Tag Archives: Psychological

CAPSULE: BLIND BEAST (1969)

Môjû; AKA Warehouse

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Yasuzô Masumura

FEATURING: Eiji Funakoshi, Mako Midori, Noriko Sengoku

PLOT: A blind sculptor kidnaps a model and imprisons her in his studio.

Still from Blind Beast (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blind Beast scores two points in its weird ledger: one for the set design (which is almost always described as esque), and another for its irrationally sadomasochistic third act. At its core, however, it’s an odd and engaging “pinku” (as Japanese softcore erotic films of the 1960s were dubbed) that’s reminiscent of 1965’s The Collector (although the scenario was adapted loosely from a story). The sight of the sightless sculptor’s bizarro studio would have gotten Blind Beast shortlisted had we reviewed it earlier, but given the limited available slots, we see Beast as close, but not quite worthy of being named one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Blind Beast quickly gets in gear after the abduction, which is handled in an absurdly economical ten minutes. The blind antihero selects his model victim by feeling up a sculpture of her, then steals into her apartment posing as a masseur. With the help of his trusty sighted assistant, who also happens to be his mother, he soon has beautiful young Aki imprisoned inside his remote warehouse studio, and this is where the “fun” begins. The blind sculptor’s studio utilizes a fetishized geometry, with high-relief assemblies of (female) body parts lining each of the eight walls, enclosing two giant, pliant sculptures of prone nude women (one on her stomach, one on her back). The blind, stumbling hunter and his victim chase each through this corporeal funhouse; he clutches a giant nipple as he bargains for her compliance. Later, they will make love—of their strange sort—while rolling about on the humungous feminine torsos. You probably have never seen that before.

The middle part of the film involves Aki’s machinations as she tries to escape, until a near-miss attempt permanently costs her her freedom and sets the bizarre third act into motion. These scenes work well as a standard woman-in-peril thriller. When she fails to sneak past the blind man fail thanks to the interference of his maternal assistant, Aki switches to a psychological ploy. She pretends to fall in love with her captor and plays son and mother against each other. Of course, were she to escape so easily, the movie would end prematurely; and the movie has a better—or worse—fate in store for Aki.

The blind man’s studio is as sick a materialization of a male libido as could be imagined. His love/hate relationship with his mother suggests an Oedipal complex. Still, the psychology here is only deep by the standards of pink movies. The sadomasochistic finale, a sudden and wrenching departure from first two-thirds of the movie, is foreshadowed from the film’s earliest moments, but the movie provides no real insights into the pathology. Given the absurd heights of agonizing ecstasy its characters travel to, how could it?  Their obsessions are perverse, and the tale depicts them poetically without trying to explain them. Blind Beast is surprisingly coy with its nudity, most of which is only seen in still photographs from the opening art exhibition. Mako Midori’s breasts are skillfully hidden throughout the film, and a corner of a nipple is a rare and tantalizing sight. This teasing modesty gives the erotic visuals even more impact, while serving the theme of frustrated voyeurism. Blind Beast would be nearly impossible to distribute today, through licit channels, due to its outdated attitude to consent. Seduction is important to the plot, but Aki willingly (and eagerly) surrenders only after an hour of brutal coercion. And yet, Blind Beast has a sort of innocence about it, largely due to the unreal nature of its psychodrama: a fantasy of total abandon to physical sensation far beyond any rational limits, played out in a subterranean lair of mountainous breasts, dismembered legs, and eyeballs leering from the walls. It’s a space we would never want to visit, but one we can’t look away from.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre and claustrophobic…  a masterpiece of mod 1960s art design… Completely freaky and utterly engrossing.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “MystMoonstruck” and seconded by “Dreamer.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A DARK SONG (2016)

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)

 

CAPSULE: MALADY (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Jack James

FEATURING: Roxy Bugler, Kemal Yildirim, Jill Connick

PLOT: A grieving daughter buries her sorrow in a new relationship, but when her boyfriend’s mother summons him home, she confronts a malevolent force.

Still from Malady (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Malady is a brutal, unforgiving look at both the rawness of grief and the depth of cruelty. The film explores these topics with shocking bluntness. However, the weirdness lies mostly in the telling, which deliberately challenges the audience in order to evoke the characters’ feelings.

