Tag Archives: Psychological Thriller

LIST CANDIDATE: A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener

PLOT: A young executive goes to a remote spa planning to recover his company’s CEO, who appears to have gone insane and joined a wellness cult; circumstances lead him to become a patient as he investigates the place and learns its dark secrets.

Still from A Cure for Wellness (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s uneven to the point of frustration, A Cure for Wellness is going to be the weirdest Hollywood-backed movie of the year, making it one we need to consider. Gore Verbinski blew all the Hollywood goodwill he earned from directing the Pirates of the Caribbean series on this majestic vanity, so we are unlike to see anything this strange in cineplexes for a while.

COMMENTS: A Cure for Wellness is a spin on “Dracula”‘s basic plot. Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, the Jonathan Harker character, sent to fetch the Reinfield character (Harry Groener as CEO Pembroke) from the castle (now a sanitarium on a Swiss mountaintop) run by a mysterious aristocrat (now hospital director Volmer, a name that sounds like it could have come out of an unpublished Bram Stoker novella). The villagers living at the base of the mountain despise the residents of the castle—er, spa—-and there’s even legends about ancient degenerate evils perpetrated by an evil Baron on the site now occupied by the sanitarium. There’s a Mina Harker-ish love interest (Mia Goth’s waify Hannah, enticing  both Lockhart and Volmer). The bulk of the film has Lockhart imprisoned and convalescing, under friendly pretenses, in the demonic lair, investigating his surroundings and his host and making terrifying discoveries (Harker’s scenes inside the vampire’s castle were always the best part of “Dracula”). Water takes the place of blood as a symbol of the leeched life-force.

It’s a sturdy and well-tested horror structure, disguised just enough by the modern setting. Unfortunately, it does not completely pay off. Gore Verbinski has a chance to update the dusty old tale with new satirical furnishings: digs at the modern corporate structure and the wellness movement. The targets are set up, but not knocked down. Lockhart has a rich psychological backstory explaining how he became such a selfishly driven bastard, but while flashbacks suggest this history might hold a key to the story’s deeper meaning, it turns out to be either window dressing or a red herring. A Cure for Wellness can’t decide if it wants to be a straight horror story, a twisty psychological thriller, or a pure Surrealist dream movie. It doesn’t commit to any one of the these genres, and in the end it settles for what may be the least interesting possible compromise between the trio of possibilities. (A movie’s not knowing what it wants to be is no bar to weirdness, but in this case I suspect the rough edges are more a result of waffling than of artistic dementia).

When Lockhart first meets Pembroke, he has been tracking him through the spa’s labyrinthine steam room. He enters a room and finds that the exit has disappeared; impossibly, he’s now trapped inside four walls, filling up with steam. Turning in circles, he suddenly spies an doorway in one of the walls; a stag walks past it. He exits the chamber where he was trapped and finds the CEO sitting on a bench, sweating. Immediately, he forgets the previous minutes eerie events and starts interrogating his quarry about why he left the corporate boardroom. He doesn’t waste time asking why wild animals are roaming the halls; his experiences are immediately forgotten. That sort of thing suggests either sloppy screenwriting, or an “it’s all a dream” interpretation (a reading the script supports by repeatedly referring to a dreaming ballerina figurine crafted by Lockhart’s mom). If Wellness means to be a dream film like that more famous Surrealist institution down the road, The Hourglass Sanatorium, however, it shouldn’t take it’s silly conclusion so darn seriously.

It seems more likely that the script simply incorporates fuzzy possibilities of hallucinations into the story as a way to have its cake and eat it to. Fortunately, the cake is good–if, at two-and-a-half hours, there’s a little too much of it. Verbinski fixates on the eel as a horror image. They show up in the strangest places, and elicit delicious chills almost every time. The sanitarium is a winning setting, and slow camera pans through its off-white halls provide effective suspense. Also, I would advise not going to the dentist for at least a week after seeing this film. The whole thing may not add up to much, but the ian intensity of individual scenes is undeniable. I was totally enthralled by Wellness for the first hour or so, before it’s structure began to crumble into repetitive noodling. But it’s rare to see this much money thrown at the screen to evoke such elaborate weirdness—so I would urge readers to get out and see it on the big screen during its sure-to-be-short run.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…about as weird as modern Hollywood movies get… Simply put, nothing stranger is likely to make it to multiplexes any time soon. Savor the oddness.”–A.A.Dowd, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BRAIN DEAD (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Simon

FEATURING: , , , Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor

PLOT: At the request of a pushy corporation, a neurologist performs experimental surgery on a paranoid mathematician, but when he starts having hallucinations he questions whether he may be the patient rather than the doctor.

