Short Film Review: Friend of the World (2020) Duration 50 min 30 sec

FOTW_PosterFriend of the World exists in a very strange space. Originally penned in 2016, writer/director Brian Patrick Butler conceived of the story as a reflection of the political anxieties of the time. Now that it’s finally ready for release in 2020, this post-apocalyptic film about racial/cultural disparity, isolation, and paranoia feels almost painfully prescient. Some films are able to be an effective reflection of their time but the degree to which this one was able to accurately predict what 2020 would feel like is just plain unnerving.

The main story begins with a young black woman named Diane Keaton (Alexandra Slade) waking up in an underground bunker in a room full of corpses. After making her way out of the room and deeper into the bunker itself, she soon encounters a middle-aged white man named General Gore (Nick Young) who lives down there and seems to know more about the apocalyptic event that occurred on the surface world than he is letting on.

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Given the short runtime it’s hard to say too much about the plot without getting into spoilers but suffice to say this is a strange film that gets more surreal by the minute. Much like the Lynch films that this is clearly drawing influence from not everything you see will have an immediate and obvious explanation but there is a lot beneath the surface waiting to be brought to light by further analysis and discussion. That being said, the narrative never feels lost or nonsensical and Butler effectively uses his unique visual style to communicate a feeling of accepted reality giving way to a nightmarish world of body horror and insanity.

A stylistic example of this is the choice to have most of the film in black and white while idyllic memories of the world before play out jarringly in full color set to a background score of an almost unrecognizably discordant version of ‘Ode to Joy’. There are also a lot of impressive visual techniques at work here that create an uncanny and menacing effect. From simple sped up visuals that give an eerie and unnatural sense of movement to full on face melding that looks straight out of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there is a lot to love here visually.

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It’s not just visuals at play here though as the conversations between the cigarette chomping alpha male Gore and the young, gay, activist artist Keaton are very engaging and packed with commentary and subtext. The small cast all do an excellent job but Young especially shines with his portrayal of the patriarchal Gore whose bravado and subtle menace make for a mesmerizing on-screen presence.

This is a piece of art that is very much of this moment and really taps into the surreal horror that we are experiencing in the world at large right now. When we look back on the quarantine days it will be films like this and Host that will stand as an artistic representation of the anxieties of the time. Hopefully we won’t be watching them from a bunker.

 

4-5-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

Short Film Review: Duérmete Niño (2019) Duration 9 min 38 sec

DNShortifilm_PosterClocking in at under ten minutes total (only about seven of which is the actual film) Duérmete Niño (Rock-a-bye Baby) is an interesting little slice of horror. Inspired by a real, sleep deprived nightmare that director Freddy Chávez experienced after the birth of his daughter, this short captures the horror and anxiety of being a new parent in a very creative and unusual way.

In the film Piercey Dalton plays a single mother of twins (a terrifying enough prospect in and of itself) who begins to hear strange noises through the baby monitor that connects to her children’s room. Text in the beginning lets us know that the use of baby monitors can actually be traced back to 1937, an interesting fact that also properly justifies the 1940’s setting. The retro feel adds an extra layer of creepiness to the film as technology from that era was so inherently clunky and prone to dangerous malfunctions. It also allows for the inclusion of an animated faux commercial for the monitor that serves as a fun bonus during the credits.

When viewing this film it is clear that a lot of care and effort went into crafting not just the atmospheric setting but also the tense, well paced story that leads to a horrific and immensely satisfying conclusion. Dalton is essentially a one woman show and does an excellent job in conveying real pathos and emotion through a dialogue-free performance. The skillful use of special effects really seals the deal and makes this one short that is well worth your modest time investment. A must-see film that was inspired by nightmares and will certainly go on to inspire quite a few more.

4-5-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

Short Film Review: Lion (2017) Duration 11 min 49 sec

LionWhen working within the medium of short film it’s essential to communicate a lot of information in a small amount of time. Making the audience feel for the characters and telling a worthwhile story from beginning to end in just a few minutes is a very challenging task but Davide Melini’s Lion does all that and more within its concise runtime. Located entirely within the confines of an isolated family home somewhere in the snowy wilderness, Lion tells the story of an abused little boy who wishes his favorite animal could come and protect him from his own family.

Lion has a very professional feel to it, especially for a short, and has the rare distinction of actually using CGI properly. Not only is the CGI that is on display of excellent quality, but Melini also shows great restraint with a less-is-more approach that makes the scenes that contain it incredibly effective. The film is well edited, delightfully bloody, and centers around the very real and very horrible problem of violence against children. I do think that the character of the father could have been dialed back just a little to be even more effective but that’s a small note within this nearly perfect film that is well deserving of the numerous accolades it has already received.

4-5-stars-red

Trauma (2018)

__poster-TRAUMA-V3 (002)Incest! Necrophilia! Rape! Graphic murder! Have I got your attention yet? Because as a fan of Extreme Cinema the Chilean film Trauma certainly got mine. Some movies barely cross the line into Extreme Cinema territory, then there are others that grab the line by the fucking throat as they run past it. Trauma is certainly the latter, with certain scenes even echoing some of the most disturbing content from the legendary shocker A Serbian Film. Yet, at least at this point, this film isn’t talked about with anywhere near the same frequency. Hopefully that will change, because love it or hate it, Trauma is certainly a film that deserves to be watched and discussed.

Beginning in 1978 the film opens with text on the screen letting us know that the following is inspired by true events. It then immediately follows that up by gut-punching the audience with one of the most gruesome and disturbing opening scenes ever committed to film, letting the viewer know right off the bat exactly the kind of ride they are in for. The rest of the film takes place in 2011 and follows four young Chilean women who take a trip to a vacation house in a remote part of the country. From there it doesn’t take long before the events from the opening collide with their lives in an unbelievably brutal way.

When viewing Trauma, it is important to have an understanding of where it’s inspirationTRAUMA_Still_2018-001 comes from to truly appreciate what the film is trying to say. While the exact details of the story and the specific characters may not have actually occurred, the film is steeped in Chile’s modern history and very representative of a significant cultural issue that still impacts life today. In the real world, Chile’s democratically elected government was overthrown in 1973 in a brutal coup that resulted in Augusto Pinochet seizing power as the country’s iron-fisted dictator. During this period the country experienced an unfathomable amount of death and real world horror that left it irrevocably changed. This is important to know because at its core, this film is really about the country’s brutal and traumatic past still rearing it’s head in the modern world, and not simply another violent home invasion thriller.

While viewing Trauma, I found a lot of parallels between it and other examples of Extreme Cinema such as the aforementioned A Serbian Film and the gruesome Mexican horror film Atroz. All three are examples of films that draw inspiration from actual violence and trauma from their country’s past (as well as present) and use very graphic and explicit imagery to convey that collective pain. This is essential because it really gets at the heart of expressing genuine emotion through art. I thoroughly applaud these films (and many others) which are willing to make the audience profoundly uncomfortable in order to give them just a glimpse of the actual suffering brought on by real life atrocities.

TRAUMA_Still_2018-004Another similarity between these films is the fact that they are all very well made, which is also what allows them to be so effectively disturbing. Writer/director Lucio A. Rojas has done an incredible job creating a living, breathing world thanks to gorgeous cinematography, top-notch gore effects, and realistic, believable characters. Speaking of characters, while I do want to make special note of the villainous perfection that Daniel Antivilo brings to his psychopathic character Juan, everyone across the board does an absolutely incredible job.

There’s certainly a lot to appreciate here but my one significant complaint has to do with structure of the film itself. There were quite a few times (especially as the film progressed) when the continuation of the story relied too heavily on coincidence, chance, and poor decision making on the part of the characters. While this did help keep the plot exciting, some minor tweaks to the script could have ironed out these wrinkles and helped events unfold in a more organic, realistic manner. Still, these issues are what keep this from being a perfect film rather than the exceptionally great film that it is and shouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing this modern classic of Extreme Cinema.

