Nightmare Symphony (2021)

It’s interesting that the review for Nightmare Symphony would come directly after my review of Undergods since both films play with ambiguity and surreal imagery but achieve nearly opposite results. In this case, the Giallo-inspired film takes a big swing at meta commentary and the nature of reality with its story of an American director Frank (Frank LaLoggia) who goes to Italy to finish the edit of his film. Before long people all around him seem to be dying at the hands of a mysterious killer in a bird mask, who leaves no trace behind other than a peacock feather as their calling card.

Clearly this film is a love letter to Giallo itself, which is apparent long before the dedication to Lucio Fulci during the closing credits. On this front it succeeds wonderfully and the color-saturated scenes where the bird masked killer slashes up their victims with a straight razor to a pulsating synth score are a thing of beauty. In fact, I want to especially shout out all the FX work on this film because it is far and away the best part of the entire experience and every gory scene that features it is a work of brutal, bloody art.

What’s less successful is the story itself, as well as LaLoggia’s lackluster performance which never quite rings true, especially when paired with some of the actors in minor roles that are really bringing their A-game. It’s frustrating because I can see what writer Antonio Tentori (Cat in the Brain, Demonia) is trying to do but it simply does not come together. The ending (which I won’t reveal here) attempts to be very clever with a big meta reveal but falls utterly flat due to the fact that the preceding story in no way supports it.

Ambiguity in films can be a great thing, but a story that actively contradicts itself and feels like there are key scenes missing isn’t the same as not understanding a surreal film that’s filled with metaphor and symbolism. If you are going to play with the concept of reality itself in a film then you need to clearly establish what the reality of the world is and really understand when and how you are breaking with those conventions.

In this case Nightmare Symphony feels as confused as the viewer but attempts to cover its plot holes with stylized theatrics that it hopes will somehow congeal into meaning. Still, the film has a lot of style and a few carefully crafted re-shoots might be all it takes to fill in the missing pieces and tie the ending to the film that preceded it.

Undergods (2021)

Is it necessary to fully understand a film to enjoy and appreciate it? I would argue that it is not, for if that were the case surrealist masters like Jodorowsky and Lynch would never have ascended to their exalted levels within the film world. We still watch, discuss and are sometimes confounded by films like Holy Mountain and Eraserhead more than four decades later because there is far more beneath the strange visuals that bares fruit if we are patient enough to peel back the layers. Surreal films benefit from re-watching and further examination, the trick is to make your films good enough that its worth an audience’s time to do so.

Writer/director Chino Moya’s first feature is certainly a film that requires additional scrutiny to fully comprehend. While it’s not as overtly surreal as the previously mentioned films the slippery narrative thread and dream-like quality give it a viewing experience akin to Holy Motors with a healthy dose of High Rise mixed in. There aren’t exactly main characters nor is there a clear narrative through-line as segments seem to flow into each other, sometimes in the guise of stories told between characters, and occasionally intersect.

The structure in fact is more on par with a collection of short films taking place in a shared universe where the edges are muddied enough for them to meld into each other rather than all serving a common storyline. We see body collectors nonchalantly tossing corpses into their truck like they are common trash, a middle aged couple who’s frosty relationship threatens to become upended by an unexpected guest, a father telling his daughter a bedtime story of an unscrupulous merchant, a post-apocalyptic prison and an ordinary business man whose life becomes incalculably more complicated with the arrival of someone from the past.

Some of these segments flow very cleanly into each other, whereas at other times the connection is a bit more abstract. Regardless of their storyline similarities it’s really the emotional thread of dysfunctional relationships in a bleak and hopeless world that connects and links the stories. More importantly, the purpose of this film is not to provide a by-the-numbers plotline but to create an evocative experience where well-realized characters flow into each other’s worlds with a dream-like quality and in that regard it is better served by the unconventional structure. The result makes for an incredibly engaging experience whose shifting narrative works well to simulate the feeling of watching an unnerving dream (or more aptly a nightmare) unfold and giving the audience plenty to mull over between viewings.

