Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: HONEYDEW (2020)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Devereux Milburn

FEATURING: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Jamie Bardley

PLOT: A lost couple spend the night at a peculiar old woman’s farmhouse.

Still from Honeydew (2020)

COMMENTS: Honeydew is a roller coaster of horror—but I don’t mean that in an altogether complimentary sense. Rather, the problem is that the film is as uneven (and, sometimes, as twisted) as the Cyclone’s track. When Honeydew is on, it’s creepy as hell. But when it’s off, it’s a case of “yeah, I totally saw that coming.”

The pre-credits sequence is strong, beginning with a young girl’s faltering voice reciting some religious dogma, leading to an intercut sequence of a black-veiled widow at a funeral and a hunter investigating what appears to be an abandoned barn. This montage also highlights what will turn out to be Honeydew‘s only consistently great feature: the sound design and score. The creepy voiceover is accented by eerie hums, rural insect choirs, fluttering percussion, and musical notes that sound like bonesaws being scraped over piano wire.

This promising start yields to a setup of two city slickers traveling to the country to encounter all the familiar backwoods horror cliches: silently-staring yokels, a spooky old man advising them to move along, lack of cellphone service. You may forgive this connective section as a necessary step on the way to the real plot, and your assumption would be correct. Once the couple finds their way to batty old Barbara Kingsley farmhouse, things pick up considerably. We lose track of time entirely; the couple arrives in what must be the middle of the night, but their host insists on cooking them a huge dinner, and after they finish they always seem to be preparing for bed without ever actually getting to sleep. The night is endless, and scored to endless bumps; transitions between scenes can be disorientingly abrupt, and sometimes it seems like the film might be jumping back and forth in time. Significant creepiness is supplied by Kingsley’s son, with his bandaged head, a barely-responsive demeanor, and a penchant for public domain Popeye cartoons (which, in another bit of bravura sound design, becomes the nightmare soundtrack to an epileptic fit).

That section of the film is near-excellent. Unfortunately, once it becomes time to wrap things up, and the dreams fade away and the mystery dries up. What had seemed to have a supernatural, psychological edge resolves into, basically, a torture porn finale that goes exactly where you feared it would. A gross ending sequence goes on a bit too long, lessening its impact. I do think that a certain breed of horror fan will enjoy the transgressive grotesqueness of the third act, but it’s not really of a piece with the film’s dreamlike middle section; if you’re going into Honeydew hoping for something wall-to-wall weird, you’ll be disappointed.

To recap: a strong pre-credits sequence is followed by a pedestrian setup leading to a superbly creepy second act petering out in a disappointing finale. Debuting director Milburn does great when focused on building atmosphere, but bogs down when it’s time to advance the plot. Give him a script that’s more free-flowing and isn’t so insistent on ticking all the standard Texas Chainsaw boxes, and he could deliver a real feast.

Honeydew is currently in limited release and virtual theaters, coming to VOD on August 13.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reviving the spirit of ‘70s North American rural horror while very much still feeling like a film tapped into out contemporary moment, Honeydew is one of the wildest, weirdest horror films of the year.”–Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alliance of Women Film Journalists (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAM ON RYE (2019)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tyler Taormina

FEATURING: Haley Bodell, Cole Devine

PLOT: A large group of teenagers gather together at a restaurant for an assembly to determine their future.

Still from Ham on Rye (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Ham on Rye is essentially a “coming of age” drama, but the fact that it never reveals what exactly is going on makes this uncomfortable viewing for many, and deliciously odd for those who have a stomach for ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Tyler Taormina kicks off Ham on Rye with a simple visual hook: a cigarette lighter refusing to ignite. For minutes. Until it does, and the tension is released as it lights up a firework. Throughout, there are shots of birthday party attendees waiting for the release. The sun shines brightly, the gifts are stacked high, and we wait, and wait, and wait. While we do get the satisfying resolve of the party pyrotechnics, in the narrative itself there is no resolution to speak of; at least, not for most of the characters—and certainly not for us.

Ham on Rye‘s first half shows us a little bit about everyone as they head to “Monty’s,” a diner which we are informed “recently painted the hand on their sign green.” As the teenagers, all dressed to the nines (in a sartorially inept high school kind of way), enter the restaurant, they each in turn press their hand against the painted hand on the window, and brace themselves for their fate. After a meal, they awkwardly dance along to songs playing on the jukebox. Then, when “Tonight I’m Gonna Fall in Love Again” cues up, they immediately snap to attention and a bizarre ritual begins. Some are lucky, partner up, and then disappear from the film; the rest are left to an ambiguous doom.

Taormina plays the premise straight, and only reveals modest details through snatches of conversations. Something important is going to happen to these young adults: after the tension-lighter introduction there follows an extensive montage of the youths getting dressed and ready, followed by dropped hints about impending risk and efforts by each group to pump themselves up. When a father sees off his boy in a carpool heading to Monty’s, he begins all gratitude and reminiscence, but as the car pulls away, he incongruously shouts after it, “DON’T MESS IT UP! DON’T MESS IT UP!” until he’s out of earshot. What shouldn’t be “messed up”? It is is never made entirely clear.

Ham on Rye‘s second half follows the leftovers from the ritual. Night has fallen on the city, and aimless depression has sunken in. One kid, who works at Monty’s, is reassured, as it were, by a friend, “Look, man, it sucks, right? And you can let it suck… or not let it suck. Or something.” We see the world they’re in no differently. Humdrum suburban life. Backyard barbecues. Drinking. Games of Uno. But the lucky ones have disappeared. So are they living a fate worse than death? Taormina refuses to tell us. He discourages us from even trying to understand. At a post-Monty’s party, one of the lads who didn’t get lucky remarks (about something, also left unspecificied), “You can’t see it. But if you get a really good microscope and look really hard… You still can’t see it.” This movie will confound anyone seeking narrative clarity, but its absence is exactly what makes Ham on Rye such an appetizing enigma.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At first glance, Tyler Taormina’s ‘Ham on Rye’ plays like ‘Dazed and Confused’ with more poetry and less connective tissue, or ‘Eighth Grade’ with benevolence in place of cruelty. Then things get weird…  a work of gentle, genuine American surrealism…”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russ Joyner, who called it “an utterly unique film — come for the American Graffiti-through-a-Lynchian-lens aesthetic, stay for the surrealistic soul-crushing aftermath of snuffed out dreams — but with the faintest whiff of optimism.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat

CAPSULE: LUCKY (2004)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Steve Cuden

FEATURING: Michael Emanuel, David Reivers, Piper Cochrane

PLOT: An alcoholic writer finds inspiration when a stray dog starts telepathically dictating scripts to him—and then orders him to kill.

Still from Lucky (2004)

COMMENTS: Lucky is an ugly little movie—shot on video, dimly lit, and occurring almost entirely in one trash-strewn house—but that may be an appropriate aesthetic, since the story is about an ugly little man.

Lucky begins as a black comedy about Millard Mudd, a schluby alcoholic writer specializing in cartoon scripts. Early on, there’s a long series of sketches where Mudd goes on “dates” with various women: a masochistic prostitute, a nun, his own half-sister. These segments employ an R-rated type of sitcom humor, with a mild touch of the surreal. Even when there’s a decapitation by chainsaw, the severed head is so silly and unrealistic that the effect is light. But things take a turn toward the grindhouse when the talking dog Lucky arrives and grows increasingly abusive in his telepathic dialogues. Mudd’s loose hold on his mind slips further, and he gives himself over to sadomasochistic sex fantasies. An interlude where he discusses the tortures he plans to inflict on his victim as she lies there bound and nude, objecting to his plans with no greater distress than if he had insisted on ordering out for pizza when she was in the mood for sushi, is particularly disturbing. For the final murders, even the pretense of comedy fades away. The way the perversity slowly ratchets up, while (mostly) maintaining the same deadpan style throughout, shows skill, but obviously won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The editing is good, shifting back and forth between fantasy and reality to create a sense of pace and action that the producers  couldn’t otherwise afford. The acting is adequate—the most impressive performance, perhaps, is given by Sydney the dog as Lucky (kudos to her trainer). And while it would be hard to make the case that the movie as a whole succeeds as more than a curiosity, the screenplay (by Stephen Sustarsic, who had previously produced scripts for “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”) is actually solid. Much of the story is told through Mudd’s internal monologues, a technique which locks you into his mindset and makes the movie seem like a translation of a novella. The speeches never feel too intrusive or like they are substituting for something that could have been conveyed with action, and they’re always to the point. Lines like “I made three big changes during my life. I switched beers when I was sixteen. I switched back when I was thirty. And I killed a girl last week” tell you all you need to know about the character—and all you need to know about the movie. That quote either intrigues you, or immediately turns you off.

We waited so long to review this one, unfortunately, that the DVD went out of print, and the film is not available streaming. Used DVDs should be obtainable, if you are interested.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No matter how weird things get, you’re willing to follow this character along his twisted little journey, hoping that maybe he can pull himself out of this hell he has created for himself.”–Film Threat (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jasper Oliver,” who explained, “On paper it looks like standard cheapo horror comedy fare but in actuality it’s an immensely flawed and disturbing little film that sits with you long after viewing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LIGHT YEARS (2019)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Colin Thompson

FEATURING: Colin Thompson, Russell Posner, Makenzie Leigh

PLOT: A man takes psychedelic mushrooms on the anniversary of his friend’s death and relives a mushroom trip they had together when they were sixteen.

Still from Light Years (2019)

COMMENTS: The hinted-at plot in Light Years never really develops. Instead, what happens is that we watch a trio of likable kids nervously score mushrooms, take mushrooms, try to hold it together without their parents finding out they’re high on mushrooms, go to a high school party on mushrooms, chop wood at midnight (on… you get the idea), and generally just hang out. The movie is light, as its title implies. The mood is nostalgic, like The Wonder Years—on mushrooms. There’s not a lot in the way of a meaningful ongoing story— although there are lots of incidents—and really only token character development. The story is framed as an elegy for Kevin’s friend Briggs, who died under circumstances that aren’t relevant to the movie, and what it does well is to capture the carefree pleasure of teenage camaraderie. You can tell, without even looking at the end credits disclaimer stating that the film was inspired by actual events, that it’s based on writer/director Colin Thompson’s real life experiences. There’s no other possible explanation for the movie’s existence.

The acting is unexpectedly decent. Pimply Briggs (Russell Posner) actually looks and acts like a high school sophomore, with an unselfconscious awkwardness and endearingly goofy mannerisms, like the ghoulish open-faced smile he routinely breaks into. He and Kevin have a real chemistry, sharing a private ritual where they spar with improvised dialogue in increasingly silly voices. This chemistry is more remarkable due to the fact that young Kevin is (most of the time) played by old Kevin, the heavily-stubbled-and-clearly-not-a-teenager Colin Thompson. Thompson also plays—again, most of the time—the third friend, Larry; and, in drag, he also takes the roles of his own ex, and the mom of the kid who’s throwing a keg party for the high schoolers and bringing along a tray of jello shots, and a lot of the extras. All these Kevins appear partly because of a subtext that Kevin is a narcissist. But mainly it’s just a part of the director’s trip-disorientation strategy, one that also includes abrupt changes in film stock, occasional collage-style montages and music videos, video warping and glitching, and animated characters appearing in the unused corners of the film (recurring cartoon characters like a cutout of adult Kevin’s dog, and some kind of derp-faced flying cat in a sailor cap).

The thought that Light Years inspires most in me is the question: is psychedelic cinema a legitimate subgenre? Despite the possibilities for deep introspection psychedelics promise, the “trip movie” rarely features any kind of serious plot or philosophy; it’s almost always an excuse for stylistic and technical experimentation. A short line of (almost) non-narrative movies beginning with The Trip seek to recreate the feeling and experience of being on psychedelic drugs for the audience. The hallucinatory qualities of psychedelics are easy (and fun!) to symbolize visually, but the experience of having your brain’s natural neurotransmitters temporarily pranked by chemical interlopers—the complex combination of euphoria, wonder, anxiety and confusion—is harder to reproduce. In the most successful trip film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, scenes of Hunter S. Thompson enjoying cocktails in a Vegas lounge surrounded by kitschy dinosaurs, or trying to redeem his hotel reservation while the desk clerk’s face warps unpredictably, effectively recreate the edginess of druggy disorientation. But that movie works on multiple levels: as drug porn, sure, but also as a straight-out comedy, and as a dual-edged social satire of both the dominant 1960s culture and of the very subculture it superficially celebrates. Light Years is not quite light years away from that achievement, but it does suggest that hallucinations alone can only take a movie so far. LSD has been around, on film and in life, for six decades now; it’s no longer novel or outrageous, merely naughty. A trip is not enough to sustain a great film; you need a plot and/or a deeper theme to carry you across the finish line.

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE CIRCLE (2020)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

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)