4-5-stars-red

Bloody Ballet (2018)

unnamedBloody Ballet (aka Fantasma) certainly starts off promisingly enough. Snow falls heavily in the night sky as approaching police cars begin to illuminate the solitary figure of a young girl standing still, unmoved by the cold and completely unresponsive. The haunting score swells as the slow motion scene unfolds to reveal the bodies of her brutally murdered parents and I am officially hooked. Of course, it’s one thing to get the audience’s attention and quite another to actually hold it.

After the opening scene the movie flashes forward to follow a professional ballerina named Adriana (Kendra Carelli) who we soon learn is the girl from the beginning. Adriana’s initial excitement at being cast as the lead in the Nutcracker is quickly tempered by the fact that her fellow ballerinas startgetting murdered all around her and worst of all, the killer has the same eye-gouging m.o as whoever killed her parents.

Bloody Ballet was initially released in 2017 under the title Fantasma and the cynical part of me can’t help but notice that the new VOD re-release (under a more audience-friendly title) happens to coincide pretty closely with the theatrical release of the Suspiria remake. Of course, if there was ever a film to try and ride the coattails of into the spotlight that would be it because Bloody Ballet is more than just a little Giallo inspired.

As the masked, black-gloved killer slashes his way through synth-scored scenes drenched in red and blue light it’s clear that this film is wearing its Argento influence firmly on its sleeve. That’s actually not a bad thing in this case though because while it’s clearly not a high budget film, the production design (particularly in the more stylized scenes) is a highlight of the movie. The real star of the show however are the kills which are stylish, surprisingly brutal, and feature a significant amount of ocular trauma.

It’s always nice to see solid kills in a horror movie but in this case they are interspersed between a series of scenes featuring unconvincing acting and a plot that starts out wobbly and nose-dives into terrible toward the end of the film. The general concept is good but it doesn’t help that the character of the journalist feels completely superfluous and the supernatural elements of the story are awkwardly and clumsily shoehorned in. I’d be more willing to forgive these issues were they not coupled with the most egregious of filmmaking sins, the blatant and utterly gratuitous use of voice-over exposition.

Having the characters waste dialogue on multiple occasions explaining motivation and plot points that are already glaringly obvious is bad enough, but when the V.O kicks on at the end just to make sure it’s really, really clear I felt an overwhelming urge to throw my remote at the TV. Apparently, writer/director Brett Mullen hasn’t had the concept of “show, don’t tell” explained to him and I was somewhat surprised that he didn’t simply cut to a scene of himself reading the script out loud to the audience before climbing out of the TV to literally beat us over the head with it.

It’s really a shame that the quality visuals of this film have to be tainted by these ill-conceived and avoidable missteps, but this is definitely a case where an aggressive re-cut could greatly improve the end result. If Mullen simply removed all traces of V.O and trimmed off the scenes that didn’t move the central plot forwarded there would be a very decent film here, assuming there was enough footage left to still qualify as a feature.

2-5-stars-red

Luciferina (2018)

LuciferinaThe demonic possession sub-genre of horror is one that ebbs and flows in popular consciousness but never truly disappears. Perhaps this is because the idea of losing control to a powerful unseen force is something that can have the ability to instill a profound sense of dread within us, at least when it’s executed properly. Whether or not it factors in a heavy dose of religious anxiety, as they usually do, the general concept of demonic possession is a well that’s been dipped into many times and with the success of recent films like Hereditary, you can expect that trend to be on an upward swing. This means that for films on this topic to stand out, there needs to be more to their plot than a by-the-numbers rehashing of The Exorcist and today we’ll see if Luciferina has what it takes to stand out from the crowd.

The film centers around a young nun named Natalia (Sofía Del Tuffo) who must return home after a sudden “accident” leaves her mother dead and her father catatonic. Once home she is reunited with her troubled sister Angela (Malena Sánchez) who insists she join her and her friends on a trip to an isolated island where a shaman is going to perform an Ayahuasca based cleansing rite on them. Concerned about Angela’s safety in the presence of her abusive boyfriend, Natalia agrees to join them on the trip and, this being a horror film, it’s no surprise that things quickly take a turn for the worse.

At the heart of any film are the characters themselves and the fact that Luciferina really takes its time to effectively develop them into real people rather than stereotypes pays off, as it makes the story significantly more engaging. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that the plot could essentially be described as a group of young, attractive people being terrorized in an isolated location the woods because it feels worlds away from schlock like Dark Forest and the myriad of others more typically associated with that general plotline.

