A family goes to a beach to spread the ashes of their late, chain-smoking grandfather. Once the gravity of their loss seeps in, they must find closure in their own surreal way.
DIRECTED BY: Ari Aster
FEATURING: , Milly Shapiro,
PLOT: Disturbing events unfold after the death of a family matriarch, culminating in a bizarrely violent pagan ritual infused with supernatural occurrences.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hereditary equals or surpasses already Certified Weird films The Wicker Man, Repulsion, and Don’t Look Now with creepy cult imagery, tightly wound drama, and an effective and disturbing finale. The heavily-researched occult details makes the material surrounding guilt and loss linger. The exceptional effectiveness of Hereditary‘s unique brand of personal tragedy transformed into cult devilry means it should be considered for the list.
COMMENTS: Like a coffin descending into a fresh grave, Hereditary sinks into a subconscious nightmare that feels extremely real. The supernatural mystery at the core of the story (derived from a host of influences) is amplified by raw emotions surrounding bereavement and guilt. Hereditary doesn’t hold back when the catharsis comes. While Colin Stetson’s score highlights the creepy occult details to an oppressive effect, the characters mechanize into functional roles of which they are unaware. Represented in miniature models built by lead character Annie (Toni Collette), they ultimately fall prey to a bizarre set of spiritual encounters which, given the slow drip of small clues along the way, makes for an affecting, unforgettable experience.
The anxious and paranoid plot structure is highlighted by a web of sensory mechanics, like clicks and shimmers. It’s not surprising that theatergoers already engage in “clucking” during viewings, embracing the sensory details of the plot in real time. Much like‘s Repulsion, which is also laden with sensory triggers and sharp invasions, Hereditary is often dour and unpleasant; but this allows more fun to be had with its exciting plot development focusing on the invocation of an ancient pagan lord. Hereditary doesn’t merely bludgeon the audience with pop-psychology myths; it amplifies its plot revelations with painstakingly researched detail and pitch-perfect acting. The haunting images, abrupt sounds, and Toni Collette’s riveting acting combine with the sensory flourishes to create a seamless whole with an unusually oppressive mood.
The audience shares Annie’s emotions. Her retreat and avoidance of pain explodes into violent death and disorientation, kick-started in an early scenes when Annie asks her husband, “Should I be sadder?” after her mother’s funeral. Her focus on crafting miniature replicas grounds and distracts her, but perhaps only furthers her destructive tendencies.
The mechanics of the wider plot make the atmosphere even more compelling. Words in a bizarre language—“Satony,” “Zazam,” “Liftoach Pandemonium”—scribbled onto a bedroom wall neatly divide the narrative. Meant as invocations, the words (Aster did some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)
DIRECTED BY: Liam Gavin
FEATURING: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker
PLOT: Sophia enlists the aid of occultist Joseph to perform a ritual to contact her dead son; isolated in a house in Wales, the result could end up costing them both their lives and souls.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a very good story involving magick (used and abused), shifting power dynamics, and ultimately grief and forgiveness. But despite the presence of the occult, the handling doesn’t qualify as “weird.”
COMMENTS: A Dark Song is a small masterpiece of that sub-genre referred to as “folk horror.” There are no big set pieces or jump scares to satisfy the casual horror film viewer, but rather the slow, creeping dread found in smaller films like those of , Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, or British television works such as the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations. Song is a chamber piece with two main characters in an enclosed space, and its main asset is atmosphere.
It’s also notable in grounding its mystical elements into a mundane reality. Magick may indeed exist, but it’s not easy. The ritualism involved in their endeavor is stringent, very disciplined, and time-consuming… it’s work. Therefore when certain events start happening later in the film, it tilts the ambiguity that threads though the first part into definite occult territory.
Part of that ambiguity is in the relationship of Sophia and Joseph—which never descends into a romantic one, to the film’s credit—but does bring up observations on power and consent. One could consider their relationship as student and teacher (or adept and mentor), but an undercurrent suggests that Joseph may not be what he seems, and could just be taking advantage of Sophia. The story doesn’t degenerate into a simple battle of the sexes scenario due to the performances of the actors. Both characters aren’t entirely likeable, but Sophia is more developed. Joseph remains somewhat of a cipher: although he does have an authoritative weight, his motives remain unclear. He has the knowledge and also the arrogance of those who like to lord it over those without it, and he doesn’t hold himself to the standard that he demands from Sophia, which ends up determining his fate.
Sophia’s story—wanting to communicate with her dead son—is the driving force of the film. Her grief has brought her to this extreme, and she is quite willing to go further, which leads her to the point of choosing either salvation or damnation in the film’s final act.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Gavin creates psychological terror that exploits our anxieties with symbolism, nuance and innuendo. That purposeful ambiguity involves the viewer more intimately and increases the power of the story.”–Colin Covert, The Minneapolis Star Tribune (contemporaneous)
DIRECTED BY: David Lowery
FEATURING: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
PLOT: A young musician dies and comes back as a ghost, moving back to his house and silently observing his wife’s grief.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A melancholy meditation on man’s ephermerality, A Ghost Story‘s weirdness goes beyond its guy-in-a-sheet gimmick, but not far enough beyond to reach the realms of one of the all-time weirdest.
COMMENTS: Though modest in countenance, A Ghost Story is filled with formal audacity underneath its blank exterior. It’s got an Academy-Award winning actor who’s silent and hidden under a sheet for 90% of his performance; a constricted 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, to evoke the feeling of a picture frame; and shots that go on for so long that would be tapping his finger on his armrest impatiently. (Not really, but you get the idea). And yet, what easily might have become a purgatorial ordeal emerges as a moving and thought-provoking experiment.
The plot is so simple it’s almost a wisp. The unnamed main character dies, wakes up in the morgue in a sheet, returns to the house where he and his wife lived, and watches her as she silently grieves (and grief-eats a pie). This sounds dull, and if the movie stayed in this rut, it would be. But, although Affleck doesn’t speak and barely moves, doing little more than turning his head or shrugging his shoulders, A Ghost Story finds ways to create narrative dynamism. There is a flashback or two, and a seemingly minor incident from the pre-mortem opening is fleshed out over the length of the movie. Affleck’s ghost engages in a bit of minor poltergeistism when distressed. In one of the film’s most poignant bits, which would almost be considered a running gag if it weren’t so sad, Affleck’s ghost spies another bedsheeted figure in the house next door, and they communicate in the terse language of the dead (translated to us in subtitles). The ghost experiences time differently than we do, and we gradually become accustomed to the rhythm of his eternal observation as time moves on without him. A new tenant in his house (musician) gives a speech about the vanity of human existence. And the ghost persists, chained to the plot of land where his house stands and inevitably once stood, waiting for a release from his sentence. The movie plays with the idea of eternity in a philosophical sense that may be new to audiences, but which makes it ripe for post-viewing discussion.
A Ghost Story is definitely not a horror movie (unless you consider it an extremely subtle existential horror). It definitely is a philosophical/poetic drama about the psychology of grief and the nature of time, and it carries an implicit message about appreciating the now. It is, dare I say, haunting—at least, if you’re the type of attuned spiritualist who can see the ghosts around us.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Interrupted by death, a couple’s love finds a weird way forward in this slice of supernatural risk-taking… Lowery is spending the capital he’s earned on big gigs like Pete’s Dragon to make something bizarre and experimental, and as his film starts flitting through the weeks in unannounced leaps, you’ll come to appreciate his gamble.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)
DIRECTED BY: Christopher Di Nunzio
FEATURING: David Graziano, Jami Tennille, Carlyne Fournier, Irina Peligrad
PLOT: Frank, an aging widower still mourning the loss of his wife, follows a mysterious woman, ignoring the warnings of fortune tellers and his own intuition.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It lacks extremeness in the weird department, with only some subtle spiritual themes to give the suspense an extra kick.
COMMENTS: Delusion is no ordinary suspense thriller; it’s got its fair share of dreamlike moments. The boldest aspects of its weirdness don’t come directly from the exploration of the supernatural, but rather from the quiet, introspective moments in between them. The contrast between light and dark, good and evil, is aggressive, and this effect gets multiplied up until the climax. Bouncing from polite conversations over the billiards table to moments of terror and shock, Delusion earns some weird-stripes for its tonal bipolarity. It fails to stretch its ideas of loyalty, loss, and redemption enough to exasperate and confound the mind, though. Instead, it snuggles warmly up into the mystery-thriller blanket, and then ends abruptly with some glorious goodies for weird movie lovers to chew on, but not swallow.
