Tag Archives: Psychological Thriller

CAPSULE: BUDDY BOY (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Mark Hanlon

FEATURING: Aiden Gillen, Emmanuelle Seigner, , Mark Boone Junior

PLOT: Francis, a lonely, emotionally stunted man living with his stepmother, begins spying on Gloria; after a chance encounter on the street, they strike up a romantic relationship, but Francis becomes increasingly violent and unstable.

Still from Buddy Boy (1999)

COMMENTS: Like the hybrid the world was waiting for, Buddy Boy arrives with a healthy blend of paranoia and violence, neatly planting the man-against-the-world narrative inside a milieu of seediness, squalor, and surrealism. It’s a heady brew, and the success of the whole thing rests on the shoulders of our central character, a simple man who may be deeply mentally disturbed.

Francis’ unreliability is clear from the outset. Coming home to his apartment, he finds his stepmother laid out on the floor dead, an empty bottle of cleaning fluid at her side. He lays the old woman in her bed as if unsure of what to do. But by the next morning, she is quite evidently back among the living with no explanation. Did she ever die? Did any of what we’ve seen actually happen?

This uncertainty is central to the dilemma of Francis. When he watches Gloria through his peephole, he sees her heartlessly chopping up bloody cuts of meat in direct defiance of her professed veganism. And yet, when he confronts her, only vegetables are to be found. He’s understandably confused, and his uncertainty transitions steadily into horror. He scrubs his bloody hands raw with Ajax. He wears gloves and a mask to keep out the germs he imagines are everywhere (more than two decades ahead of schedule). He sees his own head served up as the main course at a dinner party. And at no point does he ever seem to entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with him. He’s that most terrifying of victims, the one who is certain he’s the only one who is sane.

At every turn, it’s becomes increasingly clear that Francis has seen the lie he wants to see, proof the world’s mendacity and his own unworthiness. As a result, you start to doubt everything onscreen. Just how likely is his relationship with Gloria? What does she see in him, and why is it enough to overcome his own self-loathing? Is his hideous stepmother (Susan Tyrell, in a performance that starts in fourth gear and accelerates from there) anything like the monster we witness, or is this just his frustration running wild? Meanwhile, the visions compound: he’s positive he’s seen a missing girl in the photographs he develops at a grungy photo processing shop. Guests at a dinner party are openly hostile to his faith, while his own priest seems to be a charlatan. People on the bus seem to be getting sicker and sicker. And what is wrong with the bathtub, anyway?

Trapped as we are inside Francis’ head, it’s ultimately impossible to trust anything we see. That’s damaging to Hanlon’s story, because once we lose the find reality in the things Francis experiences, there’s no suspense or surprise. Aiden Gillen’s central performance goes a long way toward holding the whole thing together; he’s enormously sympathetic, even as he makes choices that are increasingly worrisome. As the stakes heighten, though, it starts to feel artificial. Sure, Francis’ world is driving him mad. But in a life this hollow, a world this grim, any other outcome seems impossible.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fans of serious decadence (you know who you are) are vigorously advised to check out a curious, unsettling, darkly conceived and absolutely fascinating little film opening in a shroud of silence, called Buddy Boy. Not since Roman Polanski at the pinnacle of his European weirdness have I seen a film this strange and riveting leaves you shaken, with a penetrating vision as poisonous as gangrene.” – Rex Reed, New York Observer (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who called it “very weird, very compelling, very memorable.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: RESURRECTION (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Semans

FEATURING: Rebecca Hall, Tim Roth, Grace Kaufman

PLOT: Margaret is a successful executive at a biotech firm who is in total control of her life until an unsettling figure from her past reappears after a twenty year absence.

COMMENTS: Sweet, home Capital District. It’s where Margaret hangs her hat. It’s where she takes her daily runs, adopting an air-slicing locomotion that hints at both determination and long-buried agitation. It’s where she raises her daughter, Abbie, and works her job at an unspecified kind of biotech company. Albany, New York: worth a visit, worth a lifetime stay. And for Resurrection‘s heroine, a place to escape to after a nasty experience on the opposite side of the continent.

The super-charged atmosphere of “things are going well” telegraphs early on that this is all about to change. (That this screened at Fantasia, preceded by a particularly enthusiastic introduction by festival coordinator Mitch Davis, also telegraphs this.) Rebecca Hall’s performance morphs from woman of steel into jagged pieces of sweat-caked paranoia at the appearance of a rather mild-looking, and mild-mannered, man from Margaret’s past named David (Tim Roth, doing us the courtesy of perfectly capturing understated evil). Margaret’s tightly wound self is cranked another turn, triggering the manic crash into the madcap finale.

Beyond my personal satisfaction of witnessing so many of my greater hometown’s landmarks on the big screen (an odd oval-building observed near the beginning, dear readers, is called “the Egg”), Resurrection generally exhibits every hallmark of a well-considered psychological horror movie, replete with increasingly unreliable narrator. Its approach to interpersonal power dynamics, particularly the dangers of charisma coupled with gaslighting, is dead-on. Tim Roth, on the surface, does not do much, but to perform as David, in this stage of the relationship between him and Margaret, he merely needs to prod ever-so-slightly for her to resign herself to performing the “kindnesses” he demands. Rebecca Hall carries her topsy-turvy character along a narrow path of believability, veering from dominance to terror, and supplication to hatred with ease, and sometimes within the same line.

The reason we’re considering this film on a weird movie site is because of the finale, about which I can say little for fear of giving away too much. Suffice it to say, while the build-up alone is worth it (Hall, Roth, and comparative neophyte Grace Kaufman all bring their “A” games), the culmination of David’s manipulation and Margaret’s crack-up makes for a memorable emergence of Owen Johnson to the world of cinema, as “Benjamin”—the baby who, twenty years prior, catalyzed the ensuing madness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Resurrection] winds up several stops north of bonkers, in a finale that shoots for transgressive, psycho-biological role-reversal, but plays like 1994’s Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Junior given a torture-porn makeover… Nothing is a joke in ‘Resurrection,’ which takes itself so seriously in the commission of its increasingly bananas plot that all the craziness can’t even be said to be that entertaining — the odd surreal image aside.”–Jessica Kiang, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ULTRASOUND (2021)

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Utrasound is currently available for VOD rental.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rob Schroeder

FEATURING: Vincent Kartheiser, Chelsea Lopez, Bob Stephenson, , Tunde Adebimpe

PLOT: After a car accident, a man spends a night at a couple’s remote house and—at the husband’s insistence—sleeps with his much younger wife, which leads to an increasingly strange series of events.

Still from Ultrasound (2021)

COMMENTS: Glenn blows out a tire in the rain returning from a remote wedding and takes shelter at the home of a strange couple. After an awkward evening between Glenn, heavyset “depressive” host Art, and his young wife, Cyndi, the scene suddenly switches to a new character, a woman swimming laps in a pool. She sometimes appears pregnant, and sometimes not.

“I don’t see the link between the two things,” says Glenn, much later, from a wheelchair. “It will all make sense as we go along, I promise” assures the therapist who’s guiding him through a roleplay exercise as a form of physical therapy.

Juggling multiple plots and subplots, the script basically keeps the promise suggested by the above line of dialogue. Characters will sometimes appear to change into other characters or locations into other locations, and their lives will take major turns without explicit explanations. Two pregnancies, which may or may not be pregnancies, supply part of the impetus for the title Ultrasound. Besides Art, Glenn, Cyndi, and the mysterious swimming woman, there’s a major conspiracy afoot, and a couple of other subplots running around, making for a movie that demands close attention if you want to figure it all out (a careful second viewing will, of course, make the timelines clearer, and allow you to catch otherwise obscure clues).

The acting is good, with veteran character actor Bob Stephenson a standout as the unassuming but subtly persuasive Art. (“Art has gotten so weird lately,” says one character, and another corrects her: “more emphasis on so weird.”) The score and sound design effectively increase the tension in moments when things seem “off” even though there is not much action onscreen. Although the sets and visuals aren’t lavish, first-time director Schroeder frames some clever compositions: in one shot, a countertop lines up with a refrigerator and a cabinet to create an imaginary line down the middle of the frame—a sort of in-camera split screen effect implying a world divided into different realities.

Still, it’s the script that’s the standout here. Ultrasound‘s profound paranoia resonates in our gaslit world of deepfakes, fake news, and fake claims of fake news. But it’s possible to puzzle our way through the illusions: the screenplay answers nearly all our questions, and what it leaves ambiguous is easily filled in by the savvy viewer. A satisfying outing for fans of reality-bending films who demand answers to the mysteries and aren’t afraid to do a little mental lifting to get them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird, disorientating, and complex, Ultrasound compels the viewer into a fugue state into which this darkly dangerous science-fiction can unfold and wrap around then. Some truly uncomfortable ideas around the ability to control others are told through an overtly science-fiction lens, but the potential truth within the film is what makes it a harrowing watch.”–Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

Môsô dairinin 

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mamiko Noto, Shouzou Iizuka, Toshihiko Seki, Haruko Momoi (Japanese); Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O’ Brien, Carrie Savage (English dub)

PLOT: Toy designer Tsukiko Sagi, under tremendous pressure after creating an enormously successful character “Maromi,” is attacked by a bat-wielding boy on skates—dubbed “Li’l Slugger” (or “Shonen Bat”)—or so she claims. The two detectives assigned to the case have their doubts, but more attacks occur, and the victims appear to be connected, and all under some type of mental distress.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “Paranoia Agent” balances horror and humor adroitly, especially when seen from a perspective 20 years later. Aside from some minor points, the series doesn’t feel dated; it could have been generated within the past seven years. The credit sequence establishes the tone, with the main characters laughing hysterically despite their incongruous settings (underwater, in traffic, and before an atomic explosion, to name a few), while the upbeat theme song just adds to the unsettling nature.