Still from Brain Dead (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s definitely within the weird genre, but held back by its budget and by subtext-free sensibilities that stay firmly nailed to the plot’s surface.

COMMENTS: Brain Dead is like what would result if directed an unproduced script. (In fact, Roger’s wife Julie produced this for their Concorde/New Horizons B-movie outfit, and it came from an unproduced script by “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont). That sounds like a recipe for fun, and to a large extent it is, although there is not as much senseless sex and violence as you might hope for.

Before it spins into hallucinatory tangents for its entire second half, the plot is relatively simple. Bill Pullman is Rex Martin, a brain scientist researching paranoia; old college buddy Bill Paxton is a corporate stooge for Eunice Corporation who needs a favor. Halsey (Bud Cort), a former Eunice employee and mathematical genius, killed his family and is now locked in a mental hospital believing himself to be an accountant for a mattress company, but he actually has crucial corporate secrets locked inside his schizophrenic brain. The deal: perform experimental brain surgery on him, or lose all your research funding. After a homeless man tries to seize a brain in a jar Dr. Martin is inexplicably taking home after work (“he’s got my brain!”), a car accident results in the paranoid schizophrenic’s grey matter being splattered on the asphalt (the one in the jar, not the one in the homeless guy). Soon after, Martin agrees to perform the procedure. It’s a success, but with a side effect: Martin is now seeing the white-coated, bloodstained figure Halsey claims killed his family.

After this setup, things get really wild as Martin loses grips on who he is. Is he really Halsey, under the delusion he’s Martin? Or has his mind been somehow tampered with by Eunice corporation so that he won’t be able to rat on them? Whatever the case, reality becomes plastic as Martin fights to keep his identity against the mounting evidence that he is not who he believes himself to be. He sees his wife murdered and is blamed for the killing; he’s incarcerated at the same hospital as Hawlsey and drugged; fleeing from orderlies, he ducks into a room inspired by Shock Corridor‘s nympho ward; he has an out-of-body experience and falls into Hawlsey’s brain (depicted as an ocean), and so on. There’s a sensible enough literal explanation at the end, for those who care for such things. The rest of us will wonder if David Lynch saw Brain Dead before deciding to cast Pullman in Lost Highway, and thought “I can do this better—and without the safety net.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Yep, it’s Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton in the very same (and rather weird) little sci-fi horror cheapie from producer Roger Corman and director Adam Simon… Notably better written than it is directed, Brain Dead isn’t any sort of hidden cult classic or B-movie masterpiece, but there’s something to be said for a twisted little science-fiction story that gets to the meat of the matter and doles out a generally tasty little meal.”–Scott Weinberg, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “renwad,” who called it “a strange tale about a brain specialist who’s work is being manipulated by the large company he works for, or is it ? Starring Bill Pulman and Bill Paxton, i think this is a must for the certified weird movie list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FEAR OF DARKNESS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Fitchett

FEATURING: Penelope Mitchell, Maeve Dermody, Aaron Pederson

PLOT: A young psychologist treats the suspect in a bizarre murder case and confronts a dark supernatural force in the girl’s unconscious.

Still from The Fear of Darkness (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird aspect of this horror film is the supernatural force of darkness. Otherwise this follows the naturalist form of the crime psychological thriller.

COMMENTS: If you believe in string theory, then in some parallel universe this film got all of its elements right and rose above the mediocre offering here. It probably even won an Oscar. First off, the alternate universe screenwriters would have researched the particulars of psychology rather than the Googled armchair-shrink efforts on display here—especially the vague experimental practices employed by Dr. Sarah Faithful to elicit trauma and screaming from murder suspect Skye Williams. Faithful’s Dr./cop friend defends these practices to unnerved observers with a dismissive “I trust her, she knows what she’s doing”.

