Tag Archives: 2020

CAPSULE: SLEEPLESS BEAUTY (2020)

Ya ne splyu

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DIRECTED BY: Pavel Khvaleev

FEATURING: Polina Davydova

PLOT: Two orderly researchers trap unsuspecting Russian, enacting potent operational reprogramming, neurologically.

Still from Sleepless Beauty (2020)

COMMENTS: In case my subliminal message didn’t sink in, here’s an illustrative rhyme to clarify:

T” is for “trying“, the squeamish beware;
O” is for “overt“, showing all it dares.
R” is for “retching“, a result that’s sought;
T” is for “tension“, one’s throat in a knot.
U” is for “ugly“, most violent of crimes,
R” is for “razor“, it’s used oftentimes.
E” is for “endless“, may blood never cease,
P” is for “prodding“, in places liked least.
O” is for “offal“, of the human kind,
R” is for “rotting“, of body and mind.
N” is for “nasty“, how it has to be–
It spells “Torture Porn”, unsettling with glee.

Like most porn, “torture porn” is an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. In Pavel Khvaleev’s latest film, Sleepless Beauty, I saw plenty of it. Khvaleev takes cues from the Saw franchise (woman locked in room facing various “challenges”), the Dark Web franchise (a chatroom transcript springs up at intervals throughout), and the Hieronymous Bosch franchise—illustrated by an extended animation sequence that can only be described as “Boschian”. (And yes, technically there isn’t a film franchise under that Dutchman’s auspices, but hope springs eternal.)

For the most part, Sleepless Beauty is spot-on. The introduction gives the viewer enough grounding to follow what’s happening to “Mila” (a very much put-upon Polina Davydova), even if we don’t necessarily know what all this sturm und drang is storming and driving at. Joining us in our confusion is a peanut gallery of chatroom personalities who have opted to watch the web broadcast of the ordeal (on some server even TOR-ier than TOR) in pursuit of lurid thrills. Two chat-room “Admin” voices have a conversation during the feed that increasingly hints at what is actually going on.

To the extent torture porn can work, Sleepless Beauty works well. The chatroom vignettes provide some great black comedy moments. And the seemingly-unrelated framing story about a Russian ambassador nicely wraps everything together. However, whoever cast the English-dub actors should be fired from show business. This is a dark Russian movie, and one should be able to watch it and listen and hear the kind of casual fatalism that can only come from Russian actors whose Russian can be heard. The low-rent Californian-English “coming” from Mila’s somber-looking parents effectively ruins the movie every time they appear—and the less said about the C-grade vocalizations for the world-weary Russian detective, the better. I have a hunch I could give this movie “Recommended” status if I had been able to view the original language cut.

But I didn’t. If you find yourself curious at this point, seek out the subtitled version and I can all but guarantee that, if you are a fan of this genre, you will enjoy yourself tremendously, as horrible things are enacted on the protagonist-cum-test subject.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the online viewers constantly asking for ‘more action’… brings a strange edge, together with the bizarre virtual reality clips, which are stop-motion animations looking like a mix of Terry Gilliam, the Quay Brothers, Jan Svankmajer, with some Giger and general biology thrown in for good measure. A good thing that is too, as the film needs that edge, because… there is not that much to look at beside a woman being tortured.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE CIRCLE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Fowler

FEATURING: Taylor Dianne Robinson, Ben Cotton, Matthew MacCaull, Hilary Jardine, Cindy Busby, Andrea Brooks, Michael Rogers

PLOT: After a bear mauling, a man and his daughter are rescued by a strange cult in the woods.

Still from Welcome To The Circle (2020)

COMMENTS: “The meaning is the message.” “And the message is the meaning.” “So what is the message?” “That is exactly the question.” “What is?” “We have to figure out what it is.” “What, the message?” “The meaning.”

No, that’s not a transcription of a first draft of a discarded sketch where Abbot and Costello meet the Dalai Lama; it’s a typical “circular” dialogue exchange in Welcome to the Circle.

To be fair, this cult’s dogma is supposed to be mumbo-jumbo; and given all the crazy things people believe in nowadays, it’s not too much to ask us the audience to take the seductiveness of this verbal jujitsu on faith. The decision to give the Circle’s philosophy no intellectual content whatsoever is deliberate; the movie’s thesis is that the things we believe can override reality, and so it’s important to focus not on the strings, but on who’s pulling them.