Playing wait-and-bait, everything starts off with silky politeness. Reflective death-related dialogue configures itself around lacquered settings in nature, and the sky is frequently grey, silvery and full of mourning. Frank (everyone’s got a depressed Uncle Frank, even McCauley Culkin from Home Alone) and his nephew Tommy drink brews and shoot pool, but Frank spends even more time standing alone next to swaying trees and thinking about his lost wife, Isabella. This period of reflection services the contrasting emotions at the film’s core by offering a portrait of a character’s earnest longing for closure. Frank is a lonely man. It raises the question: how could he resist the temptations of a succubus?
Before the succubus strikes, there comes a fortune teller who tries to convince Frank to think with the head on his shoulders, but that pesky human malady called grief gets in the way and he ignores her. Things get juicy when the lights go dim and Frank’s fortune is told. Amusing vibes come along with the “haunted” feel. There’s even a bit of James Wan-style pop-up house horror to keep the tension ratcheted up. Frank’s hallucinations get hairier; blood leaks out of sewer pipes, and strange apparitions follow him at home and abroad (some with face-paint straight from aflick).
Most fascinating are the peculiarly natural performances that weave through the staunch atmosphere. The actors have a smooth, organic style to their performances that give the movie a low-key vibe of sinister murmurs while it portrays internal rumination. The silences highlight Frank’s internal thoughts, and the white noise of nature (chirping birds, rustling leaves) offers a chance to process the feeling of aloneness that comes with being lost and vulnerable among soul-corrupting threats. Soothing as the warm pleasures of infatuation are, they aren’t enough to save Frank from himself.
Frank deals with, but does not resist, the temptation of the devil, who urges him to “trust your gut, not your head.” Life, he explains, is just moments and experiences, chaos. It’s hard to believe otherwise after watching Frank’s drastic transformation from a caring, reflective, sentimental man into an angry, womanizing, just-got-laid horndog. Sex can turn a man’s life completely around, and Frank is no exception; post-coitus, he does Baywatch-style beach runs and hits the bar for rounds with the boys. The dark side of his sexually-motivated metamorphosis comes during his reproachful trash talking at the end, which raises the question of whether he had a chance for redemption in the first place. There is one bizarrely violent moment in this movie, at the very end, but its cathartic edge can’t be found elsewhere in the picture. Delusion shows us that some men are doomed to die at the hands of what they desire, and the devil is always there to make the offer.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…it’s rather labyrinthine in character and takes all the time in the world to let the story unfold while intentionally blurring the line between this world and the next, the lead character’s warped perception and his genuine nightmares – and it plays with all these elements in a way probably most reminiscent of David Lynch without aping his style.”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]search My Trash (contemporaneous)
DIRECTED BY: Francesca Gregorini
FEATURING: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel
PLOT: A troubled teenage girl becomes obsessed with the single mom who moves in next door.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This metaphorical psychodrama is dreamy, but not quite dreamy enough to qualify as “weird.”
COMMENTS: Although it flirts with head games, The Truth About Emanuel is steadfastly a drama and not a psychological thriller; it does contains a twist, however, that makes it hard to discuss the plot without giving away an intended surprise. Suffice it to say that the twist arrives early, isn’t too terribly difficult to guess, and is milked almost entirely for its surface metaphor rather than as a source of suspense. Emanuel (Scodelario) is a smart but sullen teen girl, a female Holden Caulfield with a morbid streak. She has her name (spelled in the masculine form) tattooed on her arm, and nothing but sarcastic comments for her desperate-to-connect stepmother and a nerdy coworker. Emanuel feels existential survivor’s guilt due to the fact that her mother died giving birth to her. Enter new neighbor Linda (Biel), a young mother in constant need of babysitting services, with whom Emanuel immediately connects (inspiring vicarious maternal jealousy and lesbian panic in her stepmom). The two women’s relationship quickly takes a turn for the symbiotically, and symbolically, unhealthy. Despite the fact that the film’s big bombshell is dropped at the end of the first act, the movie as a whole feels very slow-developing. It can also be heavy-handed, moving its characters around stiffly so that they hit their psychological marks on cue. On the plus side, the acting and general technical quality of the film is good. Kaya Scodelario has a fine presence (the camera loves her big, haunted blue eyes), and although her role as a morose teen doesn’t require her to stretch her talents too much, I expect to see more of her in coming years. Biel is natural as always, putting in another of her effortlessly classy performances that make me wonder if maybe she shouldn’t be a bigger star than she is. The two women share good chemistry in this very gynocentric film. Even aside from the thematic obsession with motherhood and the mother/daughter relationship, Emanuel is very much the aggressor and dominant partner in her budding romance with her Elijah-Wood-as-Frodo-looking boyfriend; this movie, in fact, would fail the reverse Bechdel test. Despite some slightly distracting budget CGI, a lovingly constructed dream sequence works as an emotional and symbolic centerpiece. Along with one glancing shot that introduces some subjective ambiguity into the entire scenario, that dream gives the film just a touch of weirdness, although there’s not much here that will stretch the aesthetic boundaries of anyone who’s seen an independent film or two in their times. The Truth About Emanuel isn’t subtle in its symbolism, but it is an earnest and a generally effective exploration of maternal longing, brainier and more poetic than the average chick flick.