Secondly, the producers would’ve hired a competent director who doesn’t pander to the hackneyed jump-scares that we’ve all seen a million times before, and who has a vision for the film beyond perfunctory soap opera camera set-ups and dark corners where special effects lurk. The kind of director who would have lifted the performances of seemingly credible actors, and who doesn’t make a genuine talent like Aaron Pederson look like he’s a year out of acting school. Again, screenwriters who deliver non-perfunctory dialogue would have assisted everyone in this department.

Through this combination of clever screenwriting and solid direction, tension would have been built and the audience would care about either Faithful or William’s fates, so that the M. Night Shyamalan-like twist ending of invented identity would hit home and register as deeply in the minds of the audience as the darkness is said to exist in Skye’s mind. Sadly we have no way of viewing that phenomenal parallel universe version of The Fear of Darkness, we only have the sad, wholly unremarkable version that exists in ours. Save yourself from the theoretical angst of “what could have been” and seek genuine scares in films like The Exorcist or The Haunting in Connecticut, films that succeed on their own terms rather than relying on the necessity of an infinite multiverse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as sinister and surreal concepts earn increasingly frequent mentions, reminding audiences that all is not as it appears, the film relishes its foreseeable twists as much as it does its formulaic conventions.”–Sarah Ward, ArtsHub (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VANILLA SKY (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Cameron Crowe

FEATURING: , , , Jason Lee,

PLOT: A spoiled playboy finds hope in a sudden romance, but an encounter with a jilted ex leaves him scarred and facing surreal situations beyond his comprehension.

Still from Vanilla Sky (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Vanilla Sky is effectively trippy, and by far the most ambitious visual experiment from a director best known for his way with words. But ultimately the film is weird only by Hollywood standards, and is too neat and tidy in wrapping up its mysteries.

COMMENTS: Cameron Crowe described his remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) as a “cover version”. It’s an appropriate metaphor, considering Crowe’s background as a rock journalist. In fact, Vanilla Sky hits all the same beats as its predecessor, but does so with considerably more panache. The A-list cast, liberal use of iconic New York City locations, and Crowe’s typical meticulously-crafted soundtrack (featuring Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and Radiohead, among others) all point to a production that goes way beyond its modest origins. And in some respects, the grander touches actually do enhance the central mystery of what is going on in the mind of Cruise’s immature media heir. Whereas the Spanish iteration is a straightforward thriller, Crowe plays more with the metaphysical. The stakes seem higher, the stage bigger.

Crowe has to be flashier, though, to hold off the reveal of the Shyamalan-esque twist at the heart of Vanilla Sky, one that might be all-too-obvious to an audience born on The Twilight Zone and raised on surprise reveals that make you question all that comes before. A re-watch of the film confirms that Crowe doesn’t cheat, but accomplishes the feat by distraction. Red herrings and visual allusions (many of which are revealed in a detailed wrap-up montage in the final act) all strive to get the audience looking in the wrong direction, and they are aided by some unusually baroque acting performances. Foremost among these are the gleefully unhinged Cameron Diaz, a dryly obtuse Noah Taylor, and , who brings to her cameo the full arsenal of weirdness that comes with being Tilda Swinton. Oddly, the only actor who seems out of place in the film is Penélope Cruz, the only carry-over from the source material. Cruz is beautiful but disengaged, possibly owing to her relative unfamiliarity with English at this point in her career, and she never displays any of the fire associated with later performances.

At the center of all of this, of course, is Tom Cruise. Present in nearly every scene, he uses his familiar livewire intensity to walk along the edge of madness. Interestingly, he also indulges in a strangely masochistic duel with his own image, at times trading his solid reputation as handsome leading man for both disfiguring facial makeup and a full-face mask obscuring his renowned visage entirely. (His interaction with a group of doctors proffering the mask results in probably the funniest line delivery of his career.) It’s a bold performance, but also quintessentially Cruise.