Fortunately the beautifully bleak cinematography that deftly captures the quiet horror of a ruined city and the across the boards flawless acting make this a trip that’s worth taking multiple times. If you are looking for a straightforward, easily digestible story that neatly resolves then this is not going to be for you. On the other hand, those interested in taking on a cinematic experience that provides depth and layers of meaning to be gradually unraveled would do well to give this a try.

A Record of Sweet Murder (2019)

When The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the scene in 1999 it forever changed the world of horror cinema. In its wake, the once novel concept of a “found footage” film established by Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 quickly became ubiquitous within the market to the point of oversaturation. In the intervening years many filmmakers have used the audience’s willingness to embrace the rougher, naturalistic aesthetic of the style as an excuse for low production value as they churn out countless versions of the same basic story.

Thankfully, innovative filmmakers have also made their mark on the subgenre and films like Rec, Creep, and more recently Host (to name just a few) have elevated the style by taking it in new and creative directions. Innovation within the subgenre is rare enough but A Record of Sweet Murder is wholly unique as it dares to combine the found footage aesthetic with the rarest of cinema tropes, the single take film. By all conventional wisdom, an idea this ambitious could never work, but writer/director Kôji Shiraishi (Grotesque) pulls it off with results that are nothing short of mind-blowing!

The story centers around investigative reporter Kim Soyeon (Kim Kkobbi) who receives a call from Park Sangjoon (Je-wook Yeon), an escaped fugitive wanted for numerous murders. Park offers her an exclusive interview if she will meet him in a secluded location and bring along a Japanese cameraman. Since Kim and Park share a childhood connection, she believes that they will not be in any danger, but once they arrive it becomes clear that Park has a much larger plan in which they are to play an integral role.

To be clear, this film isn’t a true one-shot film like Russian Ark, but since everything but a few quick scenes at the end was done in a single take it’s still an incredible feat of filmmaking. It isn’t just the fact of doing it in a single take that is impressive, it’s what they are able to accomplish within the massive shot that is truly mind-blowing. Brutal fight scenes, multiple locations, numerous characters, realistic special effects, and an engaging storyline all work in concert to produce a thoroughly unique, mesmerizing experience. Even without the novelty of the single take this would be an incredible, well acted, and engaging film but the fact that Shiraishi goes the extra mile with a ground-breaking concept really puts it over the top.

It’s truly a cinematic travesty that such an innovative, brilliant film has gotten such little attention since its release yet Hitchcock’s faux one-shot film Rope is still talked about with such reverence after more than seven decades. I know that the cameras of the time limited the production to shooting it in a series of ten minute takes but Hitchcock’s blatant cutaways do absolutely nothing to preserve the illusion of an unbroken shot in that overrated “classic”. Despite this (and the fact that it felt more like watching a one-act play than a one-shot film) Rope was still innovative for its time and innovation should always be appreciated. To that end I’m hard pressed to think of many films in recent memory that have innovated more than ARoSM and here’s hoping that someday its style-blending brilliance will be appreciated for the unique achievement that it is.

Climate of the Hunter (2021)

The great thing about the vampire mythos is that it’s malleable and as such we get to have numerous artistic interpretations of it. As one of the most popular mythic creatures, vampires have been represented in a wide variety of ways from a subtle and abstract metaphor for addiction in Ganja & Hess to the bloodthirsty monsters in 30 Days of Night and countless other creative iterations. Because of this there really is no wrong way to represent a vampire (except when they sparkle in the fucking sunlight) so director Mickey Reece’s highly unconventional take on the classic bloodsuckers is just as valid as any other interpretation, even if the end result is a bit of a mixed bag.

Climate of the Hunter tells the story of Wesley (Ben Hall), a writer who returns to the states after a 20 year absence abroad due to a significant deterioration in his wife’s mental health that requires her to be institutionalized. While staying in the nearby vacation town in the quiet off season he reconnects with a pair of sisters Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) and Elizabeth (Mary Buss) whom he had known years earlier. As Wesley’s wife sits catatonic in a mental hospital he spends a significant amount of his time flirting with both sisters, causing tension and jealousies to rise between the ladies. Alma’s own mental health also comes into question, especially as her suspicions mount that not only is Wesley no longer the man she once knew but has in fact turned into a malevolent supernatural creature.