COMMENTS: If Malady were a typical horror film, the moment when Holly (Bulger) takes her first step toward calamity would be a scene of heightened drama, possibly with foreboding music or a shock jump. But here, it’s the grating buzz of a vibrating cell phone. Banal as it seems, her new boyfriend greets the signal with dread. However, like the warning of a crotchety old man about the old cabin up the trail, Holly pushes the red flag aside, and there the trouble truly begins.

In that respect, Malady is a typical horror film, hitting all the beats of the tale of a girl who wanders into the woods only to find a monster lurking within. But writer-director James grafts these tropes onto an atypical examination of the debilitating impact of grief, so what would normally be attributable to inexplicable bubbleheadedness can here be ascribed to the devastating power of loss.

Malady is an uncompromisingly grim motion picture; it starts with the death of Holly’s mother, ensuring that our protagonist begins the tale wounded and psychically frayed. “Find love” is her mum’s final missive, but too devastated to engage with the world, she jumps into a relationship with Matthew (Yildirim), an emotional compatriot. Together, they hide away from the world, having joyless, desperate sex, managing the barest of conversation, and dreading the moment when they will have to re-connect to society. But the more time they spend together, the more Holly begins to feel like this could be the love she seeks. She starts  fumbling about looking for a trace of normal, which leads inexorably to that fateful phone call.

So sparse is the dialogue in Malady that it could barely fill out a long poem. (It’s roughly ten minutes before our heroine utters a word). In the film’s second half, the bulk of that dialogue is delivered by Matthew’s dying mother (Connick), a monstrous figure who speaks only if she can hurt someone in the process and who is self-evidently the cause of her son’s wrecked ego. Her unerring knack for targeting her hate, combined with purposely claustrophobic camerawork, off-kilter editing, and a buzzing soundtrack, leaves the viewer feeling much like Holly: uncomfortable and unmoored.

James has absolute control over the vision presented here, and he has created something impressionistic, channeling raw feeling through cinematic technique. (In addition to writing and directing, he also serves as cinematographer, editor, sound designer and editor, colorist, and producer). The film is a rush of images, sometimes unfocused, frequently confusing in their order and context. Malady is about deeply damaged people, and James has crafted a piece that reflects their troubled, fraught mindset, even if it doesn’t offer them much hope.

Malady is expertly made, superbly acted (especially by Bulger, who deserves a film where she can smile), and so emotionally raw that it’s nigh impossible to contemplate a repeat viewing. There’s cleverness in the application of horror-film logic to the overpowering effects of grief, depression, and abuse, and it extends to the movie’s climax: having endured a hell that would be absurd by conventional standards, Holly is moved to act in a manner that would earn her cheers if she was vanquishing a supernatural monster or a relentless serial killer. However, in this setting, the victory is hollow, and the movie’s final message seems to be that the real Big Bad here—painful and devastating loss—can never be defeated. Malady is a horror movie where nothing is metaphor, and the Final Girl is destined to lose.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This aesthetic package’s psychological dimensions are at once vivid and mysterious — an impact that may not fully compensate for those viewers ultimately frustrated by the pic’s stubborn resistance to greater character development/backgrounding, let alone the odd moments when seemingly key dialogue is almost unintelligible. For others, though, the unique clammy force of Malady’s claustrophobic bad vibes will outweigh the nagging questions its narrative leaves behind.” – Dennis Harvey, Variety

282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

“Do you know what madness is, or how it strikes? Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind? Do you know that in the world of the insane you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction? A truth… that will shock you!”–Opening narration from Daughter of Horror

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Parker

FEATURING: Adrienne Barret, Bruno VeSota, Ed MacMahon (voice in Daughter of Horror cut)

PLOT: A nameless woman awakens from a nightmare and makes her way out onto the city streets. She meets a wealthy man and agrees to go with him, and imagines a bloody family drama enacted in graveyard while riding in his limousine. Later, she stabs the man and throws his body off his penthouse balcony; she is then pursued by a cop with the face of her father, who chases her into a jazz club.

Still from Dementia (Daughter of Horror) (1955)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film contains no dialogue, although it’s not technically a silent film as some sound effects can be heard.
  • Director John Parker has only Dementia and one short film (a dry run for this feature) in his filmography. We know little about him except that his parents were in the film distribution business.
  • Star Adrienne Barrett was Parker’s secretary, and the film was inspired by a nightmare she related to Parker.
  • Co-star and associate producer Bruno VeSota is perhaps better known for his work as a character actor in numerous pictures, including a memorable turn as a cuckolded husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches. VeSota later claimed to have co-written and co-directed the film (no director is listed in the credits).
  • Cinematographer William C. Thompson also lensed Maniac (1934) and Glen or Glenda? (1953), making him the rare craftsman to serve on three separate Certified Weird movies (all for different directors).
  • Dwarf (Freaks) plays the uncredited “newsboy.”
  • The score was written by one-time bad boy composer George Antheil, whose career had plummeted into film and TV scoring after having once been the toast of Paris’ avant-garde with “Ballet Mechanique” (1924).
  • Dementia was submitted to the New York Censor’s board in 1953, and refused a certificate (they called it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”—which they didn’t mean as praise). It was approved in 1955 after cuts. (Reportedly they requested removal of shots of the severed hand). The film was banned in Britain until 1970 (!)
  • After failing to find success in its original dialogue-free form, Dementia was re-released in 1957 with narration (from future late night talk show sidekick Ed McMahon) and retitled Daughter of Horror.
  • Daughter of Horror is the movie teenagers are watching in the theater when the monster strikes in The Blob.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our protagonist (the “Gamin”) surrounded by faceless onlookers, who silently and motionlessly stare at her victim’s corpse. (Daughter of Horror‘s narrator unhelpfully informs us that these unearthly figurants are “the ghouls of insanity”).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Precognitive headline; graveyard memories; throw on a dress

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A skid row nightmare, Dementia dips into post-WWII repression and exposes the underbelly of the American night. It’s a boozy odyssey through a netherworld of newsboys, flower peddlers, pimps, murderers, and hot jazz, with our heroine pursued by cops and faceless demons. It’s noirish, expressionist, and nearly silent, except when Ed MacMahon interrupts the proceedings with pulpy purple prose. Perhaps it was not quite “the strangest motion picture ever offered for distribution,” as Variety famously claimed, but, warts and all, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. It was too much naked id for its time, taking the spirit of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and channeling it into a guilt-drenched B-movie dream.


Original trailer for Daughter of Horror

COMMENTS: The first thing the Gamin sees when she wakes from Continue reading 282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

CAPSULE: PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (1974)

DIRECTED BY: Francesco Barilli

FEATURING: Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Mario Scaccia, Jo Jenkins, Daniela Barnes, Orazio Orlando

PLOT: A wealthy, workaholic bachelorette chemist begins seeing visions of a lady in black, and a young blond girl; is she going mad or being tricked (or both)?

Still from The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its hysterical hallucinations and hints of witchcraft, plus a grisly surprise ending, a case could be made for certifying this quality offbeat occult giallo; but ultimately, it falls into the category of “you gotta draw the line somewhere.”

COMMENTS: In his interview comments accompanying the Raro Video release, writer/director Francesco Barilli acknowledges The Perfume of the Lady in Black’s debt to , but you’d probably sniff the lingering scent of Repulsion early on even without that admission (not to mention a whiff of Rosemary’s Baby, too). Perfume is part of a line of 60s and 70s horrors playing on the anxieties of young single working women. Thanks to sexual liberation, a class of working women living on their own without a live-in male protector was a relatively new phenomenon, and for all the necessary freedom, the fact is that it can be scary to be a woman in a man’s world. Lone females have more to fear than solo males: they fear all the same things men do, plus, they have to fear men. Silvia is competent enough to manage a chemistry lab, but she can’t trust her surroundings, her neighbors, strangers who stare at her on the street, or her even own senses in the dead of night. Whenever she’s alone, she’s endangered, and returns to sanity only when her boyfriend rushes to her side.

Perfume takes place in that lush giallo world, an existence full of tennis dates, elegant silk robes, and apartment courtyard’s with Roman fountains. The art direction is sumptuous, and at times a little outrageous, such as the jungle mural that hovers above Silvia’s friend’s bedpost. Surely such bourgeois elegance can only be there to cover up the stench of decadence. Mimsy Farmer, while not star material, is a treat in this role, constantly frightened and almost reluctantly sexy. The plot seems to be being made up as it goes along. It turns out that there are really two storylines, one of which involves oblique divulged secrets from Silvia’s childhood. The dual plots are mashed together, which produces extra confusion, but less satisfaction, since there’s not a single resolution, and nothing in particular to tie them together. Highlights include a ghostly little girl, “Alice in Wonderland” references, and a séance with a blind psychic (which may be the most giallo scenario ever). The ending is a genuine shock surprise, leaving a strong enough impression to make you forget the somewhat tedious early moments.

