn’t discount all the great work he’s done in a lifetime of film. He’s spent much of his filmography emulating Alfred Hitchcock, though not in a way that copies or borrows too liberally. No, De Palma has forged his own way through a wonderful career by using that Hitchcockian influence to dust the edges. There are some much lesser efforts out of De Palma than the masterpieces he’s known for – Sisters is not one of them.
This film has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I bought it up as soon as I could because I’d heard of it for years, always wanting to see it. Then once I had the thing, for some unknown reason, the copy sat lonely, unwatched. When I did view Sisters, I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. Honestly, this is an unheralded classic of psychological horror. Early on in his career De Palma already cemented himself as a natural heir to the Hitchcock throne. The directing, the editing, the Bernard Herrmann score (when he was semi-retired no less), the central performance of Margot Kidder with all its mania and depth; every last piece is like the perfect one for the puzzle. There’s lots of influence here, De Palma clearly emulating his idol in heaps. Rather than feel at all a copy off the Master of Suspense, Sisters was a fresh drop of horror in 1973, tinted with the suspenseful, tension-filled qualities you might have felt from Rear Window or Vertigo. Either way, this is awesome cinema that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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So many great shots. Simple to complex. For instance, there’s a nice shot of shadows on the wall as a door closes that is obviously telling while also chillingly subtle that, along with a bit of score, takes us right into the pure psychological terror De Palma aims for through telling this story. This is just the start.
In a film such as this I have to mention the editing, in combination with the excellent writing. Not long after the shot of the shadows there’s this eerie little moment where the cake is having the names put on it, the icing squeezing out in the names Danielle and Dominique, cut against Danielle having this fit. Just those two names and the way she’s beginning to implode already, these shots perfectly set that up.
Furthermore you’ve got a nice use of split-screen. Certain film fans may not dig that. Others may love it. Personally, I find De Palma uses it appropriately. Because ultimately this is a film that has to do with psychology, fractured identity and perspective, so on. So the split-screen helps give the look a psychological angle all of its own. There’s an overall sense of strangeness that develops, between the various techniques used to tell the story and the story itself, filled with interesting characters and events. I love when the atmosphere of a film matches up so closely with the storytelling, it makes for exciting cinema. Sometimes when a horror, particularly when leaning into the psychological, goes for the grim atmosphere it doesn’t always connect directly to the plot, so much as it’s grim for grim’s sake. Whereas De Palma uses the different techniques to induce a very personal, psychologically driven perspective. In that vein, the story and the filmmaking line up to create an effective cohesiveness. That’s why I find the movie so successful, even as such an early effort by the great director. He showed the film world quickly that his sensibilities as director were well honed already, itching to expand.
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A huge part of what makes the suspenseful moments and the tension work is that juicy, creepy score by none other than Bernard Herrmann; again adding to the Hitchcock influence, the composer having worked on some of his best films. There are absolutely bizarre moments, such as the brutal death of Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) where xylophones and the Moog synthesizer take you to some other plane of existence. Rightfully so. The greatest aspect of Herrmann’s work, as usual, is that it adds a totally whole other character to the film. It is another character. It shapes the atmosphere. These bizarre pieces of music allow De Palma to put us in the headspace of the main character, as she all but literally falls down the rabbit hole of psychological dread.
There’s also a couple genuinely shocking moments. When Philip is stabbed I actually couldn’t believe it. I knew something was coming, and something bad. But this was a really good scene. I’ve seen worse, there’s just something shocking about the moment that strikes so well. Later, the more quiet shock comes in the black-and-white flashback to a time when the Siamese twins are conjoined – or more so it’s a dream on the part of Grace (Jennifer Salt) imagining herself as the twin joined to Danielle (Margot Kidder). A very terrifying moment that doesn’t need to be outright horror to scare. It’s pitch perfect leading into the finale.