Once you start this film it doesn’t take long to realize that the story Reece is telling is far from a conventional vampire tale. Instead CotH is a slow-burn and increasingly surreal journey that is intended to make the audience question the reality of what they see unfolding. The aesthetic here plays a big part in that and the authentically degraded footage makes it feel like a found relic that was actually filmed in 1977 rather than just taking place during that time. The surreal tone is further bolstered by the fact that the numerous vintage meals that are featured in the film always start with an insert shot of the food and an unknown female narrator’s introduction.

From start to finish the film feels strange, off kilter (and dare I say, even Lynchian) with the subtly surreal world that is brought to life by the exceptional performances of the cast. This aspect works incredibly well and made me want to spend more time in the weird world Reece created. The fundamental problem here is that the world isn’t quite weird enough and I was quite disappointed to see that so much of the beautifully strange footage from the trailer was relegated to dream sequences rather than being incorporated into the story in a more meaningful way.

Since Alma’s sanity is in question from the start, Reece’s intention is clearly to create an ambiguous reality that will keep the audience guessing whether what they are seeing is real or simply part of her delusions. If he had more successfully blurred the lines of reality and incorporated a more palpable sense of menace and dread the end result would have been something truly exquisite. As it is, the series of odd meals the characters share start to feel stagnant and repetitive as Wesley once again waxes poetic while the women cut each other down with barbs and snide comments. Ultimately this results in an interesting and unusual film that’s good but remains frustratingly close to actually being great.

Blind (2020)

Horror films like to play with our sense of vulnerability by showing characters in a weakened or disadvantaged state, whether it’s due to being trapped somewhere out of their element, trying to fight off supernaturally strong enemies, etc. When a character has a disability that already puts them at a physical disadvantage, it can be an opportunity to crank the tension up even further as their fight for survival becomes even more difficult. We saw this concept play out to great effect in 2016’s Hush, so I was curious if this version of the single-disabled-woman-being-terrorized-in-her-own-home-by-a-sadistic-killer story would work as well in Blind.

At the start of the film we see Faye (Sarah French), a Hollywood actress still trying to adjust to her new life a year after a botched Lasik procedure caused her to lose her sight and her career along with it. As difficult as her life has become, things get considerably worse for her when a deranged killer in a Ken doll mask begins terrorizing her and murdering her friends.

First of all, I’d like to point out that to date there has never been a reported case of a patient losing their sight as a direct result of a Lasik procedure, so that pretty much deflates the central concept right from the start. Regardless, I was more than willing to move past that as I watched the beautifully shot scenes unfold and waited for the horror to kick in. Turns out I would be waiting for what felt like an eternity as the first third of this film is almost entirely devoted to watching Faye wallow in depression, attend group therapy, and start up an awkward will-they-won’t-they relationship with her mute friend Luke (Tyler Gallant).

Any well-made film should be able to establish an empathetic protagonist in a short amount of time and if you need to spend thirty minutes just trying to make the audience care about your characters while the central conflict remains jammed in neutral, then you’ve already lost them. There are some decent kills to be had once things get rolling but the film lacks any kind of real tension which makes the majority of it feel boring rather than engaging.

Part of the issue may be that Faye spends so much time being completely oblivious to the killer lurking around her house that he no longer feels threatening. It just kept bringing Hush to mind for me since that film had such a similar concept yet was able to keep things tense and exciting the whole time. I also cared a lot more about those characters with far less time devoted to trying to force me to do so and none of the melodramatic love story crammed in.

The strangest thing about Blind is that it has all the ingredients of a film that should work, they just fail to come together. The acting is solid all around, there’s great sound design, and there is no question that the film is beautifully shot. I like the look of the killer “Pretty Boy” and there is one scene in particular where he is sitting there in his doll mask and blood-soaked white tux that is truly iconic. Director Marcel Walz is clearing aping Nicolas Winding Refn’s style a bit with his use of red and blue saturation and dreamy 80s style synth but has nevertheless created a piece that is very visually appealing. I’m sure that with a tighter, more horror focused script he could create something that is truly great.