“Paranoia has a stronger image than fantasy. Yes. Delusional, maybe. Right. The word gives an impression that a person is, in a sense… actively making himself delusional. That kind of strength is inherent in the word. Well, in order to go through life… everyone needs to have something apart from reality… such as fantasy, dream, or maybe paranoia. Otherwise, life can be surprisingly hard. Yes. The world as a person perceives… it is a world filtered through his fantasy or paranoia, I think. In that sense, I don’t think that fantasy and paranoia are necessarily unhealthy.”–Satoshi Kon

COMMENTS: For admirers of Satoshi Kon’s work, “Paranoia Agent” can be viewed as a grab bag or sampler of sorts. There are echoes from Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and you can see hints of Paprika (2006). “Paranoia Agent” grew out of concepts that did not develop into larger projects, and a proving ground for things that did show up later.

At the time of its creation and release, this miniseries could be read as social commentary on aspects of Japanese society in the early 2000s. Cellphones, the Internet and the beginnings of social media are present, providing plenty of distractions for people. The show is an effective commentary on fantasy vs. reality; as Modern Life becomes more unbearable, more and more people seek escape via fantasy. But “Paranoia Agent” underlines the necessity to live in reality, as escapist coping mechanisms are shown to be ultimately destructive. Some cultural aspects the show touches on, such as Denpa-kei Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

366 UNDERGROUND: SISTER TEMPEST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Badon

FEATURING: Kali Russell, , Holly Bonney

PLOT: Anne must defend her version of a complex series of misunderstandings, tragedies, and hallucinations before an inter-dimensional tribunal.

Still from Sister Tempest (2020)

COMMENTS: I do not research a film before watching it. This typically works in a film’s favor: having formed no preconceptions of what it should be, I tend not to measure it against the wrong yardstick. As in general, so with Joe Badon’s sophomore feature—a rather messy, rather creative, and rather abstruse story about two sisters, several dramatic mishaps, and the nature of memory. Sister Tempest (or, as the credits arrange the title, “Sister Temp Est”), over the course of two hours that felt alternately drawn-out and hasty, presents me with some difficulty. I want to make this review a pitch for it, but I don’t think I can. And I feel a little awkward about that.

It starts off with a breezy sense of promise. The death-of-parents montage that begins the movie had the not-uncharming feel of a Maddin and Brakhage co-production for Troma Studios. The “confession” gimmick, involving a six-entity tribunal headed by a cosmic judge who could moonlight as a Rankin/Bass cartoon-land king, was perhaps an obvious choice, but that didn’t make it a bad one. Slices of temporally re-arranged scenes are smattered alongside hallucinations and false awakenings, but the crux of the narrative is: older sister, Anne the art teacher, alienates younger sister Karen after years of acting as a parent figure. Karen leaves in a huff to spend time with her drug-dealer boyfriend; arriving in her stead is Ginger Breadman, a fragile young art student who appears one day in Anne’s class.

I try to eschew dismissing opinions as being “wrong.” But now, having read up a bit on Sister Tempest, I wonder if my own opinion is in error. (The rest of the IMDb-ternet appears to be in love with this thing.) The film has quite a lot to unpack—symbols, metaphors, metaphoric symbols, allusions, illusions, nods, acknowledgements, Jeff the Janitor—so I wouldn’t say it lacks substance. I never really mustered the will to care, though. It didn’t help that the film was sliced into eight pseudo-cryptically-titled chapters that came across as a, “Hey guy, check out these Smarty-Pants we’re putting on,” more than as anything narratively useful.

From what I’ve read about Badon’s first movie, I presume that he’s improving, which brings to mind the opening sequence’s wrap-up.  Alone at a desk, manning his typewriter, sits the screen-writer. Rolling out a sheaf, we watch him read it, crumple it up, and toss it aside. His presence echoes throughout the film, as distant type-clacks occasionally occupy the soundscape. It was an interesting scene that set up an interesting aural motif. There was also good fun to be found in Sister Tempest (even the final iteration of the “gingerbread man” joke got me laughing). But spare me the Looney Tunes gimmicry; spare me the needless musical numbers; and for Heaven’s sake, spare me the multi-Messiah finale. In Tempest‘s spirit of cryptic cognomens, I shall thus conclude with, “The Movie’s Blood is in the Execution–Please do not get blood everywhere.”

Sister Tempest is in online theatrical release until May 31. You can find information on how to watch the film at the official website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Club MC Jason Johnson (playing himself) introduces a karaoke act on stage with the words: ‘I’m gonna show you something new tonight, something ethereal, something trippy, something you haven’t ever seen before.’ His words might as well be describing Sister Tempest itself…”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)