It’s a thoughtful idea rife with possibilities and potential allegories, but unfortunately the message gets lost under too much obfuscating trickery. It’s relatively straightforward horror ride through the first act, but then the plot loses its way with information overload (founder Percy Stevens’ strange and confusing backstory, in which a tiger shark plays a role) as it’s simultaneously diving into a rule-free, anything-can-happen abyss. It’s a nice touch that cult membership includes an unusually high number of creepy mannequins—most of the prop budget went to this small army—but other ideas don’t pay off. Too many sudden cutaways to stock footage montages (marionettes, chess moves), too many portals that pop characters from one location to another, too many ostentatiously delivered Zen warnings that “nothing has any meaning” and “the thing we have to do is nothing.” It’s tough for a movie founded on such a free-floating structure to work, unless it has the budget to pull off some majorly distracting special effects, or a long series of catchy/scary surrealist ideas consistently pitched on the level of a .

Needless to say, Welcome to the Circle can’t match these standards. There’s no one we strongly care about to interest us in entering this circular labyrinth. Greg, bear victim and loving father, should be the character we identify with, but there are a couple problems. He’s  too slow on the uptake: he leaves his daughter in the care of the winsome twenty-something females who put her in a creepy happy-face mask for a couple of days, before finally thinking to look for his cellphone to call for medical help after his mauling. And Greg is pushed to the sideline relatively early in favor of a new main character, a stoic cult deprogrammer (who talks, one character observes, like a “stoned robot”), headed into the Circle intent on rescuing one of the females. It’s a bold narrative gambit, but we would need to be much more invested in the overall stakes of this story than we are for this perspective shift to pay off.

Ultimately Welcome to the Circle lacks the budget and, unfortunately, the imagination to fulfill its lofty ambitions. The film’s meaning gets lost in its message—or maybe it’s the other way around.

David Fowler’s previous credits were mostly writing the narration for Disneynature documentaries like Elephant and Penguins. A low-budget surreal horror film was an unexpected choice for a directorial debut. Artsploitation Films picked it up and debuted it on VOD and physical media in late 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…starts out as a familiar horror movie before descending into complete trippy nonsense.”–Josh Bell, Crooked Marquee (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “WORLD OF TOMORROW, EPISODE 3: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME” (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A time-traveling clone appears to David Prime to warn him of future danger.

Still from "World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime"

COMMENTS: There’s probably no one coming into “The Absent Destinations of David Prime” without having seen “World of Tomorrow” or its sequel first—but just in case, know that this short does stand alone, and knowledge of previous episodes isn’t absolutely necessary, though such knowledge will obviously inform and expand your enjoyment.

The rest of us will find the new World of Tomorrow familiar, yet different. The thing that’s most obviously missing is Winona Mae, the child star of the first two episodes. Her imaginative chattering  provided both a ground for Hertzefeldt to bounce his speculative ideas off of, and a comic foil for Julia Potts (who voices Winona’s adult clones). The emotional and thematic core of the first two episodes was the tension between adult realities (represented by Potts’ hilariously flawed and damaged clones) and the innocent potentialities of Winona Mae’s candidly captured childhood. Now, at about age 9, the child has aged out of the role, and with her exit, Hertzfeldt has been forced to adapt the series. Potts still voices an Emily clone (Emily 9, to be precise), but the protagonist is now David, Emily’s love interest, introduced in the original through his brain-dead clone on display at a museum. David doesn’t speak (although his infant self babbles, courtesy of newborn voiceover from one Jack Parrett). The wistful melancholy for childhood lost no longer forms the emotional backbone of tomorrow’s world; instead, it’s the wistful melancholy of lost love—a romance that is complicated by the fact that it happens between various permutations of clones, each of whom share incomplete and faulty memories with their originals. This patchwork reflects the uncertainty (and fatalism) of romantic love. The theoretical construct of “shared memories” both drives the plot and serves as the chief metaphor.

“Episode 3” is less specifically philosophical and melancholy than previous installments, driven instead by its intricate time-travel narrative. What remains the same across all the entries is Hertzfeld’s incisive satire, Emily’s quotable non-sequitur dialogue (“I feel like I should like avocados more”), and the animation, which, although continuing to advance into ever more elaborate organic alien landscapes, remains stick-figure-based. The satire, in particular, hits a high note in this episode: the World of Tomorrow is a cybernetic nightmare of data overload chillingly reminiscent of our own fast-moving times. Tomorrow, humans will have neural chips—the equivalent of iPhones implanted directly inside our brains—that allow us to install and delete various functions as needed. Apps like Chinese fluency or basic ambulation can be removed at will to free up space for new content, such as Emily’s old bundled memories. Advertising is omnipresent; Emily’s memory cache is partly funded by pop-up ads, including one for “holograms that yell at you!”