A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio (2019)

Nightmare RadioI love horror anthology films and while we may not be getting as many these days as we did during the resurgence of their popularity in the early to mid 2010s, it’s good to see that they are still popping up occasionally. Typically these films will feature the collaboration of multiple directors and are a great way to showcase various talents within a single project. The structure allows the audience to be a little more forgiving of the overall film as stronger entries can sometimes redeem the goodwill lost by weaker ones. Ultimately though, the finished film is still a sum of its parts and today we’ll see if A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio serves as a suitable distraction during these troubled times.

Every good anthology film needs a solid framing device to tie things together and in this case it comes in the form of a radio DJ named Rod (James Wright) telling scary stories during his show. There’s a good variety within the stories themselves as Rod spins tales of murder, revenge, and the supernatural. The cold open of the film shows a story of a vengeful ghost while the next deals with the very real and very creepy Victorian era practice of photographing the dead. Subsequent stories involve a sinister stylist, cruel and unusual prison punishment, a Spanish dancer with strange stomach pains, and a child who makes a frightening discovery in the kitchen. The final two stories involve a hunter with very unusual prey and a woman hearing odd noises while she is home alone. Rod’s story also follows its own arc and builds towards a satisfying and interesting twist that nicely caps off the preceding tales.

Nightmare Radio Pic

Fortunately there aren’t any entries that are simply bad but there are definitely some that are more successful than others. One of the standouts was the entry about the prisoner which managed to be morally complex and the degree to which viewers find it cathartic or disturbing is sure to vary depending on the person. Another highlight was the postmortem photography entry which had excellent structure and pacing, delivering a very complete, concise, and chilling story in just a few short minutes. I also want to give credit to the final story (and arguably scariest entry in the anthology) which does an incredible job expanding upon the unnerving sense of foreboding one can get while alone in their own house at night.

The only parts that don’t work here are a couple of times where the story didn’t quite come together as well as it should have. Unfortunately, the opening vignette suffers from this the most as the engaging visuals are undercut by a muddled story that fails to make any fucking sense whatsoever and seems more like a disparate collection of ideas than an actual narrative. Similarly, the hunter segment works well on its own but its introduction throws an unnecessary layer of confusion into the character motivations and inherent logic within the story itself.

These are ultimately minor quibbles though, because as a whole, Nightmare Radio is incredibly successful and every segment is exquisitely shot, well acted, and showcases brilliant special effects. This is definitely one to keep an eye out for and something that fans of horror anthologies will certainly want to tune into.

4-stars-red

The Dinner Party (2020)

unnamed (3)Sometimes just the fact that a film is in the horror genre tips you off that the plot is going to go in a certain direction. I mean, if a movie called The Dinner Party had everything go completely well for the characters the entire time you’d probably end up with a drama (and a damn boring one at that). So, while there is a certain amount of predictability and expectation within the basic structure itself, the real test of artistry is found in how well the filmmakers can finesse the details and create something original. Sometimes this means artists will take big swings with unusual concepts and plot twists, the end result of which is invariably a brilliant hit….or a spectacular miss.

Small-time playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall) seems to have gotten the opportunity of a lifetime when he is invited to a secret dinner party by a group of wealthy elites with enough pull to get his work onto Broadway. His wife Haley (Alli Hart) gets dragged along for the ride and before long the couple is bearing witness to the increasingly strange behavior of their wealthy hosts.

I always appreciate it when independent filmmakers are able to work well within their financial limitations and play to their strengths. Co-writer/director Miles Doleac (who also plays Vincent in the film) clearly understands this concept as he wisely keeps the action limited to one central location and utilizes a talented cast to bring life to the characters. Sawandi Wilson especially deserves to be recognized for his portrayal of the flamboyant and unhinged Sebastian which he imbues with a significant amount of subtly and depth.R4_1.61.1

The most welcome surprise for me however was just how depraved the film got at times, diving headlong into dark territory with cannibalism, necrophilia, and some scenes of gruesome violence. Doleac does an excellent job lulling the viewer into a false sense of security with warm, comfortable lighting and high-brow conversation right before violently yanking the rug out from under them. It’s a clever and subtle touch that mirrors the experience the characters are having and the solid acting across the board sells it perfectly.