Raro Video upgraded Perfume to Blu-ray in 2016. The disc includes an interview with writer/director Barilli (which might be cut down from a longer one included on the DVD release) and a bonus short film, the 23-minute “The Knight Errant,” a shot-on-video variation on Death Takes a Holiday with a couple of surreal surprises that’s well worth a watch.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Perfume of the Lady in Black piles on the weird, somewhat to its detriment.”–Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk (2011 DVD)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

CAPSULE: OBSERVANCE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Sims-Dennett

FEATURING: Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King

PLOT: A man takes a job spying on a beautiful woman, for reasons unstated by his anonymous employer, from an abandoned building across from her apartment; it turns out All Is Not What It Seems.

Still from Observance (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s obvious that a lot of skill and love went into Observance‘s production, but it’s too slow at the start, and too confusing and emotionally inconclusive at the end, to merit inclusion among the best weird films of all time.

COMMENTS: The title is a clue that there’s more to Observance than a simple voyeuristic thriller—although what exactly the “more” is isn’t clear even by the end. It starts out like Rear Window, with a man spying on a woman’s life in which he is helpless to intervene, but slowly moves into The Shining territory as observer Parker’s sanity comes into question. Nothing of consequence happens on Day 1 of the observation—the target makes lasagna, Parker makes his bed—which should, perhaps, be a warning sign to the viewer. As the film progresses, things get weirder and spookier, but in small increments. The slow burn technique can be effective; I wish this one had started burning faster, though.

The dream sequences, which relate to the sort of generic family tragedy that always haunt the backstories of psychological horror protagonists, are the best parts, invoking symbols like a pricked finger dripping blood, dead rodents, and black bile (all features which recur in Parker’s squalid lodgings). Meanwhile, things get stranger in reality, too: the observer is viciously scalded by his shower, grows sickly, hallucinates… By the time the movie is halfway over, however, you’re still not sure whether it’s going to turn truly weird, or whether the script will pull out a perfectly logical (if supernatural) explanation for these events. Lovers of the weird need fear not; the ending plunges down a rabbit hole, never to resurface.

The technical aspects—cinematography and sound design—are excellent. The opening black-and-white shots of a churning tide pool underneath a craggy outcropping are like something an Australian Ansel Adams might have come up with, setting an appropriately ominous and lonesome mood. The acting is in the competent-to-good range: if anything, the script doesn’t give the actors enough to do to show off their talents. Observance comes close to being a very good movie; as it is, the dream sequences work in isolation as pieces of abstract art, but don’t inform the thin narrative, or make us care overly about the eventual fate of the characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the picture draws on everyone from Cronenberg and early Polanski to Shane Carruth in the construction of its existential mystery. While in the end many viewers will find that mystery frustratingly unresolved, many will be moved enough to talk about it…”–John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

SYMPATHY, SAID THE SHARK (2015, DEVIN LAWRENCE)

Sympathy, Said the Shark (2015) is the second feature film by fellow Portalandian Devin Lawrence, which has attracted some attention due to its innovative multiple points of view.

Of course, the use of various POVs isn’t completely original. It has been done before, albeit usually poorly. Lawrence, executive producer Zak Bagans, and their crew were aided by use of the cutting-edge Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. However, if Sympathy, Said the Shark was merely an excuse to show off 21st century filmmaking technology, then it would only warrant coverage on software sites. Fortunately, Shark is of more value than that alone.

Lawrence and Bagans previously worked together in the paranormal “reality” series, “Ghost Adventures,” which began life as a documentary feature in 2004. Its popularity has keep it syndicated for twelve seasons. Seeing paranormal investigators on the duo’s film résumé hardly inspires enthusiasm for Sympathy, Said the Shark, but, not having seen the series, that could be a case of unjustified skepticism on my part, since the team’s first venture into narrative feature is surprisingly exploratory in a slick, kinetically-paced way. Some complaints have been lodged over its ambiguous title, with predictable charges of “pretension” leveled. I’ll digress here. The title is curious enough to inspire investigation, which is as it should be. It indicates that the filmmakers have learned a few things, in looking for dead people, about what makes for a compelling entry point. If Lawrence’ script writing and resulting film is not quite as risky or gutsy as its title, it goes a considerable distance in effort.