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I have to say, Sisters is my personal favourite De Palma film. Hands down. He’s done some other fascinating work. I can’t shake this one. There’s an undeniably unsettling effect to the whole thing. Each moment that pulls you into the psychological viewpoint makes the end of the main plot feel that much more intense. As you draw closer to the finish there’s a sense of impending doom. The suspense De Palma employs, the tension he uses to work his audience over with is brutish at times, in the best sort of sense. In terms of talent you really can’t say that De Palma wasn’t shining nearly right from the get go in his career. Margot Kidder provides an emotional, manic performance as a woman torn apart by the bursting identities instilled in her through the loss of her conjoined twin. She is a great actor and I’ve enjoyed so many movies because of her alone. Not to say she’s the only one, just that her role and performance are the highlight in that arena. You can’t say you love De Palma and not see this one. Seek it out if it hasn’t hit your eyeballs yet. Not sure, after finally watching it awhile back, why I waited so long. This needs to be watched and watched and watched again. There is much to enjoy, much to fear. What an underrated psychological horror is Sisters! Let’s not forget it. Ever.

Berberian Sound Studio Gets to the Raw Core of Our Relationship with Horror

Berberian Sound Studio. 2013. Directed & Written by Peter Strickland.
Starring Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Guido Adorni, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Lara Parmiani, Chiara D’Anna, Jozef Cseres, & Pal Toth. UK Film Council/Film4/Warp X/ITV Yorkshire.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER
Peter Strickland is a director and writer filled with ingenuity. His films are odd, striking, intense. Only recently did I get the chance to view Katalin Varga, his first feature debut. I’d heard of it for a couple years, then was finally able to get hold of a copy. It is a tensely written ride into the darkness of grief; a low budget examination of what the past can do to mangle the present of a wounded person. Recently he directed and wrote an all-female film titled The Duke of Burgundy; I’ve put it to the Bechdel Test, it passed with flying colours.
Although before that Strickland moved on to this film, Berberian Sound Studio, a spectacular little movie that’s equal parts creepy and mesmerising. Each one of his directorial efforts looks different. Yet they’re all visually eye-catching, marked by a certain flair. This film calls to mind, obviously and deliberately, the giallo films of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, even some of the works of Lucio Fulci, among others. The film within a film itself is also a giallo. Therefore, the imagery and the sound design of Strickland’s work mimics those which came before, and creates a hypnotic sort of atmosphere. The perspective of the main characters becomes our perspective, as is the case in all good psychological pieces. Whereas the plot is slow burning, Strickland keeps the pace up by making things feel thrilling. Such a psychologically based piece of work can either go hard for drama, or turn itself towards being an outright thriller. Berberian Sound Studio finds a way to straddle the line, dosing us with lots of head-tripping atmosphere from imagery to sound, and further making the latter part of the plot just as exciting as it is strange. This could have become a mess. At times it feels incredibly energetic in a way that doesn’t help, but it does. Give it time. Once the finale rolls around all that madness comes to serve as an overall metaphor for the way we make and engage in horror movies, all through the perspective of a man actually working on one. The metafiction of Strickland’s writing increases the surreal feeling of the story, as well as allows us a look inside ourselves as purveyors and fans of the genre alike.
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Really dig the look at sound engineering for film, as well as a nice view into the world of the Foley artist, the ones who create that vivid world of sound behind the visuals of a film. All of this is unusual, simply due to the fact this is a view into the world of movies that we’ve rarely gotten over the years. Other than documentaries or featurettes on the Special Features of DVDs and Blu ray discs, you won’t see the Foley work of these sound wizards explored much through fictional stories. Outside of Blow Out, there are barely any movies I can think of that even touch the world of the sound effects artists and engineers. Giving us insight into the film industry is a fun way to make things even more metafictional than just the film-within-a-film aspect; we actually watch the Foley artists ripping, stabbing, smashing, punching fruits and vegetables and all kinds of objects in order to get the right sounds for the scenes. So right off the bat Strickland gives us something unique, a world that’s rarely ever understood by the general viewers who go to see movies (those of us who love film to death are already lovingly aware of the work that goes on behind-the-scenes to make cinema into what it is). Whether this succeeds in doing anything interesting for the movie as a whole, that is up to the viewer. Personally, there’s enough to at least be intriguing in that way that it’s a foreign job to most, and something that’s fun to watch. I’m still not sure if the pay off to the entire story is worth the journey. I do know the plot can sustain an audience’s interest with the story and its characters alone.