A less successful gamble comes in the form of a third act twist (the details of which I won’t spoil) that severely erodes much of the good will the film had earned up until that point. It’s really unfortunate too because up until then I had really been enjoying the film. I mean sure there were lengthy discussions about opera that were as gratuitous as they were pretentious but this was still right on track for a four star rating. Not so once the “big revelation” slaps the audience across the face with a ridiculous concept that would be utterly eye-rolling in any film and feels exceptionally out of place here. You won’t have much time to dwell on it though because after that the film barrels toward the end credits, leaving in its wake a series of carelessly unanswered questions that put a nonsensical bow on an otherwise well made film.

Had this film simply carried along on the track it was already on for most of the runtime it would have ended up being a very solid horror experience punctuated with some great details and wry social commentary. Unfortunately, in its attempt to be entirely too clever for its own good, a mostly satisfying experience ultimately left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

3-stars-red

M.O.M. Mother of Monsters (2020)

M.O.MEver since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the horror scene in 1999 and crushed the box office to the tune of a quarter billion dollars, countless filmmakers have tried their hand at tapping into that low cost Cinéma vérité style magic. Now that it’s 21 years later any filmmaker looking to utilize that format needs to bring something more to the table than abandoned footage found in the woods. Fortunately, M.O.M (Mother of Monsters) does bring an innovative twist to the standard formula as all the footage comes directly from cameras that characters use within the world of the film.

This approach alone isn’t unique but the justification and execution make it work better than most. Old home movie footage is spliced with straight to camera testimonials and consumer grade home surveillance as Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton) obsessively documents the actions of her teenage son Jacob (Bailey Edwards). The more we see, the more it seems that this strung out single mother has good cause to worry as Jacob kills animals, has violent outbursts, and makes troubling maps of his school. Is Abbey uncovering the genesis of a dangerous criminal in the making…or is something else entirely going on?

Since the film devotes so much run-time to trying to make the viewer wonder about Jacob’s true motivations, it’s unfortunate that an early scene on an overpass heavily tips the scales, clearly showing which character is capable of committing unrepentant acts of violence. While the scene itself is well done, the film would be far stronger without it and would allow for some actual ambiguity throughout the story. It’s a shame too since the novel approach actually does effectively make use of the found footage conceit in a way that is modern, innovative and justified (mostly) within the world of the film. It also maintains a storyline that does drag a bit in places but overall manages to be engaging and at times all too real.

M.O.M’s true strength however is with its actors, which is fortunate as this is pretty much a two-hander between mother and son. The acting (and I cannot overstate this) is fucking incredible! Hamilton and Edwards truly live inside their characters and their pitch-perfect depiction is what makes the film work. The nuance and subtlety that they bring to their roles make this prescient story about a young man potentially going down a violent path feel even more dangerous and real. In a world where senseless acts of violence are commonplace, a film that reflects the anxiety that the true monsters can be found within the people we are closest to is a very scary concept indeed.

3-5-stars-red

Empathy Inc (2019)

Empathy1As new forms of media consumption are released so too are new cultural anxieties born, along with the films that reflect them. Whether it’s VHS in Videodrome or cell phones in One Missed Call, films have always been a way of expressing the inherent discomfort that is an inevitable part of adjusting to ever more rapidly changing technology. With VR becoming an increasingly prevalent part of our society, it’s only natural that films like Empathy Inc would come about to explore the darker side of the technology. Of course, the idea itself is nothing new and classic films from Total Recall to The Matrix and many in between have delved into the potential consequences of experiencing a virtual world that is indistinguishable from our own. However, while this was an abstract concept in the ‘90s, ever advancing technology is bringing us closer to this becoming a reality, making the subject far more prescient today.