In the long run, the greatest contribution Vanilla Sky makes is as a central pillar in the ongoing meta-conversation that is Tom Cruise’s career. We conceive of the star as a man whose intense stare and tone betray an insanity barely being kept in check. His character here sits comfortably alongside other entries in the Cruise oeuvre, such as the righteous avenger of the Mission: Impossible movies, the clueless dilettante of Eyes Wide Shut, the angry manipulator from Magnolia, the determined martyr of Valkyrie, and the repeatedly-murdered hero of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s hard to say whether Cruise knows this and can’t resist tweaking the audience by exploiting what we already think we know about him, or if he simply can’t help steering toward projects that provide a glimpse of a troubled psyche. Either way, Vanilla Sky does make viewers feel like they’re getting a choice look into the soul of Hollywood’s brashest-yet-most-mysterious celebrity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Perhaps realizing that to begin reshuffling Amenabar’s complicated structure would bring down the whole deck of cards, Crowe scarcely touched it, changing only minor details, retaining important key dialogue and making his most significant contribution by moving the mood away from dark weirdness to one drenched in modern mores and rock ‘n’ roll. Plotwise, if you’ve seen ‘Open Your Eyes,’ you’ve seen ‘Vanilla Sky.'”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE SUICIDE THEORY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Dru Brown

FEATURING: Steve Mouzakis, Leon Cain

PLOT: A suicidal man hires a hitman to off him, but there’s a catch: the intended victim claims he’s under a curse and can’t be killed, and he miraculously survives every attempt on his life.

Still from The Suicide Theory (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Suicide Theory is a psychological thriller with an intriguing Twilight Zone-ish premise, but it’s not weird enough by a long shot.

COMMENTS: A hitman who can’t kill and a suicidal man who can’t die star in a psychological thriller that can’t… wait, we’ll cut that gibe short, because although The Suicide Theory doesn’t ultimately hit the mark it aims at, there is enough here to count as an interesting attempt. First, there is the macabre scenario, which offers opportunities for moments both chilling and blackly comic. Even more beneficial are the performances by the two leads, who forge a bond that is both sick and touching. Steve Mouzakis’ troubled assassin come off like a seedy, psychotic . Leon Cain’s role is less demonstrative, but the desperate resignation he shows as a suicidal immortal provides the appropriate counterpoint to Mouzakis’ fury.

That said, The Suicide Theory has a script whose ambitions exceed its ability to meet them. Although plot strands meet up at the end, they are more crammed into place than flowing together naturally. The resolution works, in one sense, but it doesn’t wholly satisfy, either on a literal level or a metaphorical level. Potential plot holes come to mind. If Steven were truly as ruthless as portrayed, it seems like there are at least a couple of more severe, less avoidable options for disposing of Percy that come to mind: decapitation, for example, or dissolving his body in acid. An arbitrary rule (Percy’s “theory”) requires Steven to spend time getting to know his victim; a useful contrivance from a dramatic standpoint, but it’s not successfully sold to us as a necessity. The story also arguably goes one twist to far at the end, and ultimately, the lattice of guilt the film proposes can’t support the weight of the premise. A great setup, and well-acted, but it runs out of steam at the end; it doesn’t slay, but call it a near-miss.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a contrived but weirdly compelling thriller…[l]arded with bizarre twists…”–Justin Chang, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “michael.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE OF LAST THINGS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Bartlett

FEATURING: Lindsey Haun, Blake Berris, Micah Nelson, RJ Mitte, Randy Schulman, Diane Dalton

PLOT: A housesitter, her criminal boyfriend, and her slow brother watch the house of a classical music critic and his depressed wife while the couple vacations in Italy; strange things happen.

Still from House of Last Things (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a competent psychological horror that provides some weird titillation, but doesn’t go far enough to become a masterpiece.

COMMENTS:The opening montage, featuring a golf game between a pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing representative of the 1950s leisure class and a soldier with a nosebleed, seems to have little to do with the rest of the story of House of Last Things. You will see other golf balls, along with apples, balloons, blood drops, and jesters, however, as the movie juggles a collection of recurring images which initially bewilder, but eventually fall into place. The three main characters, one invited and two squatting, exhibit an equally strange range of behavior as they settle into this ordinary suburban home. Jesse may be a jerk and a small-time crook, but what possesses him to suddenly abduct a small child from a parking lot on a whim? Unexplained occurrences contribute to the unhinged atmosphere. In Italy, a harlequin accosts the vacationing critic. Back home, an army of balloons attack a real estate agent. An apple has an unusual core. For most of the film, confusion reigns, although nearly everything is sorted out by the end.

