Tag Archives: Grief

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TITANE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After a car accident, a young girl has a titanium plate installed in her head; she grows up to be a sexy car-show dancer obsessed with automobiles, and then things get strange.

Still from titane (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The weirdness Julia Ducournau conceived in her cannibal debut Raw is delivered in the biomechanical horror Titane.

COMMENTS: We recommend avoiding spoilers in this case; fortunately, the trailer appears as baffled by Titane‘s action as most viewers were when the final credits rolled. Titane‘s grounded-yet-bizarre story goes in at least two directions you wouldn’t expect. It’s fair to say that it thoroughly addresses body horror—of multiple flavors—but there are also episodes of black comedy and dangerous eroticism, followed by a segue into grief drama and a delusional love story; all the while, in the background, the consequences of an inexplicable and strange assignation grow to an illogical conclusion. The synopsis suggested in the pressbook—“TITANE: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility”—may be as helpful as anything.

The two main performers rock. Agathe Rousselle comes out of nowhere, starting her feature film career with a bang. She starts as a seductive lingerie dancer with a violent side, then turns androgynous and mute. Vincent Lindon has one of those weathered faces that looks like it has absorbed a lifetime of beatings, physical and emotional. He’s as obsessed with his hyper-masculine physique as professional dancer Alexia is with her feminine curves; despite his impressive steroid-aided bulk, his inability to clear a high pull-up bar is the perfect illustration of the frustrated desire to conquer corporeality.

The cinematography and editing is top-notch. From the opening car-show debauchery to a homoerotic firefighter dance party, Ducournau shows an affinity for rave-type dance scenes, relishing the disorienting beauty of being lost in motion inside a beat. Arguably, the sound design is even better; there are moments where the sound of ripping flesh makes you cringe. The musical cues are well-chosen; this is perhaps the only film where you will see someone twerk to a cover of the bluegrass classic “Wayfaring Stranger.” All in all, Titane is a collection of incompatible parts that shouldn’t work, but somehow gear up to create a gruesome but movingly human head-scratcher nonpareil. After making two excellent movies, I’m convinced Ducournau has an unqualified masterpiece inside her somewhere, just about ready to tear itself out.

The fact that a horror movie as violent and transgressive as this one could win the Palme d’Or in 2021 suggests that Cannes has come a long way since it was scandalized and outraged by ‘s similarly-themed Crash (1996). What is it with the French and objectophilia at this moment in history? After this and Jumbo (2020), both of which incorporate motor oil as a bodily fluid, it’s like Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) had a French baby, and she’s all grown up now and ready to party.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Building a nightmarish dreamscape that Davids Lynch and Cronenberg would love, Ducournau puts Alexia on an increasingly weird journey… ‘Titane’ is so self-consciously transgressive and weird, that it’s difficult to discern who it’s for, besides fetishists, freak-flag fliers and fans of auteurism at its most hermetic and solipsistic.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: AGNES (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Molly C. Quinn, , , Hayley McFarland, Sean Gunn

PLOT: A demon possesses a sister at a conservative Carmelite nunnery, causing a crisis of faith for one of the nuns.

Still from Agnes (2021)

COMMENTS: Perhaps it would be better to go into Agnes knowing nothing about it beforehand; I won’t give major spoilers, but if you’d prefer to be surprised, stop reading now. OK, for the rest of you, all I will really say is: be prepared for a drastic tonal shift around the middle of the film. Agnes‘ most important characters will not be those you initially assume, and some questions may go unanswered. What appears to be a rambunctious exorcism spoof evolves into something far more thoughtful. Agnes gets crazier and crazier, then gets less and less crazy, until it ends on a note of pure emotional earnestness. Although it flows from a single incident, the film is split into two parts; this procedure will frustrate some. But I found looking at the connections between the two halves, and thinking of reasons why the material might be handled with such stylistic polarity, to be a fascinating exercise.