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The psychological angle of the screenplay is what gives us something different than the thriller elements of a movie like Blow Out, for instance. That was much more a full-blooded thriller. Strickland’s film is further in the realm of the psychological, the psychedelic, the full-on weird. And that’s just fine. The character of Gilderoy (Toby Jones) finds himself falling through the cracks of reality and fiction, which is precipitated by the headlong dive into sound work – creating these fake sounds for real actions onscreen, his own reality begins to slip away. Moreover, Gilderoy is squeamish, he didn’t expect to be doing a violent horror film, one calling for so many nasty sound effects. So his morality is tested, questioning our own as the viewer and whether watching this type of stuff is also doing some sort of damage, even at the most basic level. Or perhaps it’s a question of whether these types of films, the down and dirty horror, are truly only meant for some people. Regardless of what the main theme or question at hand is, Gilderoy’s psychological state is affected by this division in reality he faces whilst working on the gruesome sounds of the giallo film for which he’s been hired. And the further he gets into the film’s production the worse off his sanity becomes.
That brings me to Toby Jones. He is a fine, talented actor whose star has only begun to shine really bright in the past so many years. He’s been in all kinds of movies, though so many moviegoers probably wouldn’t recognise him in some of those roles. This is a performance of his that I love dearly. Jones has the typical sheepishness of some other characters he’s played. But he is more tortured than ever, gradually tumbling into another level of reality while trying to do his job, while the job only makes things worse. It’s a solid character and one that Jones latches onto. He makes us feel that this is a real man going through a genuine psychological break, away from home and feeling lonely, wanting to do the job he loves but finding it increasingly difficult with the psychological strain bearing down on him.
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Originally, I’d put this down as mediocre. Upon watching it the first time the whole thing didn’t catch me. Now, seeing Berberian Sound Studio for a second time, I feel this is much better than what I’d remembered. What I once found sloppy and a weak attempt at homage for the giallo films of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s actually a wonderful examination of the exploitation inherent in those movies, writer-director Peter Strickland opts to examine our relationship with horror and its often nasty imagery (and in this case, sound) and he tries to make us confront what sort of people we are when engaging in the act of viewing (or making) horror. Does it affect us? Is it really as innocent as we like to assume? I don’t believe horror affects us the way conservative minds might like to think. However, I do like exploring these types of ideas, and fictional stories are a way for us as a society to indulge those thoughts. Like good literature, film helps us understand and comprehend life, ourselves. This movie takes a sincere and eerie look at the effect movies can have on those making them, and in turn the audience that later watches them. Berberian Sound Studio is ripe with all kinds of beauty, darkness, excitement, and will bring you back to all those old giallo movies of the masters from decades prior. Love this movie and can’t believe I once thought this wasn’t any good. Just goes to show you, time is the measure of all things.

Raising Cain: There’s Better De Palma and There’s Worse

Raising Cain. 1992. Directed & Written by Brian De Palma.
Starring John Lithgow, Lolita Davidovich, Steven Bauer, Frances Sternhagen, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris, Teri Austin, & Gabrielle Carteris. Pacific Western.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★
POSTER
Brian De Palma is one of those classic directors of his generation, leaving his mark indelibly on the psychothriller, often imitating his greatest influence Alfred Hitchcock, though never in a way that rips off the master. Instead he is keen on homage, and uses the influence as an element incorporated into his overall style as a director and writer. He’s honestly not one of my personal top favourites. He is undeniably great, all the same. I do love CarrieSistersCarlito’s WayMission: Impossible, but don’t care for some of his more lauded works such as the cult phenomenon Scarface and The Untouchables, other than bits and pieces; they’re good movies, just not fantastic as others claim. I prefer the stuff like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out.