As hot housesitter Kelly, Lindsey Haun shows more depth than her scream queen résumé might suggest; she’s likable despite her character’s almost inexplicably bad taste in men. As the primary object of her character flaw, Blake Berris ably plays the repulsively suave boyfriend as the kind of douchebag you would expect to see offed early in a slasher movie to cheers from the audience (this movie has other plans for him, however). While the two main leads are effective, the rest of the cast is mostly competent, although kid actor Micah Nelson is good enough considering his age and has a deliberate Danny Torrance quality, right down to his haircut and halting delivery. The script wisely avoids the need for elaborate special effects, building unease instead from confusing sequences and recurring symbols. The visual quality is professional, crisp video and simple camerawork, on the level of an accomplished TV movie. The original music, credited to Alessandro Ponti and Andrew Poole Todd, is above average; the quietly menacing themes add mysterious gravity to the somewhat commonplace imagery. Overall, House of Last Things is a budget mindbender that at times gets a little ambitious for its britches, but still rates as 90 minutes of relatively pleasant confusion and resolution. Among straight-to-streaming horrors, it’s a decent spur-of-the-moment pick for weird fans.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…charts its many twisting paths through dreamscapes and nightmares. Characters, at first, act in irrational and manic ways… the feverish deluge of mesmerizing images that make up House Of Last Things take us further and further down a rabbit hole we’re only too happy to lose ourselves in.”–Ben Umstead, Twitch (festival screening)

CAPSULE: 88 (2015)

DIRECTED BY:  April Mullen

FEATURING: Katharine Isabelle, , Tim Doiron,

PLOT: A woman wakes up in a diner with a gun in her handbag and no memory of how she got there; she accidentally shoots a waitress and goes on the run while experiencing a series of flashbacks that explain her personality change.

Still from 88

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: 88 is confusing and has some hallucinations, but it never gets really weird (or truly interesting).

COMMENTS: 88 shifts back and forth between two timelines, in each of which Katherine Isabelle has a separate personality—for easy reference, she’s generally a hot-blooded sociopath when she’s in red and a confused innocent in blue. There are also fractured flashback montages to even earlier times within each separate storyline, and a few hallucinations thrown in too (although these are obvious and generally don’t affect the plot). It’s tangled, but you never get the sense the knots are worth working out, a suspicion confirmed in the final reveal. Isabelle is formidably sexy and distinct in her dual roles as Gwen and Flamingo, but neither character is well-written or believable, and as nice as she is to look at we don’t care much what happens to either of her personalities. Christopher Lloyd makes for a surprisingly good heavy and seems to legitimately enjoy playing nasty, but there is only so much he can do as a cardboard villain. The script is pure B-movie contrivances, full of shootouts with magic bullets that mow down extras at will but swerve around principals, only wounding them at plot-specific moments when they’ll have a chance to wheeze out some final exposition with their dying breaths. If you told this story front to back, it wouldn’t be very good; chopping it up hides the narrative deficiencies for a while, but they catch up eventually.

Although the action scenes are ridiculous, director Mullen stages generally competent scenes, especially when doing music video-type stuff like filming montages of Isabelle dousing herself in milk and smoking a cigarette in the shower. Milk is a recurring image—Flamingo is obsessed with drinking a particular brand with a sexy spokesmodel whom she resembles—and the beverage is used to humorous effect at times. Mullen takes a turn in front of the camera in the movie’s worst scene, a side trip to visit a quirky gun runner that looks like it was ripped off from a bad ripoff. This digression feels out of place when the rest of the movie is like a bad ripoff: Memento with a hot chick. Together, Isabelle’s sex appeal and Lloyd’s professionalism—and the general trashy ambiance—keep it just watchable; it would make decent late night pay-cable filler.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie works best in theory rather than execution; it lacks the budget and wherewithal to push things to the envelope, settling instead for something that feels edgy and looks it from a distance but that’s actually rather pedestrian upon closer examination.”–Martin Liebman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

176. ENEMY (2013)

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”–epigraph to Enemy

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mélanie Laurent, 

PLOT: Adam, a professor of history, catches sight of a movie extra playing a bellhop who appears to be his exact double, and becomes obsessed with tracking him down. When they eventually meet they discover that Anthony, the actor, is Adam’s exact physical match, but has a nearly opposite personality, slick and scheming where Adam is passive and meek. Anthony, who has a rocky relationship with pregnant wife due to her accusations of infidelity, is drawn to Adam’s girlfriend; and though the professor wants to withdraw from their association, the actor’s machinations intertwine the two men’s lives.

Still from Enemy (2013)BACKGROUND:

  • Enemy is based on the novel “O Homem Duplicado” (literally “The Duplicated Man,” although the English translation was titled “The Double“) by the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago. The novel has a very different, though equally chilling, ending than the film.
  • Director Denis Villeneuve and star Jake Gyllenhaal made Enemy back-to-back with the higher-profile, reality-based thriller Prisoners (2013). Enemy was made first but released second.
  • Villeneuve said that the plan to do the adaptation with Gyllenhaal came after a night of drinking in which the actor told the director he wanted to do the movie but needed to “dream” about it first.
  • Villeneuve said he wanted to make Enemy because he wanted to do something “free” in light of his anxieties over working under the constraints he feared would be imposed by a Hollywood studio on the upcoming Prisoners.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Enemy is one of a few movies whose most unforgettable image can’t be mentioned without entering the territory where spoilers dwell. Fortunately, there are plenty of runner-ups to chose from. With arachnid imagery dominating the hallucinatory scenes, it’s easy to pick the picture of a giant, spindly-legged spider looming over the smoggy streets of Toronto as the film’s iconic image. The movie’s TIFF poster took that precise route.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As tightly controlled as a dictatorship and as enigmatic as a tarantula on a gold serving platter, the inscrutable Enemy evokes a panicky existential dread in the tradition of . The final scene will provoke debate for as long as people watch weird movies.


Original trailer for Enemy

COMMENTS: Enemy begins with the epigram “chaos is order yet undeciphered,” and I admit to having yet to decipher the twisty web of chaos the Continue reading 176. ENEMY (2013)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENEMY (2013)

Enemy has been officially promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. This initial review is left here for archival purposes. Please read the official Certified Weird entry and post any comments there.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, Mélanie Laurent, 

PLOT: A history professor becomes obsessed with tracking down a man who appears to be his exact double.

Still from Enemy (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We have an unofficial rule that we won’t add a movie to the List until it’s come out on DVD, so we can study its nuances closely. You shouldn’t wait that long, however. If you love cinematic weirdness, you owe it to yourself to get out to the theater and catch Enemy now.

COMMENTS: Enemy begins with the epigram “chaos is order yet undeciphered…,” and I admit to having yet to decipher the twisty web of chaos the movie spins. Beginning with a fractured montage depicting one of those impossibly elegant and depraved invitation-only live sex shows that only exist in the movies, Enemy emerges from its abstract opening to focus on Adam, a melancholy history professor currently lecturing on the methods dictatorships use to keep their citizens in the dark about how they are being controlled. Adam’s life consists of little more than work and joyless sex with his girlfriend until one day, almost on a whim, he watches a movie and catches a glimpse of an extra who looks exactly like him. While most of us would find such a discovery “neat” and invite our friends over to the screen confirm the resemblance, Adam’s reaction is different: immediate uncomprehending horror, followed by an obsessive need to track his double down. Even the way we are shown Adam’s discovery is unnatural; we watch as what appears to be a lighthearted costume drama playing out on his laptop screen, except that there is no sound, only the ominous strings of the film’s thick (and excellent) neoclassical score. Villeneuve’s direction pumps out a subtle, constant stream of anxiety: the characters’ overly alarmed reactions to everyday events, throwaway lines of dialogue suggesting layers of unexplored subtexts, the cold and lonely modern apartments both Adam and his doppelganger glide through like ghosts, the jaundiced pallor of the movie’s interiors. But it’s not all endless cinemaitc restraint, as some startling arachnid imagery and a shot of an upside-down woman with an insect head attest. Altering his bearing to portray either the sensitive Adam or the brash Anthony, Gyllenhaal gives the best performance alongside himself since Nic Cage in Adaptation. From a technical standpoint his acting is sure to impress even causality snobs who scoff at Enemy‘s obscure logic. I had an issue with the ending—not with its content, but with its abruptness—but the movie’s unexpected final shot will provide enough speculative tinder to fuel a small industry of interpreters for years. Villeneuve shows an ability to evoke a panicky existential dread that rivals and fellow Canadian , while Enemy‘s concern with the frailty of identity places it somewhere on the venerable Persona spectrum.

