Tag Archives: 2021

CAPSULE: MEDUSA (2021)

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Medusa is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Anita Rocha da Silveira

FEATURING: Mariana Oliveira, Lara Tremouroux

PLOT: A group of Brazilian girls involved in a fundamentalist Christian sect spend their nights as vigilantes attacking women they deem insufficiently modest; one becomes beset by doubts.

Still from Medusa (2021)

COMMENTS: Medusa begins with a closeup of an eyeball, with a spot of bright red light and a spot of bright green light clearly reflected to the right and left of the pupil. As Goblin-esque techno music swells, the camera pulls back and rotates to show its subject performing an abstract but provocative interpretive dance, bathed in competing green and red washes. It’s appropriate that the film begins with a moody dance scene, because Medusa is full of elaborately choreographed atmospheres, from the bubblegum pink neon pop performances of “Michele and the Treasures of the Lord” to synchronized fascist yoga to a masked rave in the woods. The audiovisual aspects are superb: doom-laden dollies establish an effective mode. The director cites Suspiria as a major influence (seen mainly in the bold lighting choices.)

But while the style is enthralling, Medusa‘s script struggles to keep up. Granted, a lot of thought goes into the film’s themes. The running monster motif is handled well. The film critiques the cult-like dynamics of the nameless evangelical Christian sect portrayed here by focusing on its overwhelming concern with policing surface appearances rather than fostering virtue. This leads to the occasional satirical hit: an influencer explains how to properly take a “Christian selfie.” It also allows for moments of pathos, as when the same YouTuber removes her makeup after abandoning a video tutorial to reveal an unglamorous underlying reality. The fact that the protagonist only begins to question the group’s ideology of superficiality when her physical perfection is temporarily compromised is meaningful. But these insights exist alongside more obvious anti-religion jabs that verge on the stereotypical, e.g. a pastor stops a spiritual counseling session in the middle to take a call from a wealthy donor.

That unevenness could be forgiven, but at the same time, the story is losing focus as it progresses. The film’s increasing disorientation tracks with Mariana’s growing disillusionment and the disintegration of her worldview; but the story also seems like it’s unsure how to conclude. Shaving twenty minutes or so off the running time would have helped. Medusa lingers a too long on dreamlike sequences that add little. And Mariana’s arc goes a bit flat in the third act: she drags her bestie into dipping their toes into hedonistic excess with no believable coaxing—just a touch of magical realism that doesn’t feel all that realistic. And, though cracks show, Mariana doesn’t firmly break from her religious fervor even at the end, when the girls all spontaneously erupt into what is meant to be an expression of raw, resentful female fury, but might be unfairly dismissed as a mass hysterical episode. The women express righteous catharsis, but it seems tacked-on rather than flowing from the plot (especially since it encompasses characters who’ve experienced none of Mariana’s character growth). Medusa has a great look and sound, a few memorable scenes, and a fine central performance by Mariana Oliveira to ground the chaos, but the whole feels less than the parts.

Director Anita Rocha da Silveira was inspired by the rise of evangelical Christian groups in Brazil, and by reports of teenage girls physically assaulted by their peers for appearing too slutty on social media. On these inspirations she overlaid Ovid’s version of the myth of Medusa, where the gorgon is transformed into a monster by Athena as punishment for alleged promiscuity. De Silveira’s film played at Cannes and was picked up for U.S. distribution by Music Box Films (who are becoming a major player in distributing some of the weirder low-to-mid budget movies out there, having also released Strawberry Mansion and Please Baby Please in 2022).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Da Silveira has alluded to the disturbing social trends in her native Brazil that have informed her themes. Here she challenges them in a way that is satirical, amusing, stylish and strange; perhaps even controversial for her native audience.”–Demetreos Matheou, Screen Daily (festival review)

CAPSULE: THE SEED (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Sam Walker

FEATURING: Chelsea Edge, Lucy Martin, Sophie Vavasseur

PLOT: Three young women spend a weekend in a remote home for a photo shoot, but their plans are interrupted when a meteor shower delivers an alien.

Still from The Seed (2021)

COMMENTS:

  • Deidre: vapid; (conventionally) smokin’ hot; internet influencer.
  • Charlotte: geek-nerd; works at a pet store; has an old phone.
  • Heather: required because her father owns the remote house the three women are stranded in.