Raising Cain is a nice heady mix of psychological horror, mystery, and all folded into a thriller structure. While this is another film that doesn’t go on my top De Palma, it is fun. Almost in a seedy way. He’s tread through the sleazy, sexy-styled thriller before and isn’t a stranger to that territory. Here, it doesn’t feel as Hitchcockian. Instead the plot comes off more trashy than anything and not in a way that’s beneficial, in say the sense of a grindhouse picture or something purposefully attempting to feel like that. De Palma tries to make another solid thriller that twists and turns, but instead of doing much twisting or turning he opts for a load of nasty business, some steamy bits. Ultimately, the screenplay gets lost in its own convoluted attempts at becoming greater. I wanted to love this and only came out lukewarm even about its best bits.
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There’s no doubt John Lithgow is a wildly underrated character actor. Although he knocked the role out of the park, 3rd Rock from the Sun never did him any good, or justice. He’s been in plenty of movies since, but I can’t help feel that series put a damper on his career at a later stage, whereas someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt was young enough to shake it off. And that’s sad. Lithgow is at his best here, taking on a Peter Sellers-like task of multiple roles. Except these are twisted, each more sinister and unsettling than the last. All juxtaposed with the main character, Carter Nix, whose nice and friendly qualities are what you’d imagine Lithgow is probably like in real life. He does well portraying the Multiple Personality Disorder at the heart of the main character. There’s a genuine disconnect between the different perspectives, the different looks and their ways of speaking, and so instead of feeling like he’s just hopping from costume to costume, Lithgow legitimately gives us separate, distinct personalities. Right down to the voices and their idiosyncrasies. All the marks of a classic performance.
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This brings me to a point I don’t exactly enjoy about the screenplay. The whole Multiple Personality Disorder angle is fine, no problem. What boggles my mind is why there’s so much going on. There’s already a large split in the main personality of Carter, so what I’m not sure of is why De Palma insisted on involving such an intricate plot of Jenny Nix (Lolita Davidovich) cheating? Why does that have to be shuffled in there? Only clogs things up. It’s enough to have his wife suspicious of him and his complete obsession with the mental development of their daughter. A little too much to throw in a whole angle with infidelity, especially considering the movie’s only 91 minutes. Not that it’s badly written. Poorly, yes, but not bad. There’s simply too much going on for De Palma to properly juggle.
Partly it’s the end that makes me feel as if, in this film, De Palma goes too hard into his Hitchcock influence. With the whole female personality of Carter, a.k.a Margo, there’s almost too much Norman Bates lurking; in turn, we could say he’s riffing on Robert Bloch, as well. The timing of having this part of the personality come out feels too much like the climactic chills of Psycho for it to be any bit genius in its own right.
There are some real excellent scenes. Such as the simple yet effectively fun tracking shot following Lieutenant Terri (Gregg Henry), Sergeant Cally (Tom Bower) and Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) – not only is it beautiful, the Waldheim character is strong, as well as funny in the way she walks on talking, not paying attention where they’re going, only to be lead around forcefully by the lawmen while they trail behind listening. That’s just unbelievably good writing, and without being a major part of the plot or anything of the sort it adds a big boost to the movie. These are the portions in which De Palma’s talent shines. He doesn’t just write weaving plots, he’s capable of doing good things both big and small.
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Raising Cain has all the potential to be endlessly interesting. There’s no shortage of thrill, even a chill or two from time to time. John Lithgow is perfect in his multiple roles, bringing to light Multiple Personality Disorder in fine psychological horror fashion. This is a wild, sleaze-filled ride straight off the top until the last frame. Brian De Palma can and has done better as writer-director. His abilities as a next generation Hitchcock are usually on display. This movie tries to aim for that sort of feel, but falls short. I wanted so badly for this to break free of its chains. Unfortunately, De Palma tries doing too much at once. Instead of sticking to something more basic while serving better the thriller aspects of the Multiple Personality Disorder, he goes wide and throws in a kind of Hitchcock-type plot to make things move quickly. I can’t help thinking this would have been better served as a slower burning plot, one without the infidelity of the wife and focused solely on Carter. It doesn’t need so many bells and whistles. It was good enough on its own. Luckily for all Lithgow makes this enjoyable, keeping each eye glued until the underwhelming finale that’s both too similar to a classic of the horror genre and also slightly too predictable for its own good.