Of course developed characters are only one piece of the puzzle but thankfully Luciferina is also able to deliver superb, realistic performances and some great, bloody, practical effects. The story is also unconventional and interesting and boasts some genuinely chilling moments and unpredictable turns. Still, there are some points where the story line itself can feel a little muddled and a few scenes that would have benefited from a bit more clarity, but not enough to significantly detract from the overall experience. As long as films of this kind are bringing this level of quality to the sub-genre, then demonic possession will remain a horror staple for years to come.

3-5-stars-red

 

Short Film Review: Not in My Mouth (2018) Duration: 4 min 54 sec

poison 5 jpgWhen you have a total runtime of under five minutes you have to pack a lot of content in to create a memorable experience. Fortunately Not in My Mouth does just that and is able to do a lot with it’s micro story in just a few short minutes. Set against a delightfully discordant and aggressive score by White Gardenia and Geimhreadh, the film is directed by (and stars) Poison Rouge, director of the newest American Guinea Pig film, Sacrifice.

It’s hard to talk much about the short plot without giving it all away but let’s just say it involves a bath, some torture, and even packs in a nice reveal at the end. The rest you’ll have to see for yourself and see it you should because NiMM is brutal, sexy, and just a great way to spend a few minutes. The gore is well done and the reverse shots from inside the mouth of the torture victim are especially innovative and fun. Really delivers everything you could want in a what’s essentially a music video and a bloody good one at that.

4-stars-red

Beloved Beast (2018)

Beloved BeastWriter/director Jonathan Holbrook’s new film Beloved Beast is his latest example of what has come to be known as ‘Holbrookian Horror’ following his excellent 2016 feature Tall Men. The term is apt because much like that film, Beloved Beast is imbued with the director’s signature style, one that successfully channels the surreal Americana of David Lynch, while maintaining it’s own unique flavor. In both cases, the viewer gets the feeling of slipping into a cozy nightmare, one that you want to envelop you as you willingly slide into the depths of its subtly surreal world.

After young Nina (Sanae Loutsis) is involved in a car accident that claims the lives of her parents, she is put into the care of her estranged ne’er-do-well aunt, Erma (Joy Yaholkovsky). At the same time a dangerous escaped mental patient named Milton (played by Holbrook) is carving a bloody swath through Slough Town, where Nina lives. Through a series of unusual circumstances, Nina befriends Milton who (after donning his signature rabbit mask and wooden mallet) becomes known by his new identity, Harvey, Nina’s violent and unstable protector.

Beloved Beast is presented in the style of a dark, gruesome fairy tale and absolutely captures that aesthetic. The characters themselves are grounded in enough realism to make the viewer invested, while at the same time the world itself is awash in a subtle dreamlike quality. The story is very engaging and I was thoroughly invested in seeing what would happen next as it dove deeper into the dark world hidden beneath the veneer of small town civility. While the actual style is a bit more of a horror-drama hybrid that defies easy categorization, it certainly has enough blood and menace to keep horror fans satiated as it twists and turns through it’s unpredictable plot.

In this case it is very fortunate that the story is so interesting because with a runtime that’s just shy of three hours (!) it really puts the goodwill of the audience to the test. In fact, my only real criticism of the film is that there is just a bit too much of it, and it would greatly benefit from an aggressive recut. While I did enjoy every scene I watched, I would have preferred if several of them had been relegated to a ‘deleted scenes’ section on the Blu-ray because the cumulative effect drags down the pacing a bit. With about forty-five or so minutes trimmed off, this could become a sleeker and more horror focused film with a greater amount of tension and suspense.

Still, even in it’s current form, it is an incredibly interesting and delightfully twisted film that’s well worth your time. The myriad of strange and off-kilter characters make the journey a unique experience you won’t soon forget. Hell, I would love to see a spin-off that focuses entirely on The Belgian and the dark underworld that he inhabits. So, do yourself a favor and block off an evening for this grim fairy tale with a style all it’s own.

3-5-stars-red