There are three other (human) characters, but here’s the thing: I’m talking about a low-budget science-fiction/horror thingy that is the kind of story horror filmmakers have been re-tooling since… (research pending). Gosh, if only I had Charlotte around to help me here—writer/director Sam Walker makes it obvious she reads books and knows things. Also made obvious is the fact that wherever these three pals are spending the weekend has no phone reception, or wi/fi, or even a land-line. (This last fact was deftly established by Charlotte’s line, “People don’t have land-lines any more”; this is patently a falsehood, as I assure you that I myself have a landline.)

The Seed spends the better part of an hour establishing their remoteness, their vehicleless-ness (though this assertion is later undermined), and the stinkiness of whatever it was that falls from the sky during a “once in a lifetime meteor shower.” I watched in vague impatience as the characters’ personalities were dictated, molded, established, reinforced, and etched in carbonite. An hour goes by, the vapid one vapids, the daughter of the homeowner freaks out about damaging the place, and the geek-nerd spares the life of a space entity and, in the one thing that kept me hopeful in the opening two-thirds, has an odd kiss with the odd boy who comes around to tend the lawn.

This capering, however, finally becomes interesting in the closing act. Elements from Eraserhead, and even Society, creep into the action. When Charlotte brings in the stinky baby-alien, its look and its swaddling (and its intermittent screeching) bring to mind Henry’s ordeal with the evil duck-fetus. And when Deidre attempts to kill the whats-it while Heather and Charlotte go off in the “buggy,” she instead partakes in something with a… shunting kind of look. And oh yes, there’s a bit of an Edward Blake-meets-2001: A Space Odyssey scene (with boobies). The final half hour ultimately makes The Seed worth watching, as the over-long opening setup allows a new personality for the two least interesting characters. Even Heather succumbs to the strange wiles of the alien entity and, in a stroke that emphasizes just how tedious she is as a person, transmogrifies into an unsettling facsimile of a chill young person.

This damning with faint praise (or, not even that I suppose) may suggest that I am not happy to have spent my time in this odd world of privilege, swish housing, and Chekhov’s mace. Somehow I was smiling by the end, even through the requisite “Oh-ho, you thought the problem may have been addressed, but you were wrong!” final shot. The Seed is effective B-movie fare, with sun-shiny pool scenes, fun creature effects, and just enough suspense in the finale to have me talking back to the television screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a psychedelic interplanetary strain that’s like Society meets a Cosmopolitan photoshoot. Shudder’s latest original also brings to mind something akin to The Cleanse, in which an adorable puppet becomes something much worse. I don’t mention Critters or Gremlins because that denotes a bit more creature polish—The Seed has more in common with Brian Yuzna or Stuart Gordon weirdness.”–Matt Donato, Paste (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONA LISA AND THE BLOOD MOON (2021)

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Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ana Lily Amirpour

FEATURING: Jeon Jong-seo, Kate Hudson, , Evan Whitten, Ed Skrein

PLOT: A young woman with telepathic powers escapes from a mental hospital to New Orleans and is befriended by a down-on-her-luck exotic dancer.

Still from Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2021)

COMMENTS: Society’s fringes probably have no storyteller more sympathetic than Ana Lily Amirpour. From her shadow-filled debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, through the sun-soaked dystopian Bad Batch, and now with the perpetual street-light glow in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, Amirpour has maintained a fascination with folks on the periphery of civilization. While the likes of Harmony Korine dwell in tragedy, staging his tales amidst the horrific grind of poverty, Amirpour regards tragedy as nearly an afterthought—it’s present, certainly, in all its violence and sadness, but overcome through the by-the-nails vibrancy that courses through every character. The misunderstood get a fair shake; the downtrodden have their small pleasures; and, just as importantly, the inexplicable remains that way.

It is possible that Amirpour arranges her films around the music. Every scene glides along to a rhythm, with every character slotting perfectly into their dancing role. Mona Lisa makes this focus explicit with the second of its primary characters, Bonnie Hunt (a delightfully trashy Kate Hudson). As a middle-aged stripper, she’s showing signs of wear, but still has the moves, and always holds her head up high. The titular Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) possesses a feral artistry, first when slinking around her cell at the mental hospital, then when wandering the side streets of New Orleans. Even awkward neophyte Evan Whitten fits with the choreography as Bonnie’s pissed-off-and-confused son: a boy who escapes his daily troubles and unwieldy self through “hashing,” or, as he explains, “dancing aggressively. To metal!” It’s appropriate, then, that the one “hero” here—and my favorite character—is the hyper-chill DJ by the name of “Fuzz”; explaining his sobriquet, he glides Mona Lisa’s hand over his facial hair and scalp, “See? It’s soft.” It’s a rough life out there, so you gotta take it easy.