Grimm Love Bites at the Heartstrings

Rohtenburg (English title: Grimm Love). 2010. Directed by Martin Weisz. Screenplay by T.S. Faull.
Starring Thomas Kretschmann, Keri Russell, Thomas Huber, Rainier Meissner, Pascal Andres, Axel Wedekind, Tatjana Clasing, Horst D. Scheel, & Nils Dommning.
Senator Entertainment Company/Atlantic Streamline.
Rated R. 87 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Horror

★★★★
POSTER To preface my review, I’ll start with the real story.
In the early 2000s, Armin Meiwes went looking in the dark corners of the internet, eventually finding The Cannibal Cafe, a site for people with a fetish for cannibalism. Meiwes posted an add to find a man willing to be slaughtered then eaten. Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes responded to the ad and the two met on March 9th, 2001 in Rotenburg where Meiwes lived. When they met, Brandes got drunk and took pills in order to dull the pain. They started by cutting of Brandes’ penis, frying it with wine, garlic, salt, and pepper, before trying to eat it. The dick was too chewy, so after frying it too much Meiwes tossed it to the dog. After Brandes couldn’t eat any of his own penis, having lost too much blood, Meiwes went about hanging him like a deer, draining his blood, quartering and chopping the human meat. He was only later found out because of going back online, looking for more meat, and ultimately getting reported. The cops found more Brandes meat in the freezer stored away for future use.
Grimm Love is a fictionalization of the story, concerning two men so lonely they seek out the ultimate way of both consuming someone and also being consumed, each man with their own compulsion. The framing narrative is that of a graduate student doing her thesis on the two men and the wild case. This is not a perfect film. Although it dares to be different, to tackle something altogether inhuman and violent and transgressive, to look at a story many might not wish to undertake. At its heart, the film is an intense character study that involves a heinous crime, one of the most heinous to have ever been committed, and the horror of a psychological depth to which two men plunge in a quest to connect with another person, even if it means doing the unthinkable. Grimm Love is about how some people can love another person despite the rotten core existing within them.
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The tragic element of the film is what compels me most. Through the framing narrative of Katie (Keri Russell) and her thesis we’re able to look into the lives of Oliver Hartwin (Thomas Kretschmann) and Simon Grombeck (Thomas Huber). Horror is on display, no doubt. The main focus is a character study on these two men who eventually collide with one another on their path towards finding a true partner, the one thing which they’ve missed so long, a permanent bond and unbreakable relationship.
First, Oliver is shown in great detail, as a young boy who grew into a man domineered constantly and brutally by his mother. The influence of her dangerously powerful love (“Never leave me alone, Oliver. Ever. Were all we have.”) keeps him shackled to a familial pattern of love, one to which he can’t relate as he grows, his interests widen, to the point a lust in him awakens and something ugly rears its head. Because of such a long time suppressed, Oliver then breaks out into psychopathy. The repression of his needs and his inner desires manifest into an altogether monstrous appetite. The loneliness he feels is due to his mother, connecting him so firmly to her in an unhealthy manner. After she’s gone, he needs to find someone to replace her, but also he only knows one way to love: consume the person you love, the object of your affection. It’s what his mother did, so it becomes the only thing he knows and the only way in which he understands how to love another person.
This brings us to Simon, whose lifelong search for a lover who will, effectively, consume him. Part of this is due to urges he feels are unnatural. Part of it is born of self-hatred, depression, the will to die. Yet that loneliness drives him, and even in death when he discovers Oliver he finds a way to be loved, to be consumed by his lover, and to truly find that two becomes one type feeling with another human being. His devotion is ultimate. Sick and loyal alike, too willing to give himself over to another person wholly.
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Grimm Love has a thick air of atmosphere throughout, built on nice cinematography that captures everything in shadows. The overall look of the film is gritty: the interiors darkened and gloomy, lit low, colours saturated and mute; the exteriors vibrant, sweeping. Particularly once things move forward plot-wise, the tone of the movie keeps grim, as the camera consistently draws us to the eeriness of the story. Scenes where we see Oliver and Simon respectively at their computer screens, a heavenly glow cast up over their faces, you can almost see the bare joy which they get out of the internet right in those brief shots.
There’s a nice separation of time periods within the film’s appearance. Each one has a different colour palette, each feeling slightly different from the others. When we’re focused on Oliver there’s a sepia-like visual aesthetic, a nearly foggy blanket over the frame. In his youth, the lens is almost greasy in sepia toned scenes. Simon’s scenes are more slick, they have dark but vibrant colouring and they’re clear, almost painfully so to illustrate how deeply he feels everything, how emotionally present he is, as opposed to Oliver whose feeling is one of repression, of being closed off and shut to the world in a fog drenched trance. For the scenes with Katie, the aesthetic is between the two – dark, moody, richly shot. This is what allows for a continuity amongst all the jumping to and from events, from past into the present. Otherwise, without a continual aesthetic divided into sections director Martin Weisz risked losing people. He still did, but not for any fault of his own. The visuals make this horrific tale more compelling than if it were shot in a bland, flair-less style.
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I feel this is a 4-star film. It has huge dramatic, tragic elements in the screenplay. Of course the horror is evident, even only in the basic description of the fact this film is based on a true crime case. What makes everything so intense are the performances. Thomas Kretschmann and Thomas Huber each make their characters come alive, to the point of being wildly uncomfortable. There are scenes where some actors might either fall into overly melodramatic spectacle. Instead, both Kretschmann and Huber stay subtle, they crawl under your skin and make these equally disturbed men into painful portraits of lonely humans. There is so much to enjoy out of their performances. Huber in particular is a powerhouse in his role, often drawing out your pity with the slightest ease.
In the end, you’ll be disturbed to the bone. If you have any humanity inside your heart. Grimm Love attempts to show us the human roots of the real case of Meiwes, through a fictional representation of both him and his victim. This is an impossible mind frame to discover in oneself, so a movie such as this tries taking us inside these sort of terrifying emotions and headspaces while remaining neutral. Nobody’s saying you have to feel bad for either of these characters, not at all. What the film tries to say is that even the biggest monsters once began as human beings. It’s that somewhere along the line humanity becomes monstrosity, even out of something as simple as loneliness. There’s no telling to what deep abyss the human heart can go, and will if the world and the people nearby let it.

Black Swan: Dark Hearts, Tortured Artists, and the Transition to Womanhood

Black Swan. 2010. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Andrés Heinz, Mark Heyman, & John J. McLaughlin.
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, & Tina Sloan. Protozoa Pictures/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Cross Creek Pictures.
Rated 14A. 108 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
POSTER
There are filmmakers I cannot help but love. Darren Aronofsky wowed me first with Requiem for a Dream (later I saw Pi). Immediately, I found his style and willingness to explore tough stories something exciting. His style, no matter the subject, is psychological and worms its way to the core. It makes you feel connected, even if that’s an uncomfortable position in which to find yourself. Regardless, he is undeniably effective at getting to the heart of darkness, of struggle, of pain.
Black Swan is all style and all substance, mixed into a sinister dream of what goes in inside the head of an artist. Natalie Portman gives what may likely end up being the greatest, most defining performance of her career. I’ve always enjoyed her, though in this role she shines; physically and mentally. Barbara Hershey and Mila Kunis each add their own wonderful elements to the cast, as does Vincent Cassel. A wonderful cast is one thing. Impeccably captured cinematography, beautiful choreographed dancing, solid writing to boot? This is what makes Aronofsky’s film unforgettable. You get to experience all sorts of wonders. There’s the dark heart of artistry, beyond what people see on the outside; all the pain and torturous psychological wear/tear behind the curtain. There’s the often scary, rocky transition from being a girl to becoming a woman, one which Nina (Portman) discovers unnervingly. Finally, this psychological descent in which Nina finds herself twirling becomes our own, as Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique draw us inside a terrifying headspace until coming out on the other side. Whether that’s in tact mentally, you be the judge.