With that said, I think it’s safer to describe the film’s “fun” first half, and leave the viewer to experience the more serious back nine on their own—except to advise you to stick with it all the way to the final scene. The first thing to note is that, although it plays its humor pretty close to the vest, Agnes is never really a scary demonic possession movie; it’s a comic take on the genre. The Church here is so riddled with clichés—hints of pedophilia, scheming monsignors concerned with public relations, an institution embarrassed by its own exorcism rites, a crusty old priest undergoing a crisis of faith contrasted with a pious young initiate, a sexually repressed nunnery—-that Agnes could almost function as a satire of movies about Catholicism. Then there are the plentiful campy bits sprinkled throughout: too-thick horror music cues at inappropriate times. An action-movie style montage of determined priests and nuns marching to exorcism. A nun named Sister Honey (!) It all seems to be heading into territory with a renegade cowboy priest who comes complete with a chain-smoking groupie in a beehive hairdo and too much bronzer. And then… well, I leave it for you to discover the rest for yourself.

Agnes is so unique, I can’t really decide if it’s firmly within the weird genre, or not. The film’s hemispheres are aimed at different audiences: the first half at a savvy genre crowd, the second at the arthouse set. It will probably appeal most to those with a religious mindset. I don’t mean people of any particular faith—I believe atheists can get as much out of it as devout Christians—but people who are concerned with and interested in the questions that religion seeks to address, questions about meaning and suffering. Seen in that light, the movie’s movement from ironic caricature to clear-headed sincerity feels like a legitimate spiritual journey. Agnes is justified by faith.

Giles Edwards adds: Agnes makes a promise to go full Ken Russell on the viewer, as Greg remarks. Of particular note is the rogue exorcist, one of those mystifying characters that I hope is based on a real-life person, but is more likely a bold combination of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart. The sleek cinematographical maneuverings of the first act could have built into something wonderfully nuthouse, but the thrill of exploitation gets cut off at the bite of the face and an almost mystical exhalation of smoke. The second act—very nearly its own second movie—is slowly paced, and dwells on kitchen-table dramatic musings of identity, financial solvency, and relationship power dynamics. The bombast of the foundation kept me on the edge of a chuckle throughout, with its repressed mother superior, sketchy-swain mentor priest, and the excommunicated demon specialist; the melodrama built on that foundation wasn’t nearly as entertaining in my view, but it was much more respectable as a cinematic outing. It’s as if the director had designed a bondage fun-house basement and felt oddly compelled to hide it from the world with a factory line split-level ranch above ground level.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as specific as it is almost uncategorizable… while the first half of Agnes takes place in the hermetic, often bizarrely humorous world of the convent, it’s the second half that gives the film its resonance.”–Matt Lynch, In Review Online (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KOKO-DI, KOKO-DA (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Johannes Nyholm

FEATURING: Leif Edlund, Ylva Gallon, Peter Belli, Brandy Litmanen, Morad Khatchadorian

PLOT: Three years after the death of their daughter, Tobias and Elin go on a joyless camping holiday; a trio of otherworldly psychopaths interrupts their first night—again and again.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Heart-rending shadow-style animation coexists with some of the cruelest nightmare denizens to be found in a cryptic forest milieu. There’s also the lurking white cat guiding the way toward salvation.

COMMENTS: Last night I did something I had never done before: I attended the second screening of Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da. Frankly, I had to. After the first screening, during which at least four people walked out, there was a deafening silence as the credits began rolling. A few rows ahead of me, I spied a young woman raising her hands to applaud, only then noticing that everyone else—at least everyone who had remained—was seated in a rapt silence. Upon exiting the theater, the discussions between me and my reviewer friends immediately began. Two didn’t care for it, two had fallen under its spell, and a fifth could not yet express her opinion. It was, for sure, the most divisive film I’ve encountered this festival.

We meet an unsettling trio of travelers in the woods. A sinister dandy of a man (Peter Belli) sings softly while leading a strange young woman with a leashed dog and a giant of a fellow carrying a dead white dog. Then, the one happy part of the film: Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elyn (Ylva Gallon) are out celebrating their daughter’s birthday—done up in bunny makeup for dinner.  But Elyn gets food poisoning from some mussels. They camp out at the hospital, and when the parents arise the next morning to sing birthday greetings to their daughter, they find that she died in the night. “Three Years Later” we find the couple again, sniping at each other on their way to a camping holiday. They spend a restless night, and the next morning are set upon by the strange gang from the opening sequence. Again, and again.