The story centers around Joel (Zack Robidas) who has to move with his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) from Silicon Valley to her parent’s house on the east coast following a public scandal and the closure of his company. When an opportunity comes along to get in on the ground floor of a new company that promises a unique VR experience, Joel sees it as his way to get back in the game and convinces his father-in-law (Fenton Lawless) to invest his family’s entire nest egg in the venture. As you can imagine, it’s not long before things start to go horribly wrong.

Of all the VR themed films, Empathy Inc draws the most influence from Strange Days as its invented technology also allows users to enter a fully immersive world where they can live out experiences that are completely foreign to their own in a supposedly consequence-free environment. It does put its own unique spin on the concept (which I won’t spoil here) that makes it feel like a fresh take on the subject rather than a rehash. Unfortunately, this unique take also brings up some important questions that are not resolved like “given all that’s involved, would people really pay for this experience?” Even if they would, the logistics of actually pulling it off seem highly impractical and regardless of how far out your concept is, it needs to be grounded within the logic of the world it creates.

Empathy pic

Despite some glaring inconsistencies with how it’s used, the technology itself is actually an easier sell than some minor but significant plot points that could have been easily addressed in a rewrite. I mean, I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief for the idea of world where fully immersive VR is possible but a world where you can easily sneak a gun onto a cross-country flight (twice) is just far too ridiculous to accept. This is also apparently the same world where you can wander around a city and accidentally run into the exact person you are looking for by pure coincidence.

It’s really a shame that these entirely script-based issues exist because they take away from a film that is otherwise executed incredibly well. The camerawork is beautiful and the black and white aesthetic works very well, especially for the high-contrast shots. Director Yedidya Gorsetman also wisely chooses to keep the effects simple and execute them well which adds much more production value than attempting to overreach far beyond what the budget allows. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting which is simply flawless across the board and especially impressive given the events of the third act.

All in all Empathy Inc is an interesting film with a unique perspective that is worth the watch but certainly won’t be supplanting VR classics like eXistenZ or Strange Days anytime soon.

 

2-5-stars-red

The Cannibal Club (2019)

CannibalClub_Key ArtCannibalism in film is generally depicted in one of two ways; either it’s being perpetrated by savage maniacs who messily devour human flesh or savored by members of high society as an indulgent and sophisticated ritual. As is immediately evident by the cover art, The Cannibal Club clearly falls into the latter category. These sorts of depictions tend to have an undercurrent of social commentary, as the rich literally devour the lower classes for their own pleasure and this film is no different in that regard. However, that is far from all that TCC has to offer as this delectable treat gives viewers a lot more to chew on.

Wealthy social elites Otavio (Tavinho Teixeira) and Gilda (Ana Luiza Rios) are a Brazilian power couple who enjoy indulging in the flesh of their workers, in every sense of the word. Their life of leisure and twisted pleasures soon becomes threatened when Gilda accidentally uncovers the truth about a prominent member of the secret society that Otavio is part of.Cannibal Club - Still 2

There is a lot to like about this film, from the flawless acting, to the beautiful camerawork and of course the graphic gore effects, which are utterly sublime. What’s most interesting though is the unconventional and unpredictable script that subverts the expectations of what a film like this can be. I imagine that had this been made in Hollywood (or when the inevitable, ill conceived remake is greenlit) the plot would have the couple portrayed as the antagonists or softened their characters with a significant amount of remorse. Instead TCC leans into the twisted nature of its protagonists while still portraying them as fully fleshed out people in an imperfect and realistic relationship.

The only thing that I found lacking here (and frankly a bit surprising) was that a film with such graphic sexuality and violence would occasionally shy away from the good stuff and have it take place off screen. Perhaps writer/director Guto Parente was going for a “less is more” approach with these scenes and while they are still effective, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated out of some great gore that I thought was coming.

cc2Fear not though gore hounds because there is still plenty of violence on display, especially as the film works up to its climactic ending. I also want to give credit to the fact that the social commentary is woven subtly and expertly into the story which gives the message a lot more resonance, especially in this day and age. So, if you are looking for an exotic and satisfying treat to satiate your darker appetites, you’ll definitely want to put this one on the menu.

 

4-stars-red