The Truth About Emanuel played Sundance in 2013 under the more intriguing title Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. The revised, generic title may sound less weird, but it is arguably more misleading than the Truth About Fishes. It’s being released on video-on-demand contemporaneously with its limited theatrical release, which has now become the official distribution strategy for independent films.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos
PLOT: A group of four people act as stand-ins for deceased loved ones to help families with the grieving process.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alps feels like a faint echo of director Lanthimos‘ surprise (and Certified Weird) hit debut, Dogtooth. It has weaknesses typical of a sophomore effort: stylistically, it doesn’t distinguish itself from its predecessor, and conceptually it seems second tier, like an idea that was passed over and saved for later.
COMMENTS: There is a plot to Alps, but it’s secondary. This movie is more of a mood. The mood is muted anguish. If you were to watch Alps without reading the one-sentence synopsis, you would go through the early stages of the film baffled by the odd and strained relationships of the characters to each other; even armed with knowledge of the premise, there are moments in the story when you will question what’s “reality” and what’s an act. The slow-developing narrative concerns people who serve as emotional prostitutes for the bereaved, and (predictably) the strange and intense job (or hobby, since the actors’ motivations are never made clear) eventually takes a psychic toll on the chief protagonist. The story doesn’t develop in a particularly interesting way, however; Lanthimos’ interest is more in creating an alienated mise-en-scene than in telling a story about the emotional toll of being a stand-in for deceased loved ones. Alps features flat-affect characters who respond to tragedy with mundane conversation about coffee mugs and lamp taxonomies, awkward hugs and gawky lovemaking, framing that’s deliberately off, with chopped off heads and characters speaking from off-screen, out of focus backgrounds, bilious lighting, and other unnerving effects that, piled on top of each other one after another, create a growing sense of existential nausea. Almost all conversations are clipped and nearly emotionless, but often interrupted by odd behavior—as when the nurse tries to play tennis with a nearly comatose patient or the gymnast suddenly strips topless and stretches her leg above her head while talking to her coach. Aggeliki Papoulia alone of the cast allowed to show any real emotion, and then only pain and desperate despair at the very end. Every character has a perpetual look of buried sadness, and the surrogate loved ones, who perform their substitutions like amateur robots, can hardly supply any comfort to the bereaved when they have no warmth or passion in their own lives. Alps presents us with a depressing, autistic world, where the possibility of a human connection is a bitter joke. But… how does all this social anomie among the living connect back to the movie’s ostensible theme of grief? Is this movie about the way the living remember the dead, or is it about the living dead? In Dogtooth, the isolated children had a reason for acting relentlessly odd, and that movie had a metaphorical conceit that gave it form. Alps radiates a shapeless pessimism that is especially nasty because it has no cause or focus. Where Dogtooth was like a smack in the molar with a brick, Alps is like a throbbing toothache that won’t go away.
If you want to know what it’s like to feel suicidal in Eastern Europe today, try watching a triple feature of the New Weird Greek canon: start with Dogtooth, follow up with Attenberg (starring Labed as an alienated, asexual woman with a dying dad), and use this one as the final nail in the coffin.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: