Some movies are created with an emphasis of style over substance, a deliberate attempt by the filmmaker to craft a compelling and surreal world that does not adhere to a standard narrative format. Suspiria, Lost Highway and Beyond the Black Rainbow are just a few examples of when this artistic gamble really pays off and pulls viewers into a compelling, living nightmare that brings you along for the ride, even if it’s not always clear where that ride is taking you. Conversely, when not done properly a lack of narrative only succeeds in creating frustration and quickly bores the viewer with a series of meaningless images. So, where does a film with a hallucinatory, dream-like style like Night Kaleidoscope fall on the spectrum? Well, let’s discuss.
The plot (such as it is) centers around Fion (Patrick O’Brien) who uses his hereditary psychic abilities (along with the unknown mystical drug he smokes) to help solve crimes. His current case involves a vampire couple that are responsible for a series of murders in the city slums. He is soon joined by Isobel (Mariel McAllan) a mysterious young woman who seems to have a personal stake in wanting to defeat the vampire couple.
First of all, I want to acknowledge the style of this film and the fact that director Grant McPhee effectively uses a variety of techniques to create an authentically surreal, dream-like experience. Quick edits, single-color saturation scenes, deliberate out-of-focus shots and a purposely shaky handheld camera all work together to deliver a fluid sense of movement that is disorienting and nightmarish in the best possible way. The pulsating and ominous 80’s style synth score that’s underlaid throughout adds to the hallucinatory effect of the film and perfectly compliments the striking visual style.
However, one key aspect that separates this film from other surreal classics like those I previously mentioned is the fact that it doesn’t commit fully to the surreal tone it establishes. Swirling, disorienting montages are broken up by scenes with more standard structure and pacing. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy in general as you don’t want to burn out your viewer with images that risk becoming repetitive and meaningless, plus it can be a good time to communicate key plot information. But, in the case of Night Kaleidoscope, this is where it comes up short because unlike films where the whole plot is up to interpretation, this one has a pretty straightforward narrative, it’s just got some holes in it.
For instance, the fact that there is clearly meant to be a greater significance to the character of Isobel but it is never properly established in the plot. This leaves unanswered questions about her connection to the vampires that feel more like an oversight than a deliberate omission. Similarly, plot threads involving Fion’s employer who suddenly wants him off the case and his “psychic drug” supplier’s motivations are not properly fleshed out. This adds to an overall feeling of characters and plot points being introduced without the filmmakers having a clear understanding of how these elements work in the context of the story as a whole.
In general, the world the film creates is certainly strange. It’s a world where there don’t appear to be any mythic creatures other than the vampire couple but their existence is instantly and unquestioningly accepted. It’s a world where psychic detectives are commissioned by mysterious clients when a murder needs to be solved and actual police never appear regardless of the amount of bodies that pile up. In most cases, people in this world also seem very complacent when faced with the threat of death from the vampires but that fact does also lead to an interesting interpretation of this film as an allegory for drug use. Although, it remains unclear if that was the filmmakers’ intention as other aspects of the plot don’t necessarily support it.
Narrative issues aside, I really can’t overstate just how accomplished this film looks visually and the fact that it was made for the astoundingly low price tag of under $5,000 makes it all the more impressive. It also shows a tremendous amount of raw talent for visual flair on the part of McPhee who is a director that one would do well to keep an eye on. In the end this makes for an experience well worth having if you can let nagging concerns about plot melt away and embrace the mesmerizing surreal imagery. Indeed, this is the kind of film that is best when consumed late at night and slightly under the influence.