“Episode 3” also continues the series’ trippy visual style, which has always featured simplistic stick figures marching against colorfully-envisioned digital backgrounds. Hertzfeldt throws in some new tricks, blurring some of the action to depict Emily’s faltering attempts to materialize herself—time-travel creates backwards-compatibility issues—and adding bewildering layers of content and chryons fighting for our attention. David’s hallucinatory journey to a distant moon to collect a trove of memories stored inside a robot could be Hertzfeld’s compressed stick figure tribute to 2001‘s Star Gate. With less dialogue this time around, the director pays greater attention to the sound design, which is stronger and stranger than in previous outings; there are ambient space noises, Emily’s messages are often glitchy and buried in layers of static. The soundtrack is classical and original music, sometimes used ironically (as when “relaxing music” meant to calm an agitated David is overlaid with an insistent electronic alarm directing him to his next destination).

“The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is the most ambitious “World of Tomorrow” yet, clocking it at over thirty minutes long, about double the previous two episodes lengths. The knotty time-travel plot will generates discussion and exegesis (charts may be helpful), without unduly sidelining the series’ main asset: its tragicomic empathy for the human condition. Each episode now is like a clone of the original “World of Tomorrow,” deteriorating in some aspects, but developing their own quirks or mutations, all the while maintaining a basic identity. Having survived the maturation of Winona Mae, it appears that Hertzfeldt’s imagination is capable of spinning out the series indefinitely into the ever expanding World of Tomorrow—and perhaps even to the day after that.

“World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is currently available exclusively for purchase or rental on Vimeo. I predict that someday all three episodes (and maybe even a future episode) will be available bundled together on physical media. No time traveler has yet appeared to me to divulge the release date, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…. there was no way [Hertzfeldt] was just going to pack up his toys and call it a day after mashing ‘The Jetsons’ and ‘Brazil’ into the kind of digital sandbox that someone could play in until the Earth blew up without ever growing bored of the existential crises it allowed them to imagineer along the way… ‘Time is a prison of living things,’ David tells us, and like any prison, we are always looking for a way out. The impulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: THE THIRD DAY (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Marc Munden, Felix Barrett, Philippa Lowthorpe

FEATURING: Jude Law, Naomie Harris, Katherine Waterston, ,

PLOT: Sam, a bereaved father, saves a suicidal girl and returns her to her home on a remote strip of land off the English coast, only to discover an undercurrent of violence and a weird theology permeating the island. Months later, mother Helen brings her children to the island for a vacation that quickly goes from bad to worse.

Still from "The Third Day" (2020)

COMMENTS: One of the most beloved tropes of horror is the character who goes somewhere—a room, a house, a portal to hell—that no reasonable, clear-thinking person would dare to tread. Part of the joy of the creepy-town variant is that no place is safe; every entrance you make is a bad idea. When Jude Law motors across the rarely appearing causeway that takes him away from the normal, safe world and into the strange island village of Osea, he’s making the classic horror-movie hero journey—and the classic mistake. And when Naomie Harris repeats the trek three episodes later, the audience has to be flat-out screaming “Don’t go in there!” at the screen. (Osea, incidentally, is a real place. Their public relations reps have much to answer for.)

In some respects, The Third Day is two deliberately different shows. (Actually, three. We’ll get to the third one in a moment.) “Summer”, the first three installments starring Law and directed by Marc Munden, mix a persistent sense of dread with a bizarre color palette. The landscape is a perpetual mossy green and dishwater blue, but other colors are riotously bold, as if the very look of the place is conspiring to keep Law’s discombobulated traveler Sam off balance. (Dropping acid, he will learn, does not help.) It is in this first act that we will learn that this community has a very particular theology that is directly related to Sam and the personal tragedy that his thrown his life into chaos. Though there is violence and shocking imagery, the look of the show reflects the town’s view of itself: a paternalistic flock welcoming a lost sheep back into the fold.

Harris’ arrival in “Winter” (with Philippa Lowthorpe now directing) is a significant contrast. Mirroring the weather, the village has turned cold and cracked, with whatever pleasant disposition that might have existed gone and the entire community in a dither over a forthcoming childbirth. The town is more clearly adversarial now, and unlike Sam, Harris’ Helen is not so easily thrown off her game. Of course, the two outsiders’ fates are intertwined, and it will take a fair amount of recriminations and violence to resolve their situation.

The Third Day falls neatly within the popular “outsider goes to strange little northern European village” genre associated with The Wicker Man or Midsommar, and most of the show’s power comes from an ever-present vibe of discomfort seasoned with folk cult horror that intentionally distances the hero and viewer alike. The island’s faith is a bizarre corruption of Christianity peppered with Continue reading CHANNEL 366: THE THIRD DAY (2020)