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One major element of why I find Aronofsky’s film so interesting, in an odd sense, is how he incorporates a quasi-body horror into the psychological journey of Nina. There are several key moments where fingers, toes, they get bloody and our mind is drawn to the strain on Nina’s body. Slowly, we begin to suspect there’s a dark fantasy portion to this story, and that things are becoming supernatural, as if Nina is literally transforming into a swan. So with the body horror, Aronofsky combines the psychological elements in there to make things surreal, blurring the thin line between reality and nightmares.
The psychological aspects further come out well through the use of doubles as a theme and mirrors or reflective surfaces. Nina’s character is all about expectations, personal or otherwise. She feels her mother (Barbara Hershey) bearing down, constantly. Her own mind is against her all the time, always asking for more just like dear ole mom. Then there are the expectations Nina perceives from the eyes watching her, dance instructor Leroy (Vincent Cassel), so on. All the reflections serve as a reminder that ballet, her dancing, they are a judgement on her physical qualities; how well she can dance, how thin is her body, how lean are her legs, et cetera. Moreover, the doubles Nina sees – one early on walks right past her under some scaffolding on the street, her face appearing visible briefly before it morphs back into some other unknown person – reflect the idea of being an artist as a sort of egotistical space, at times. It’s not a general statement. However, when it’s coupled with the obsession in the screenplay, this concept of artistry plays into Nina’s visions. Seeing those doubles, reflecting her face, these are points of narcissism. This leads slightly into further themes of the film. As Nina journeys from being a girl to a woman, she moves away from the narcissism and literally has to smash her identity to pieces, destroying the old narcissistic little girl and becoming a confident, more accomplished woman comfortable in her own skin, along with all its flaws. Up until the climactic moments of the script Nina sees her reflection everywhere. Even if nervously, all she can see is herself. Everywhere. In every thing, everyone. By the end, she’s decided this is enough, and along with the blood (a little bit symbolic in that part of it appears period-like), the smashed mirror represents a gateway to her life beyond girlhood.
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Another major element to why Black Swan is so interesting has to do with this theme of womanhood, or even simply adulthood in general, and the passage one takes from being a child to being a genuine adult. But definitely the heavy element of female perspective is here, obviously. This is why when some people question the sex scene between Nina and Lily (Mila Kunis), I wonder if they understand that part of this entire story is the fact Nina is discovering herself, her sexuality, her power as a woman, every last little thing in between. So the sex scene represents that side of Nina wanting to explore, the repressed girl in her ready to see what womanhood is all about and open to discovering her own choices, and it didn’t happen. The fact is she has fallen into a fantasy world. Nina lives in a dream world, one afforded by her slightly crazy mother and perpetuated by her own act of allowing her infantilization. So it makes sense she’s diving headlong into a lesbian fantasy, one she’d never dare act out in real life because of her own repressed sensibilities and the overbearing presence of her mother. Problem is, her mind is so fractured – driven to mad lengths by her getting the role as Swan Queen – that she doesn’t realize this is only a dream she’s conjured up. And the awkward situation later when she believes it to be real, bringing it up to Lily is where we can truly see her disoriented reality.
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With so much beautiful camera work, the mind bogglingly gorgeous dance choreography by Benjamin Millepied, the always intriguing direction of Darren Aronosfky, Black Swan was completely enthralling from the first time I saw it. Even now six years later as of this writing, I cannot get enough. The entire thing is this elaborate, dreamy tale. All the ballet and the dedicated dancing, that whole world, makes this a unique story we’re not often going to see. Certainly it’s reminiscent of the famous anime Perfect Blue, to which Aronofsky owns the rights, but there’s enough of his own elements to not make it one big rip-off. All around this is an astounding psychological horror/thriller, one that incorporates body horror, surrealism, among other things. No matter how you view it, Black Swan is a dangerous story about obsession, dedication, artistry, all wrapped into a kind of coming-of-age scenario about a girl finally becoming a woman after a long gestating period of being a child. By the time the credits roll you’ll either love it or hate it. But no doubt, you’ll find yourself reeled in, and the dark beauty of the film as a whole will take you away to some magical places. They might not be soft, sweet, rosy places. Yet magical nonetheless.