I have seen time loops a-plenty, but the cruel, repeated turns of events make Koko-di Koko-da stand out from among its Groundhogian peers. The subtle shifts in climax from doomed encounter to doomed encounter exhibit a psychological nastiness that suggests the director aims to be as unkind to his audience as he is to his characters. But there is a beauty in his movie that rests surprisingly well alongside the surrounding trauma. The two animated shadow-sequences involving two bunnies losing their child, then destroying a (pointedly symbolic) rooster, have an aura of magic tinged with sadness. These accentuate the barbarity found in the encounters with the trio of eerie horrors.

Put simply, I loved this movie, and I knew this immediately upon finishing it for the first time. Generally I can talk about the intellectual reasons I really like something, but here I found myself affected more on a visceral level. I spoke with two of the fellows who walked out, and I couldn’t blame them; the wringer this movie puts the audience through is very trying. But, for those of you who click with this bad dream, there is the reward of intoxicating relief and exhilaration. And like Koko-di Koko-da‘s mystical story, its haunting tune will cling to your memory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…von Trier’s Antichrist meeting Groundhog Day in laconic and absurdist Scandi poetics.”–Martin Kudlak, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: STARFISH (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Al White

FEATURING: Virginia Gardner

PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.

Still from Starfish (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.

COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.

This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in explicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)

Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a  shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.

It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.

Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a beautiful, emotional, weird, and fascinating movie.”–Germaine Lussier, io9.com (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Ari Aster

FEATURING: , Alex Wolff , Milly Shapiro,

PLOT: Disturbing events unfold after the death of a family matriarch, culminating in a bizarrely violent pagan ritual infused with supernatural occurrences.

Still from Hereditary (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hereditary equals or surpasses already Certified Weird films The Wicker Man, Repulsion, and Don’t Look Now with creepy cult imagery, tightly wound drama, and an effective and disturbing finale. The heavily-researched occult details makes the material surrounding guilt and loss linger. The exceptional effectiveness of Hereditary‘s unique brand of personal tragedy transformed into cult devilry means it should be considered for the list.

COMMENTS: Like a coffin descending into a fresh grave, Hereditary sinks into a subconscious nightmare that feels extremely real. The supernatural mystery at the core of the story (derived from a host of influences) is amplified by raw emotions surrounding bereavement and guilt. Hereditary doesn’t hold back when the catharsis comes. While Colin Stetson’s score highlights the creepy occult details to an oppressive effect, the characters mechanize into functional roles of which they are unaware. Represented in miniature models built by lead character Annie (Toni Collette), they ultimately fall prey to a bizarre set of spiritual encounters which, given the slow drip of small clues along the way, makes for an affecting, unforgettable experience.

Cluck

The anxious and paranoid plot structure is highlighted by a web of sensory mechanics, like clicks and shimmers. It’s not surprising that theatergoers already engage in “clucking” during viewings, embracing the sensory details of the plot in real time. Much like ‘s Repulsion, which is also laden with sensory triggers and sharp invasions, Hereditary is often dour and unpleasant; but this allows more fun to be had with its exciting plot development focusing on the invocation of an ancient pagan lord. Hereditary doesn’t merely bludgeon the audience with pop-psychology myths; it amplifies its plot revelations with painstakingly researched detail and pitch-perfect acting. The haunting images, abrupt sounds, and Toni Collette’s riveting acting combine with the sensory flourishes to create a seamless whole with an unusually oppressive mood.

Feels/Mechanics

The audience shares Annie’s emotions. Her retreat and avoidance of pain explodes into violent death and disorientation, kick-started in an early scenes when Annie asks her husband, “Should I be sadder?” after her mother’s funeral. Her focus on crafting miniature replicas grounds and distracts her, but perhaps only furthers her destructive tendencies.

The mechanics of the wider plot make the atmosphere even more compelling. Words in a bizarre language—“Satony,” “Zazam,” “Liftoach Pandemonium”—scribbled onto a bedroom wall neatly divide the narrative. Meant as invocations, the words (Aster did some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

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)