After helming the Certified Weird Maelstrom (a drama narrated by a fish) and the grotesque gluttony short Next Floor, Denis Villeneuve’s career seemed headed for a more conventional turn after he scored more populist successes with the drama Incendies (2010) and the thriller Prisoners (2013). We’re happy to see he retains his urge toward the strange. And while Isabella Rossellini’s imprimatur always adds weird credibility to any film she appears in, we’re almost as thrilled by Sarah Gadon’s presence. Her preference for roles in oddball movies continues to impress—if she keeps this string up, she could become the next generation’s Isabella.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gyllenhaal is impressive in a weirdly original thriller from Villeneuve that trips over its many legs at the finish.”–Jeff Baker, The Oregonian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Blair Erickson

FEATURING: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian

PLOT: An investigative journalist searches for a friend who disappeared after taking an experimental hallucinogenic drug.

Still from The Banshee Chapter (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has the a solid collection of paranoid/paranormal/psychedelic elements, but it doesn’t push them far enough, ending up as little more than Jacob’s Ladder lite.

COMMENTS: With a plot hinging on the CIA’s MKUltra mind control experiments and bits of fringe lore about the endogenous hallucinogen DMT, “numbers stations,” and references thrown in for seasoning, The Banshee Chapter might have been scripted by paranoid paranormal AM radio host Art Bell. The movie’s style is as all-over-the-place as the conspiratorial plot; journalist Anne Roland (Winter) begins narrating the story as a documentary, and the movie incorporates (sometimes out-of-context) actual newsreels together with scripted “found footage” scenes of James Hirsch (McMilian) experimenting with the rare drug at the center of the story. As the tale progresses the documentary conceit is ditched in favor of a typical third-person omniscient view of proceedings (although the shaky handheld camera continues to remind us of the movie’s supposed vérité origins). This lack of consistency isn’t a huge issue; if you like the movie, you might think that it contributes to its ragtag, homemade charm. The bigger problem is that, despite having so much going on, Banshee Chapter frequently lapses in talkiness and confusion. Without much of a budget for effects or locations, plot points are often given through speculative dialogue. And even when things happen, it’s not always made clear why Anne is following up certain clues: I couldn’t figure out exactly what led her to follow up on the shortwave radio broadcasts, for example, or what her plan was once she finally tracked down a source of the drug. Further, the horror of the story comes more from sudden screams and pale faces popping into frame than creeping dread and paranoia: the main effect of the experimental drug seems to be to induce jump scares, and the movie’s climax is a sprint through a spookhouse. The one really good idea that the screenplay implements is the inclusion of -inspired novelist Thomas Blackburn (Levine) as a key character. Levine plays Thompson/Blackburn with laid-back, boozy seediness, as opposed to the amped-up comic caricatures and adopted in portraying the cult novelist. It’s a lot of fun to see this character out of his comfort zone, tromping through the dark desert in an “X-Files” scenario. If you have a passion either for paranormal culture or for anything Thompson-related, Banshee Chapter may be worthwhile; for those without a particular interest in these subject, however, it’s not a wild enough ride to justify buying a ticket.

Banshee Chapter is the first feature from director/co-writer Blair Erickson. Alt-Spock Zachary Quinto counts among the film’s numerous producers. After a small but critically successful festival run, the film was released on VOD in December of 2013, and will see a limited theatrical release in January 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It certainly works as a gonzo exposé of some of the twentieth century’s madder moments – but perhaps more importantly, this psychotropic remapping of history never forgets to be proper jump-out-of-your-seat scary.”–Anton Bitel, Grolsch Film Works