Tag Archives: Psychological Thriller

300. THE TENANT (1976)

Le Locataire

“Many would attest that The Pianist is Polanski’s most personal work, given the obvious Holocaust subject matter, but look beneath the surface, and when the window curtains are drawn aside, Polanski’s The Tenant shines brightest as the work closest to his being.”–Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Melvyn Douglas, , Jo Van Fleet

PLOT: Meek clerk Trelkovsky rents an apartment in Paris that’s only available because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. He takes it upon himself to visit the woman, who has just awakened from a coma; while there, he meets Stella, a friend of the pre-deceased, with whom he embarks on an awkward romantic relationship. After the previous tenant passes Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where his odd neighbors are obsessed with keeping the grounds quiet, and finds himself slowly taking on the personality of the previous tenant.

Still from The Tenant (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Panic Movement member . Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, rewrote the main character to be a Polish immigrant rather than a Russian, and cast himself in the lead.
  • Because of its apartment setting, The Tenant is considered part of Polanski’s unofficial “apartment trilogy,” which also includes Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
  • The film was shot in English, but most of the French actors were dubbed over by American voice talent. (Polanski dubbed himself in French for that language’s version).
  • Lensed by Sven Nykvist, ‘s favorite cinematographer.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately (because as a looker he’s no Dustin Hoffman, or even ) it’s the sight of Polanski in drag, particularly as he admires himself in the mirror, hiking up his dress to reveal his garter and stockings, and concludes “I think I’m pregnant.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tooth in the wall; toilet mummy; high-bouncing head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take a novel by Surrealist writer Roland Topor and give the property to Roman Polanski to adapt and star in while he’s having an anxiety attack, sprinkle lightly with hallucinations, and you get The Tenant. It’s a little Kafka, a little Repulsion, a little Bergman, a little cross-dressing exhibition, and very weird.


Original trailer for The Tenant

COMMENTS: Trelkovsky—no first name—is an improbably quiet Continue reading 300. THE TENANT (1976)

298. PERFECT BLUE (1997)

Pafekuto buru

“When you are watching the film, you sometimes feel like losing yourself in whichever world you are watching, real or virtual. But after going back and forth between the real and the virtual world you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you know you belong. That in essence is the whole concept. It is rather hard to explain.”– on Perfect Blue

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Satoshi Kon

CAST: Voices of Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Masaaki Ōkura; Ruby Marlowe (English dub), Wendee Lee (English dub), Bob Maex (English dub)

PLOT: Japanese pop idol Mima Kirigoe decides to retire from her group CHAM in to become an actress and change her image. She joins a soap opera where the storyline mysteriously reflects her own experiences, endures a stalker who posts intimate details from her life in a fake online diary, and finds several of her co-workers murdered. These events launch her into a psychotic identity crisis.

Still from Perfect Blue (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • A protégé of , Perfect Blue was the first full-length film Satoshi Kon directed after working as a writer and layout animator.
  • Perfect Blue was based on the novel “Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis” by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. After a failed attempt at a live-action adaptation, Kon was approached to direct an animated version. The screenplay, however, didn’t interest Kon, who was eventually allowed to make any changes he wished as long as he kept three of the story’s elements: “idol”, “horror” and “stalker.” Kon said “the idea of a blurred border between the real world and imagination” was one of his contributions.
  • Sadly, Kon died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at only 46 years old, with only four feature films to his name.
  • One of Kon’s notable disciples, , wrote a eulogy for that was published in the retrospective “Satoshi Kon’s Animated Works.” Kon’s work has influenced Aronofsky, with the harshest calling Black Swan (2010) a “rip-off” of Perfect Blue. Rumors suggest that Aronofsky bought the rights for a live-action remake of Blue; once the plans didn’t work out, he used them instead to emulate the film’s “bathtub sequence” in Requiem for a Dream.
  • Another of Kon’s western admirers, , placed Perfect Blue among his fifty favorite animated movies. Additionally, it was ranked #97 in Time Out’s list of best animated films of all time and #25 on Total Film’s similar list.
  • Perfect Blue won the Best Asian Film award at the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival (tied with The Legend of Drunken Master) and the Best Animated Film at 1998’s Fantasporto festival.
  • A live action version, Perfect Blue: Yume Nara Samete, which was more closer to the novel, was finally released in 2002. It was quickly forgotten.
  • Rafael Moreira’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mima’s doppelganger jumping between lampposts provides the most striking of many memorable compositions.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lamppost-leaping phantasm; ghost emailing stalker; middle-aged idol