After the harsh glow of the opening asylum, the remainder of the movie is washed in the ambient late-night-light of the one town where everyone is welcome. Whereas Las Vegas’ inclusivity is tainted (it wants your money), New Orleans is the city for all-comers, a bacchanal which demands only that you let others revel alongside. The camera work is smooth, gliding unobtrusively—staying chill—as Mona Lisa’s meandering journey unfolds. Most everyone is bottom of the barrel: strippers, drug dealers, loiterers, townsfolk, and even the cops coming across as workaday stiffs who aren’t seeking a hassle. Like a mellow Jell-O, everyone moves along with the underlying thump of the background house music.

Mona Lisa starts with no explanation of its protagonist; a policeman’s background research into the mysterious young woman brings up zilch, a slight foray into supernatural refuses to elucidate matters (a Voodooienne consulted by the cop leaves it at, “You don’t pick Voodoo, son. Voodoo picks you”), and things wrap up with an escape from the authorities toward… Well, the geographic destination is Detroit, but otherwise no hints are given and no promises are made. Amirpour’s interests aren’t in pointlessly digging for root cause behind life’s sturm und drang. All you can hope to do is dance to life’s wave and, as a fortune cookie advises the cop at the start, “Forget Everything You Know.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Par for the course with writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Bad Batch), Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon lives and dies off a hypnotic wavelength that’s increasingly bizarre… The blunt themes are worthy conversation starters, and the film is still strange enough to recommend, but by the end, all the best elements might as well be sacrificed to the blood moon itself.”–Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MASKING THRESHOLD (2021)

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Masking Threshold is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Johannes Grenzfurthner

FEATURING: Voice of Ethan Haslam

PLOT: A man performs experiments in an attempt to find the source of the tinnitus that is driving him mad.

Still from Masking Threshold (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s no surprise that Masking Threshold isn’t getting a big theatrical release; it’s more of a miracle that it was able to play in a few theaters at all. This has nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with its style: this is a film that is (almost) entirely narrated by the protagonist, while the camera focuses (almost) exclusively on closeups of objects for the entire runtime. A movie that plays like a paranoid podcast illustrated with a succession of moving slides—sort of a contemporary feature-length version of La Jetée—is a hard sell in any climate, but particularly at a time when movie theaters are struggling to put butts in seats.

Fortunately, the scaled-back nature of the project means it will play well on small screens (although it would be nice to hear that crucial sound mix emanating from Dolby surround-sound speakers). Despite the fact that it may only be a MacGuffin for the protagonist’s deeper psychological issues, sound—the rustle of fabric, turning of pages, test tones the protagonist generates for his own reference—-provides the texture of the film. The movie quietly ushers us into the protagonist’s mind, as we hear none of his background tinnitus in the early going, but the hum slowly and subtly creeps into the soundtrack, scarcely noticed, until by the end we hear these subtones too. These minute variations in drones, unidentifiable rustlings and buzzings, and oscillations have tremendous significance to the protagonist, but to us they remain esoteric. The movie’s production values are low, so visuals cleverly rely on extreme closeups of carbon dioxide bubbles, slices of bread, algae, ants, and mouse corpses, supplemented by various charts, graphs, alchemical prints, blinking diodes, repurposed memes, and so on. The protagonist’s face is never clearly visible. The movie is presented as a YouTube diary by one of those “independent researchers” whose peculiar-to-insane preoccupations fail to strike a chord with a mass audience; his impassioned Reddit posts leave him the subject of trolling and lols.

This is a strange movie, in that the first-person monologue script would work just as well as a short story; in a way, Masking Threshold is nothing but multimedia-enhanced prose. But that makes it a triumph; a movie literally constructed from objects found around the house or bought at Home Depot, Best Buy, and Petco, is inspirational. The protagonist is erudite (the movie is full of fascinating trivia) and arrogant; his inner monologue is profound when discussing the philosophy of science, and myopic when interpreting the results of his own experience. His narrative voice put me in mind of the antihero of ‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” while the madness resulting from his investigation onto cosmic phenomena evokes any number of victims. (It’s noteworthy that both authors get a “thanks” in the credits). Not to say that Grenzfurthner’s script (co-written with Samantha Lienhard) lives up to those classic influences—but it does update that psychological horror template with timely references to Internet culture, Q-Anon, and “doing your own research.”  Masking Threshold is a successful, immersive, and credible experiment in diving into one man’s particular rabbit hole universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…his paranoid, obsessive quest digs its own rabbit hole of increasingly unhinged weirdness, escalating from the unhygienic ick of growing algae and such to… well, if you suspect a narrative like this must inevitably lead to homicidal violence, you’d be right.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills