Tag Archives: Psychological Thriller

CAPSULE: BRAID (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Mitzi Peirone

FEATURING: Imogen Waterhouse, Sarah Hay, Madeline Brewer, Scott Cohen

PLOT: Two girls scheme to steal from their rich, but psychotic, old friend, but doing so requires them to go along with her fantasies: “the Game.”

Still from Braid (2018)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A hallucinatory thriller with modest ambitions to blow your mind, Braid finds itself in the weird pile, but not at the top of the heap. It’s a perfectly reasonable “B” selection to watch while waiting for something weirder to come down the pike.

COMMENTS: In the official opening scene of Braid, two collegiate drug dealers are inventorying their stash in their Manhattan loft, oblivious to the distant sound of police sirens. When the banging comes on their door, the film suddenly switches to black and white, security cam-style, as they make an improbable escape out the window and down the fire escape. What was decadent and glamorous in color suddenly turns dingy and desperate. At a later point, one of the girls pops what she thinks is Vicodin, but turns out to be a hallucinogen that turns the lawn purple (pro-tip: popping random pills is not recommended when you’re in the middle of pulling a caper). These visual dislocations, which are a constant in Braid, serve as a reminder of how fickle perception can be. They’re a reflection of the main plot device: a young lady trapped in a delusion that’s she’s still a little girl playing doctor with her friends. Later, we view a scene filmed upside down, for no apparent reason; debuting filmmaker Mitzi Peirone is often just using the delusion excuse to throw a lot of stuff on the screen that she thinks will look cool, like water flowing backwards into the faucet. (Actually, that’s not a bad strategy for a movie with a theme of disorientation.)

Petula and Tilda, the two college dropout robbers, are sufficiently rude and narcissistic that we’re amped to see them get their  comeuppance at the whims of their fruitcake ex-friend. Of course, Daphne, living in a dilapidated mansion and still playing house even though she now actually owns a house, herself is too detached from reality to root for. There is a detective sniffing around, but he seems fated to fall victim to the last of the game’s three rules: “no outsiders allowed.” Still, even though things threaten to get a little torture porn-y at times when Daphne goes to any lengths to keep her friends playing the Game, the film does make a dash for meaningful empathy at the very end.

There is a twist about a third of the way through that I didn’t see coming. It’s no stunner, but it is clever enough for an evening’s entertainment. A number of seemingly odd moments—such as the cliche old doomsayer cackling at the pair as they prepare to re-engage with their long lost gal pal—start to make (some) sense in retrospect. On the other hand, it also makes you conscious of how some of the early scenes were contrived specifically to fool the audience, rather than for organic story reasons. And some stuff never really adds up at all, such as a foot fetish scene. Still, the reveal is done well, and allows Peirone to pull out a lot of stops for a schizo-surrealist montage that supplies a high point before things start to peter out in a dreamy, melancholy epilogue (the film had been tautly paced up to that point).

The film’s insights into the subjectivity of human perception never really threaten to get beyond the superficial, but they do make a decent substrate for a weird-ass thriller. Peirone shows skill in putting the whole together, and with the help of cinematographer Todd Banhazl has a great (if undisciplined) visual flair. Keep your expectations at the level of a smart B-thriller and you may be pleasantly surprised by how well Braid threads these three women together.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bolstered by its kinetic cinematography and stellar production design, Mitzi Peirone’s surreal nightmare Braid is a crazy fever dream of deranged games and broken realities.”–Adam Patterson, Film Pulse (festival screening)

CAPSULE: IMAGES (1972)

“I think, when I grow up, I’m going to be exactly like you.” – Susannah (Cathryn Harrison)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Altman

FEATURING: , , Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais,

PLOT: An author finds herself plagued by visions of lovers past and increasingly losing her grip on reality.

Still from Images (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Images is a mystery of the mind, providing a striking visual representation of the heroine’s mental collapse. The subject matter provides a platform for unmoored imagery and encourages confusion, which heightens the WTF effect of the movie. But it’s not so strange that it defies understanding or logic, and its oddities now play as innovations for thrillers and psychological horror stories to come.

COMMENTS: Robert Altman is one of those filmmakers distinctive enough to have merited his own adjective. “Altmanesque” sits comfortably on the shelf alongside “ian” and “ian” and “Spielbergian.” But Altman himself seems to resist such easy categorization. You think he’s about sprawling casts, like in Nashville or M*A*S*H? Surely his fingerprints are just as evident in the one-man powerhouse Secret Honor. Appreciate his focus on real but insular universes, as in The Player or Pret-a-Porter? How about the cartoony Popeye or obtuse Quartet? It’s important to remember that defining Altman is as much about his unwillingness to be defined.

Images does not, at face value, seem like a comfortable fit in the Altman oeuvre. Filmed abroad, centered around a single character with a small supporting cast, incorporating surreal and supernatural elements, it doesn’t outwardly share much DNA with, say, Short Cuts. But his trademark use of improvisation (Altman is credited as screenwriter, but evidently he came to the actors with a rough outline each morning as a jumping-off point for the day’s filming, an approach he would use again in 3 Women) and found materials (York herself wrote her character’s children’s book, which serves as a quasi-narrator) are both indicative of the director’s modus operandi. That he was able to marry this decidedly freewheeling approach to a genre and subject matter that would seem to demand deliberate plotting and rigid oversight are a strong measure of his skill.

Altman manages to be both clever and pretentious with some of his stylistic choices. The simple mechanism of having one actor go behind a wall and another emerge from the other side is used to great effect here, constantly surprising us and Cathryn, our increasingly unstable heroine. (She even manages to surprise herself more than once, both literally and figuratively.) On the other hand, tricks like jumbling the actors’ names to come up with the characters’ monikers only call attention to themselves, making the film’s issues seem trite. York’s towering performance manages to meld the excesses of a nervous breakdown with deft emotional subtlety, but her work is frequently undercut with blatantly obvious symbolism, like the prisms, lenses, and mirrors that practically litter the screen, broadcasting her fracturing psyche at the highest volume. For every moment of delightful surprise, there’s also an eye-roll to match.

It’s a sign of York’s strength in the role that she is so convincing and deserving of our empathy, especially considering how her mania is evidently inspired by three very dull men. Marcel is a callous bully, Rene an obtuse void, and Hugh a complete and utter drip. In fact, Hugh is such a dishrag with his cavalier dismissals of his wife, his perfunctory affections, his witless repetitions, and his truly wretched jokes, that his ultimate fate does not hit as hard as it probably should. These vacuous men only serve to highlight her much more interesting relationship with adolescent Susannah, who pulls off a mix of precociousness and mystery while still being believably young.

Altman has crafted a perfect atmosphere; the breathtaking Irish countryside is an appropriately solid spooky backdrop for the story, while the combination of John Williams’ jump-scare score and the jarring soundscape (credited with weird bluntness thusly: “Sounds – Stomu Yamash’ta”) keep everything on edge throughout the film.

For a time, Images was thought to be lost, and its rediscovery and availability on Blu-ray and streaming video is welcome, both for completists Altman fans and for anyone who wants to see how a cinema legend tackles an unexpected genre. But it’s ultimately good-not-great, and whatever else we may expect of Robert Altman, we definitely don’t anticipate landing somewhere in the middle.

One piece of verisimilitude to which I must tip my cap: the opening credits depicts Cathryn trying to write her latest book. In the process, she drapes herself over the couch, curls up on the floor, turns everything into a writing desk, contorts herself every which way in her search for the right words. I recognize all of these actions, all of these behaviors, as part of the agonizing process of turning thoughts into text. Writing is a physically taxing struggle, she seems to say. Girl, I feel you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

”’Oh, we’re in for one of those movies,’ I thought as Images trotted out strange doppelgangers, obsessively peering cameras, and phantoms that either aren’t there at all, or are taking the place of real people. It’s frustrating until Susannah York’s sensitive performance starts to sink in. These Twilight Zone-inflected weird tales usually end up in a trite twist of fate, or fold in on themselves in solipsistic self-worship. Images has real intelligence beyond its cleverness… It’s not a picture for a lazy viewer, that’s for sure.”–-Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant (DVD)

348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”–Zen koan

Must See

DIRECTED BY: David Fincher

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A yuppie actuary with chronic insomnia  becomes obsessed with going to self-help groups for ailments he doesn’t have. At one, he meets a woman who shares his obsession, but resents her for infringing on what he thought was his unique form of self-therapy. Later, he meets and is befriended by a soap-maker named Tyler Durden; together, they form a “fight club” where men reassert their masculinity with bare-knuckle fighting, but the group’s activities grow into a cult.

Still from Fight Club (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel of the same name. The genesis of the novel came when Palahniuk got into a fight over the weekend. When he returned to work with two black eyes, he was surprised that no one asked what had happened; instead, everyone avoided looking him in the face. He theorized that if you looked bad enough, no one would ask what you were doing in your free time, because they’d be scared to find out the answer.
  • Pepsi provided product placements for this anti-consumerist movie. Fincher also claims to have hidden a Starbucks cup in every scene.
  • Budgeted at $63 million, Fight Club lost money in its theatrical release, but quickly became a cult film and recouped its cost on video.
  • Fight Club placed #5 in Rolling Stone‘s poll of readers’ favorite movies of the 1990s, #17 on Empire‘s readers’ poll of the best movies of all time, while American Movie Classics named it the 20th best “guy movie,” among other lists the film made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one (any) of the many scenes of brutal bare-knuckle boxing, overseen by a shirtless, cigarette-smoking Brad Pitt, oozing sweat, blood, and raw liquid testosterone.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: D-cup dude; penguin spirit animal; subliminal Durden wang

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Yes, it’s possible to be popular and weird. Often misunderstood as a simple adolescent anti-consumerist message movie aimed at impressionable young men, Fight Club is actually a movie-length hallucination about the painful process of becoming a man.


Original trailer for Fight Club

COMMENTS: How do you talk about Fight Club? I first saw it in a Continue reading 348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

LIST CANDIDATE: LUZ (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tilman Singer

FEATURING: Luana Velis, Jan Bluthardt, Julia Riedler

PLOT: A police psychotherapist gets drunk at a bar with an animated young woman who has recently been thrown out of a cab; back at the station, the young cabbie has turned herself in and the therapist gets summoned to recreate the incident.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Uncanny valley sound design keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat from the start as a barroom encounter, a police procedural, and a car-ride collide together in fits, bursts, and very extreme psychotherapy. This tightly packed little nightmare bursts at the seams with dark visions, psychological overlaps, and camera work that stays on the deeply menacing side of surreal.

COMMENTS: Good luck can play a big part in finding a truly amazing film. My path toward 366 began almost two decades ago when, by chance, I rented The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & Her Lover from a little VHS rental place near my home. Naturally, being at a film festival like Fantasia, one is engineering the good luck, but I am still thankful (and surprised) that I went, by chance, to the press screening for the new German “psychothriller” (for lack of a better catch phrase) Luz. From the get-go I was glued to my seat; an odd compunction to have when the opening shot is of a bored police officer manning a desk.

The humdrum opening: Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) is quietly enjoying a drink at a near-empty bar. His pager beeps from time to time, as he is on-call; but he only needs to leave if “there’s an emergency.” One eventually arises, but only after another bar patron, an animatronically-twitchy young woman named Nora (Julia Riedler) gets him drunk. Sloshed, both from the drinks and her bizarre tale about a young woman named Luz (Luana Velis), he needs to get sober—and fast. Jump to the barroom bathroom where Nora seems to shake the drunkenness out of him, imbues him with a golden glow from her throat, and then collapses. Thus mended, off he goes.

Menacing from the start, Luz maintains an incredibly unsettling atmosphere as the police psychologist hypnotizes a very unstable— and very possibly possessed—cab-driver to recreate a fateful car ride. Going to incredible extremes, his analytic work morphs more and more into a violent interrogation-cum-exorcism. Recollection and reality violently collide as Dr. Rossini turns the screws further and further. Memories are impossibly conjured in the police station: Rossini adopts the persona of Nora, bloodying his face and putting on her stolen clothes, and all the while, a poor police translator is locked in a sound booth. Through an impeccably askew  soundscape and the goth-prog-synth score, even the relatively quiet moments pulse unnaturally.

As every faithful reader is aware, this site is cruising along toward “completion” at a very steady clip. With that in mind, I know what a Hail Mary shot this is. And even though the Festival has just begun, I still suspect that this will be hard to top. Using effectively only two sets, Luz crams an amazing amount of nightmarishly surreal drama into just seventy minutes—and Jan Bluthardt’s performance as Dr. Rossini would make both Klaus Kinski and Erwin Leder proud. Presently, I find myself at a loss for words, so I’ll leave this review saying that, due to the review embargo, I’ve had to sit on this for a week before posting it. By the time you read this, I may well have seen it a second time.

CAPSULE: KALEIDOSCOPE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Jones

FEATURING: , Sinead Matthews, Anne Reid

PLOT: A lonely ex-con tries to muddle through life and find romance, but it seems his mother is determined to reassert her domination over him.

Still from Kaleidoscope (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTKaleidoscope toys around with perception and time in a… kaleidoscopic kind of way, but everything gets wrapped up pretty nicely (a little too nicely for the likes of us). It must be said, though, that the protagonist’s mother cranks up the creepy factor to within throwing distance of serious consideration.

COMMENTS: Maintaining a constant sense of unease while being both sweet and unsettling is a tough balancing act for a movie, and such films often pass by unnoticed. And as there are just so many movies to watch, even if your job is to watch them, it can be hard both to find the time to watch the right movies and to find the right movies to fill your time. Kaleidoscope is as understated as its melancholy protagonist, and it’s easy to miss: it’s foreign, low budget, and its biggest star is a niche (albeit incredibly talented) character actor. I would never have watched this if I weren’t a “366” reviewer; having done so, I suspect it will be right up the alley of many “366” followers.

Carl (Toby Jones) is a lonely fellow living quietly in a clapped-out council estate. Tonight, though, is special, as he’s arranged a date with an outgoing young woman named Abby (Sinead Matthews), making the rendezvous at the appropriately named bar “Lust.” Returning to his flat afterwards, they chat, share drinks (he’s a teetotaler, though), and even dance together (that’s right: you get to see Toby Jones dancing to Dubstep in a shirt as loud as the music). Then things start to go badly: Carl gets an unwanted phone message from his mother, his drink gets spiked, and Abby may only have gone on the date in order to case the joint. The next morning, Carl awakens to find himself on his couch not remembering much. Details slowly coalesce, suggesting he may have murdered—again. Panicking, the last thing he needs is a surprise visit from his hated mother (Anne Reid). Of course, she arrives.

The ickiness of Carl’s mother is hard to overstate. Anne Reid’s performance is about as knockout as a low-key psychodrama will allow. She’s excessively sweet (she cooks for her son, cleans his apartment, and even offers him a £90,000 check by way of apology… for something) while being surreptitiously domineering (Carl is obliged at one point to bandage her injured leg after cleaning it up). And she has a history of—probably—taking advantage of him sexually. This leaves the viewer finding her by turns unpleasant and staggeringly creepy. There was one scene in particular that started out merely as uncomfortable before going so far as to force me to shout at the television, “Oh God, No!” (That, dear reader, is quite an achievement considering the dozens of disturbing movies I’ve watched over the years.)

While other reviewers have had the recent misfortune of reviewing forgotten movies that deserve that fate, I’ve typically lucked out with watching ones that merely fell below the radar and stuck there. Kaleidoscope is nothing earth shattering, but it doesn’t need to be. In the same “Mother-as-Monster” genre as ‘s Psycho, it tells the tale of a child being broken by the very person who should have been his protector. As his hallucinated dead father assures him (“I don’t blame you. She filled your mind with poison”), Carl is hardly responsible for the collapse of his life. Kaleidoscope, with its subdued shatter-view, nicely toys with the audience in a far more congenial way than Carl’s mother toyed with him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The eponymous optical instrument gets a full symbolic workout in ‘Kaleidoscope,’ an intricately crafted, infinitely wrongfooting psychological thriller in which conflicting realities coalesce, diverge and regroup like so many shifting formations of jewel-colored glass.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DOUBLE LOVER (2017)

L’amant double 

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Marine Vacth, , Jacqueline Bisset, Myriam Boyer

PLOT: A young woman suffering from phantom pains in her stomach seeks the help of a psychiatrist, falls in love with him, and then comes to suspect he is harboring a secret about his past.

Still from Double Lover (L'amant double)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ozon’s latest is a sexual psychothriller that falls into the category of “might have been shortlisted in the earlier days of this project, but with only forty slots remaining…” If you like movies that are mysterious and spice their eroticism with a sense of dangerous perversity, this is one to check out, Litsable or not. My theatrical viewing did include one walkout—usually a promising sign—but I do have to qualify it by saying that it was a little old lady who probably thought she was walking into a screening of the latest Fifty Shades of Grey.

COMMENTS: We have to be coy describing Double Lover so as not to reveal too much of the plot. Fortunately, the movie features an unreliable narrator, thereby lending itself to an unreliable review that may mislead. For example, it’s safe to say (and perhaps even implied in the title) that Double Lover revolves around a love triangle. Or does it?

You see, Chloe, the protagonist, hallucinates freely. She first seeks psychiatric help for phantom pains in her belly that have no gynecological cause. (The film is sexually explicit, if not quite pornographic, but even more so it’s gynecologically explicit—the very first shot is a speculum’s-eye view of Chloe in stirrups receiving a very thorough internal exam). With nothing physically wrong with her, she’s sent to Paul, a therapist who soon falls for her and ethically ends their professional relationship, moving his former patient into his apartment instead. Although Chloe seems cured, she still had lingering pains and mommy issues, and therefore seeks out another psychiatrist to plumb the depths of her soul. In this one, she thinks she’s found the perfect counterbalance to sweet-natured Paul…

With its theme of improbable doubles, the scenario is slightly ian, though more explicitly hallucinatory. Other themes recall Dead Ringers, and a shocking dream sequence unabashedly references a similar sex dream found in Cronenberg‘s movie.  The atmosphere is ian, especially in the oft-oppressive sound design. The hallucinations are usually of the sort where someone shows up in a place where they could not possibly be, although there is a lovely moment when the abstract art at the museum Chloe works in as a guard bleeds into her oncoming dream. The tone is tense throughout, and the sex scenes can sometimes be difficult to watch as they get kinkier and play teasingly with questions of consent. If I had one reservation to the whole thing, it would be that the ending is too pat—although there’s also the mandatory coda implying Chloe’s turbulent psyche is not yet wholly calmed.

The acting is a high point. Marine Vacth, who might be ‘s long lost twin, conveys fragility, but with a tough survivor’s core. Jérémie Renier shows range, from the nurturing psychotherapist to a rampaging sexual predator. Jacqueline Bisset is a welcome sight, and neighbor Myriam Boyer, who keeps her beloved pet cat stuffed on the mantle in her long-departed and since untouched daughter’s room, adds both light comic relief and an additional air of mystery.

is a prolific, chameleonic filmmaker who alternates between slim, popular comedies like Potiche and more provocative, sexually charged thrillers like this (with the occasional magical realist fantasy thrown into the mix). Double Lover was adapted (loosely) from the Joyce Carol Oates novel “Lives of the Twins.” Joyce liked it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Double Lover may not represent Ozon in peak form but it’s too weirdly entertaining to dismiss out-of-hand.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

300. THE TENANT (1976)

Le Locataire

“Many would attest that The Pianist is Polanski’s most personal work, given the obvious Holocaust subject matter, but look beneath the surface, and when the window curtains are drawn aside, Polanski’s The Tenant shines brightest as the work closest to his being.”–Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Melvyn Douglas, , Jo Van Fleet

PLOT: Meek clerk Trelkovsky rents an apartment in Paris that’s only available because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. He takes it upon himself to visit the woman, who has just awakened from a coma; while there, he meets Stella, a friend of the pre-deceased, with whom he embarks on an awkward romantic relationship. After the previous tenant passes Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where his odd neighbors are obsessed with keeping the grounds quiet, and finds himself slowly taking on the personality of the previous tenant.

Still from The Tenant (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Panic Movement member . Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, rewrote the main character to be a Polish immigrant rather than a Russian, and cast himself in the lead.
  • Because of its apartment setting, The Tenant is considered part of Polanski’s unofficial “apartment trilogy,” which also includes Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
  • The film was shot in English, but most of the French actors were dubbed over by American voice talent. (Polanski dubbed himself in French for that language’s version).
  • Lensed by Sven Nykvist, ‘s favorite cinematographer.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately (because as a looker he’s no Dustin Hoffman, or even ) it’s the sight of Polanski in drag, particularly as he admires himself in the mirror, hiking up his dress to reveal his garter and stockings, and concludes “I think I’m pregnant.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tooth in the wall; toilet mummy; high-bouncing head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take a novel by Surrealist writer Roland Topor and give the property to Roman Polanski to adapt and star in while he’s having an anxiety attack, sprinkle lightly with hallucinations, and you get The Tenant. It’s a little Kafka, a little Repulsion, a little Bergman, a little cross-dressing exhibition, and very weird.


Original trailer for The Tenant

COMMENTS: Trelkovsky—no first name—is an improbably quiet Continue reading 300. THE TENANT (1976)