After some hardcore engagement, Lara (Melinda Cohen) and Justin (Lea Coco) are settling in for a rainy night when interrupted by a text message and knock at the door. Familiarity with Hitchcock, or any number of American filmmakers, tells us that answering the door is a precursor to mayhem—but what fun is common sense?

Still from Sympathy Said the Shark (2015)

Within moments, we are subjected to the perspectives of both Lara and Justin, along with that of the bloodied, intrusive Church (Dominic Bogart). Time overlaps coincide with perspective shifts, giving the viewer alternative psychological assessments. Lawrence clearly likes these characters and, in that, he’s really more securely in terrain, as opposed to Hitchcock,  which is a good thing.  With his postmodern sensibilities, De Palma has always been a warmer, more experimental, and more three-dimensional director than Hitchcock, to whom he is often compared (sometimes erroneously). As with De Palma, Lawrence does not allow his bag of tricks to overwhelm the narrative or characters (as Hitchcock often did). With conflicting perspectives come raging, emotional torrents, revelations, skeletons hurled out of closest, viable conspiracies, and  additional threats to harmony.

Both the narrative and aesthetic of Sympathy, Said the Shark are guided by its emotional roller coaster. That requires solid actors, which the film provides. If Lawrence had distanced himself or taken a more objective approach, the minimally-plotted film would not have worked. Rather, he utilizes psychology to manipulate us, as any good filmmaker will, and we subscribe to his enthusiasm. All too often, experimental films can be vapid exercises. Lawrence, his crew, and cast succeed to a degree that his should be a name to watch. Sympathy, Said the Shark is a refreshing, promising start.

LIST CANDIDATE: HIGH-RISE (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Sienna Guillory

PLOT: Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) moves into an upscale high-rise tower block, designed by noted architect Anthony Royal (Irons), who also resides in the tower. The top floor houses society’s upper crust; the lower floors are where the more commonplace residents live (usually families). Laing resides in the middle. The tower has every convenience—pool, gym, a school and a supermarket—to meet residents’ needs, making it unnecessary for anyone to venture out into the outside world. When trouble develops with the building’s services, violence escalates as the residents form tribes to battle for resources.

high-rise-social

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Being based on one of J.G. Ballard’s seminal works alone might qualify it, though admittedly, there’s nothing weird in terms of presentation… in fact, it might be the most approachable Ballard adaptation since Empire of the Sun.  It’s warmer than ‘s Crash, but in terms of the subject matter, it’s just as unflinching.

COMMENTS: At first glance, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise may appear to miss the mark, being too focused on recreating period detail (Amy Jump’s script sets it firmly in the 1970’s, when Ballard’s novel was first published), but those who stick it out will find it an extremely faithful—and blackly funny—adaptation.

Nailing the time and place to a specific period helps establish the film as a cautionary tale, not unlike something that might be seen on television at the time (like a literary “Play for Today“), but also helps to achieve some of the distancing effect found in Ballard’s prose. It also sets the stage for the use of a certain well-known pop song of the time, first used ironically in a string quartet arrangement, then returning as a sad elegy.

Wheatley and Jump are very respectful to the source material, while also fleshing out things that weren’t quite as explicit in the book. There’s some attention paid to the women and children (the period setting explains the sexism and misogyny shown by some male characters), and while there is no direct explanation of the cause of the mini-society’s devolution, there is a strong hint that it could be a social experiment running its course. As the film ends with a broadcast of a Margaret Thatcher speech, there’s a political dimension as well, which some might scoff at. The recent Brexit vote might cause one to rethink that.tom-highrise1

NOTES:

  • “The Ballardian” interviews Ben Wheatley about the film.
  • Portishead did the elegaic version of Abba’s “S.O.S.” for the film. It was not intended for a separate single release, although the band did approve a video in honor of recently murdered British politician Jo Cox.
  • Producer Jeremy Thomas has spent over 30 years attempting to bring J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise to the screen. After projects with and , fell through, he finally hit paydirt with Ben Wheatley.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A wonderfully weird oddity with moments of genius, just not quite enough of them.”–Alex Zane, The Sun (contemporaneous)