Tag Archives: Psychological

CAPSULE: A WOUNDED FAWN (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Travis Stevens

FEATURING: Josh Ruben, Sarah Lind, Malin Barr

PLOT: A schizophrenic serial killer takes a date to his remote cabin, but things don’t quite go as he plans.

Still from A Wounded Fawn (2022)

COMMENTS: Despite some classical allusions (to the Erinyes, who are described in the opening in as much detail as is necessary), A Wounded Fawn begins its life looking like it will be a relatively straightforward thriller. In the prologue we see killer Bruce dispatch a victim and meet the Red Owl, the hallucinatory entity who prompts him to murder against his will. We then fast forward to meet protagonist Meredith, who has unwisely swiped right on Bruce, and after a dinner of tacos has even more unwisely agreed to an overnight date at his remote cabin. When she gets there, she seems to be hallucinating, too, as we encounter mysterious bumps and shadowy figures (disruptions which only intensify after she plays a vinyl single impishly titled “LSD.”) But at almost exactly the halfway point, a movie that looks like it’s about to become a cat-and-mouse game between predator and prey undergoes an unexpected detour into the utterly surreal.

When this horror movie promotes itself as “surreal,” it doesn’t use the term in the usual “we’re going to show you some WTF stuff, man” sense. Travis Steven’s imagery was explicitly modeled on the work of two modern Surrealist painters: Dorothea Tanning and Leonara Carrington (who also supplies the film’s epigraph). The Red Owl is strange enough, but other entities soon appear: a nude woman attached to a moving stovepipe, a cartoonish blood-red cross between Cthulu and a beetle with google eyes, a woman in a red-lipped volto mask with long auburn ringlets with snakes crawling across her head. Rarely has the spectacle of a man battling his inner demons been depicted so literally.

Bruce is an unusual case: a character who is simultaneously a charming sociopath and a functional schizophrenic. It’s a difficult tightrope that Ruben walks admirably, eliciting about as much sympathy as we can expect to feel for such a monster. Although most have interpreted the film as a feminist allegory about abusive partners (which is almost certainly the intention), there remains an open question as to whether Bruce’s homicidal tendencies are a result of an irresistible compulsion, or whether that’s just a convenient excuse for him to give in to his depraved fantasies. Of course, from the perspective of his victims, the question of free will is moot. The entire final act of the film is an extensive psychoanalysis where Bruce’s brain is literally picked. Be sure to stay tuned for the end credits, which are as unforgettably odd and audacious as any I’ve ever seen. If you like your horror on the surreal side, A Wounded Fawn is sure to scratch your festering itch.

A Wounded Fawn debuts exclusively on Shudder starting today (Dec. 5). Normally, Shudder exclusives will show up at other outlets after a few months; we’ll be sure to update you when that happens.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This movie came to get weird, tell you men aren’t that great, and send you back into the world an even stranger person.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

There’s something inherently weird about hotels. After all, they are a temporary domicile, a place you call home for a limited time, and you share the experience with dozens of other people you will never know. (I’ve stayed on more than one occasion at a chain dubbing itself “Home 2,” like it’s the sequel to the much-loved original.) It might explain why we see so many films about them on this site, from hotels that house transient mental patients to hotels stored in the private parts of ancient vampires to hotels where couples meet again and again to decrepit hotels to hotels on the edge of the apocalypse and beyond. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising to find two different films in our suggestion box that are content to leave the title at Hotel. Arguably, that alone should tell you it’s about to get strange up in here.

Notably, this pair of films offers us differing points of view: one largely concerning the guests, the other centered on a member of the staff.

HOTEL (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Figgis

FEATURING: Saffron Burrows, , , , , , Burt Reynolds, , David Schwimmer, Mark Strong

Still from Hotel (2001)

PLOT: A film company attempts to shoot a guerilla-style version of “The Duchess of Malfi” while based in a hotel that practices cannibalistic vampirism.

COMMENTS: This hotel variant is a directorial showcase. Figgis indulges all the techniques at his disposal: handheld cameras shooting hyper-saturated video, improvised dialogue, and the same quad-split screen storytelling that he indulged in Timecode. Some have suggested (and a line of dialogue insinuates) that he’s actually playing with Dogme 95 techniques, although his production violates most of Dogme’s rules. What he really seems to be doing is utilizing the same let’s-film-and-see-what-happens philosophy that he’s depicting. So it’s improvised. Real. Which is potentially interesting, especially when his actors are up to the challenge. But it can be equally deadening if they’re not. Sometimes there’s a payoff, like Burt Reynolds’ inexplicable turn as the director of a flamenco troupe, yes-anding his way through a scenario that would not seem to call for him at all. But you’re as likely to get a scene like Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu screaming at each other. Is that really the most interesting thing they could think of to do? It’s weak improv, which makes it weak cinema.

The all-star cast is a huge part of the appeal. It ends up playing like one of those live theatrical experiences where you get a different experience based upon which actors you choose to follow. The real-world examples of this can result in something classy or trashy, and much the same is true here. Consider Rhys Ifans’ gleefully confident turn as a power-mad director, a performance which borders on parody but is the liveliest thing in the film, until he is curiously sidelined before the halfway mark. His counterpoint is David Schwimmer’s Continue reading CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

CAPSULE: HATCHING (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Hanna Bergholm

FEATURING: Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä

PLOT: Tinja’s focus on her upcoming gymnastic competition is compromised after a giant egg she has been hiding from her family cracks open to reveal a monstrous bird.

COMMENTS: Tinja is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, her brother is an under-diagnosed brat of a boy, the father is the embodiment of self-destructive acquiescence, and mother has a blog about their “lovely everyday life.” Forget the giant egg for a moment and contemplate that the real horror going on in Hatching is the diminution of mental stability behind the scenes of a stereotypically “happy” Finnish family. Gauzy cinematography draws the viewer into a a fragile picture of perfection that, within the opening minutes, is shattered by the visit of an errant crow—literally, as it crashes into the precarious Living Room objets, and metaphorically, when the matriarch, determined to let nothing compromise her vision of domestic perfection, coldly snaps its neck.

With a metaphor this obvious, it’s a good thing that Hatching delivers on all the peripherals. Siiri Solalinna’s performance is right on the mark as twelve-year-old Tinja, a girl reckoning with burgeoning womanhood, a domineering mother, a speedily growing egg, and then a strange and horrific creature she adopts as her own child. This massive and grossly misproportioned bird beast has an appearance, as they say, that only a mother could love. Tinja looks past its skeletal form, its unsavory goo, irregularly-sized arms, and giant-eyed, scraggle-toothed face and sees something to love, providing it with an affection that her own mother is all too sparing with.

As with any horror film, things go from bad to worse, with Tinja powering through her trials at school, her suffocation at home, and the discovery of her mother’s infidelity with Tero, a classically handsome, manly counterpoint to her own “soft” father. In this oppressive world, it is these two father figures (Tero and actual father) who provide the only scintillas of genuine support and approval that Tinja seeks. Her mother’s burning impulse for control and projected flawlessness dominates. By the film’s third act, when Tinja is clearly on the brink of mental collapse, the most comfort her mother can muster is the reassurance, “You know the best way to get rid of stress? Winning the competition.” Tinja’s internalization of her own growing diffidence, distress, and depression manifests itself in her own “daughter,” the creature she hatched, which, despite its appearance and behavior, is the only other character who elicits sympathy. It is a primal, reactive beast: when a neighbor’s dog keeps Tinja up at night? It has a solution, proffering the headless canine to Tinja the next morning as a gift.

As her mother’s life collapses, the pressure on Tinja ratchets up further, and Tinja’s own “daughter” grows more and more into the girl’s image. The blood and goo are front and center, with these instances adroitly acting only as occasional punctuation to the mundane, spirit-crushing happenings of daily life. The film feels like an ancient dark fairy tale upon which director Hanna Bergholm shines a glaring modern spotlight, rendering it all the more unnerving.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…think of it as the weird lovechild of ‘American Beauty’ and a grotesque version of ‘E.T.,’ with the uncanny touch of Yorgos Lanthimos.”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MEN (2022)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu

PLOT: Harper rents a remote English manor house to recover after what could euphemistically be called a “bad breakup”; she finds herself haunted by a strange nude stalker, and condescended to by the odd and unsympathetic men of the nearby village.

COMMENTS: Alex Garland does his latest movie no favors by giving it the in-your-face,  on-the-nose title Men, provoking accusations of “wokeness” and scolding responses of “not all men…” From the other side of the aisle, it’s simultaneously eliciting complaints that Garland is Men-splaining toxic masculinity. The title frames the film in a way that undoes a great deal of its subtlety and ambiguity; there would surely be less controversy had Garland named it A Question of Guilt or The Haunted Village or The Randy Vicar or somesuch.

Broad message aside, there’s a lot to enjoy about Men, considered strictly from a psychological horror perspective. The acting is top-notch; Buckley ably and sympathetically carries the film, with quiet moments fearfully wandering the woods as well as a few big outbursts of terror and anger. Rory Kinnear is even better in multiple roles, some subtly uncanny (his friendly but increasingly snoopy landlord) and some less subtly so (an uncommonly mannish schoolboy). The cinematography and sound design are superlative, particularly shining in a scene set in a long lonely tunnel with an unnatural echo that allows Harper to perform an unaccompanied a capella symphony—before she’s interrupted by the sight of a stiff silhouette lurking at the tunnel’s far entrance.

That’s all part of the eerie atmosphere Men sets up before Garland launches into bonkers territory for the third act, basically a long home invasion where characters blink in and out of existence and morph into one another, ending in a climax that one-ups Takashi Miike‘s Gozu. The madness rolls on for so long that, by the end, Harper’s attitude switches from terrified to resigned. But even before that resolution arrives, Garland deploys eccentric and fascinating touches. The local chapel with pagan faces carved on its altar. A shot of a dead deer, its eye perfectly hollowed out by maggots. Dandelion seeds hang in the air, and get swallowed. A horny vicar spouts classical allusions. A naked stalker turns into the Green Man, then into a hermaphrodite. All of the imagery and references don’t quite add up at first glance, but they make Men more interesting than the simplistic “gee-don’t-men-behave-badly?” reading suggests.

The evil of Men is supernatural, but, although symbolic and psychological sources are clear, events are never explicitly justified or explained from inside the narrative. It seems Harper suffers from a curse, one that’s enacted as pure metaphor. Men is more interesting as a psychological horror study unfolding from a specific scenario than as a manifesto on gender relations. Those wider implications should have been left to hang in the subtextual background. Alex Garland has said that he may give up directing to focus on writing. I say, stick with both writing and directing—but let other people come up with your titles.

Men is currently in theaters; we’ll let you know when it arrives on streaming and home video.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Near the end, Garland ramps up the surreal elements and the special effects, gliding towards an over-the-top ending… It’s easy to admire his audacity, even if it is too much even by surreal standards.”–Caryn James, BBC (contemporaneous)