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though it takes its time, Perfect Blue is an effective psychodrama taking place in the mind of a despairing protagonist. By the time fiction, reality, fears and projections start to cross, and the psychosexual and horror elements enter the scene, you will know for sure that you’re watching an unconventional film, with an atmosphere likely to remind you of both a giallo and a ian psychic labyrinth.


UK trailer for Perfect Blue

COMMENTS: For the first half of its (short) running time, Perfect Continue reading 298. PERFECT BLUE (1997)

295. NO SMOKING (2007)

“Look up the word ‘bizarre’ in the dictionary. It doesn’t mean dark. Was Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind a dark film? It was bizarre. No dictionary in the world says bizarre means dark or vice versa. This is the problem with Indians; they come with fixed notions. What is the definition of dark? Tell me!”– An exasperated No Smoking writer/director Anrag Kashyap in an interview

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Anurag Kashyap

FEATURING: John Abraham, Ayesha Takia, Ranvir Shorey, Kiku Sharda, Paresh Rawal

PLOT: K, an arrogant businessman and highly-addicted chain smoker, agrees to enter a smoking-cessation program after his wife threatens to leave him. Going to the address his friend gave him, K is led through a labyrinth and forced to sign a contract which specifies that his loved ones will be harmed in increasingly severe ways every time he smokes a cigarette. Naturally, K relapses into smoking and is caught, eventually winding up trapped in a nightmare world.

Still from No Smoking (2007)

BACKGROUND:

  • The script (at least its early sections) bears some striking similarities to ‘s short story “Quitters, Inc.,” which was previously a segment of the 19865 anthology Cat’s Eye. The writer/director admits the story was an inspiration, although the credits do not mention King.
  • No Smoking was Anurag Kashyap’s third movie, but the first one released in India. His debut, Paanch, was never released outside of international film festivals due to state censorship (for violence and drug use); his second film, Black Friday, a true crime story, was delayed while a court case was pending and released after No Smoking. He later achieved mainstream success with 2009’s Dev D, an adaptation of a popular novel.
  • No Smoking was a colossal flop in its native India, where it baffled audiences with little exposure to psychological thrillers or surreal cinema.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The bathtub sitting alone on a snowy plain in Siberia, just in sight of what appears to be a Soviet-era gulag, which appears in dream sequences at the beginning and end of the movie.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hitler’s Indian buddy; Fosse’s cigarette cabaret; banana peel suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: No Smoking isn’t quite what would result if got a wild hair to direct a Bollywood film—but it’s a reasonable approximation. With it’s theme of bad men forced to forgo their vices against their will, a bit like a Hindi twist on A Clockwork Orange, as well, only with more elaborate musical numbers. With the tropes of Indian popular cinema colliding against a Western-style neo-surrealist narrative, No Smoking is neither fish nor fowl; it totally confounded Indian audiences used to simple stories with happy endings, and it will probably confound you, too.


Hindi trailer for No Smoking

COMMENTS:  Anurag Kashyap’s Advice for How to Stop Smoking in Continue reading 295. NO SMOKING (2007)

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 could 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 are even legends about ancient evils perpetrated by a degenerate 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 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 uncertain waffling than inspired 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 a 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 eerie events of just a minute ago 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 its 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)