Paradise Hills (2019)

Like all genre films, Paradise Hills feels like a loose collection of themes & imagery we’ve all seen before. Is it exactly fair or accurate to describe it as Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives set in the Queen of Hearts’s rose garden from Alice in Wonderland, featuring extras from The Hunger Games & Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Probably not, but that rambling assemblage of references at least hints to how familiar individual elements of its fantasy world feels, even if you’ve never seen them arranged in this exact configuration before. What makes Paradise Hills a great genre film is that it still feels entirely unique & spellbinding despite those pangs of familiarity. This is a dark, femme fairy tale I presume was conceived by first-time director Alice Waddinton after a poisonous tea service left her hallucinating & scared for her life. She may be painting with a familiar palette, but the resulting picture is wonderfully warped in new & exciting ways, especially considering how she conveys dread & menace through an overdose of the feminine.

An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. Spurned by their parents for being too queer, too fat, too rebellious, and too difficult to control, the young women are imprisoned in a high-femme reform school that feels as if it were borrowed from a lingerie fetishist’s erotic fiction. Jovovich keeps her prisoners in line as a green-thumb dominatrix who plans to excise their offending idiosyncrasies in the same way she snips the thorns from her endless supply of roses. On the surface this femme obedience school that transforms young rebels into proper mademoiselles feels almost paradisiac. The young women’s torture is mostly a PG-rated barrage of ballet, yoga, and garden tea service. There’s a sinister sexuality & dystopic undertone of Patriarchy to their entire ordeal, though, something that bubbles up to the surface with increasing violence as the unruly students bring their rejection of traditional gender roles to a boil.

The most immediately satisfying aspect of Paradise Hills is the visual splendor of its costume & production design. Although the titular obedience school is obviously an evil force that must be destroyed, there’s an intoxicating allure to its high-femme paradise. The lacy house robes & white leather bondage harnesses that serve as the school’s uniform are their own kind of gendered prison that erase the individual women’s distinguishing features, yet are also undeniably gorgeous & covetable on their own merit. Similarly, the school itself appears to be a romantic spa getaway for the ultra-rich, not the brainwashing torture chamber that it truly is. This is far from the first fairy tale to allure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.

Many people are going to roll their eyes at how earnestly this film commits to its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise, but I found that sincerity to be refreshing. Undercutting the absurdity of its fantasy scenario with snarky one-liners or tongue-in-cheek camp would have broken its dark magic spell. Waddington (boosted by a cowriting credit from the increasingly fascinating Nacho Vigalondo) carves out a very peculiar, particular mood & aesthetic here, even if she uses familiar genre tools to get there. Welcoming in audiences who aren’t already on the hook for the film’s high-femme fairytale mystique with ingratiating humor would only deflate what makes it special. Paradise Hills’s uncanny sense of femme menace works best if the sensual surface pleasures of its fantasy realm instantly appeal to you as a world where you could lose your sense of time and self. It’s a film you sink into, like a warm familiar blanket, until you suffocate.

-Brandon Ledet

I Kill Giants (2018)

The 1980s saw a wealth of children’s fantasy films that were incredibly dark in theme & tone, considering their target audience. Titles like Return to Oz, The Never-Ending Story, The Dark Crystal, and Paperhosue seemed custom designed to bore parents out of the room just so they could scare children shitless as soon as they were alone with the VCR. These tonally hazy fantasy films are a little too traumatic for most kids and a little too precious for most adults, but they can generate a fascinating tension through that divide. There are plenty of modern entries into that canon keeping the tradition alive too; they just tend to be minor indie releases too few people get to see: MirrorMask, American Fable, The Hole, etc. Let’s go ahead and add I Kill Giants to the traumatic children’s fantasy movie pantheon. Remarkably similar to the recent dark fantasy drama A Monster Calls in both themes & tone, it might be tempting to pass off I Kill Giants as a lesser echo of that more accomplished work. The truth is, though, that both films are part of a larger tradition and work exceptionally well as companion pieces, especially since I Kill Giants offers a version of A Monster Calls’s dark fantasy template through a more femme POV.

Like A Wrinkle in Time, I Kill Giants is the perfect fantasy piece for gloomy middle schoolers who believe they’re fundamentally different from all the “other girls.” Truthfully, all middle school girls would probably self-identity as being Not Like Other Girls, but the giant-killing anti-hero of this film pushes that personality trait to the extreme. Dressed like a feral Louise Belcher left to run wild & dingy in the New England wilderness (bunny ears & all), our troubled protagonist finds herself at the center of a mythical battle everyone else in her small town seems to willingly ignore. Deploying homemade steampunk contraptions of her own invention (straight out of The Book of Henry), and casting spells & potions like an amateur woodland witch, she serves as a self-elected protector of her town against the impending threat of murderous giants. Since she’s an avid D&D player and a fantasy illustrator with a vivid imagination, it’s unclear if these giant CGI threats at the edge of the woods & ocean are “real.” Her obsession with their looming danger makes her hopelessly socially awkward around peers and her hexes are often interpreted by authority figures to be frivolous vandalism, but she very well may be saving those lives from the towering brutes they rationalize as “tornadoes and earthquakes and crap.” What is clear, however, is that she is using her pursuit of the giants as an excuse to avoid dealing with a mysterious trauma in her own home, the reveal of which serves as the film’s cathartic release.

Ultimately, I don’t believe I Kill Giants uses its killer-giants metaphor as a way of dealing with Death & bullying through a childhood lens quite as well as the thematically similar A Monster Calls; it certainly doesn’t have as sharply specific of a point to make about processing trauma through that device, at least. However, it does work well enough on its own terms to survive the comparison, especially once it finds its narrative grooves in the relationships our emotionally-battered protagonist establishes with her best friend, her school psychologist, and her older sister (the latter of whom are played by Zoe Saldana & Imogen Poots, respectively). If the movie needs to separate itself from J.A. Bayona’s similarly gloomy children’s literature adaptation (I Kill Giants was adapted from a 2008 graphic novel, while A Monster Calls’s own illustrated source material was published in 2011, so who cares), its existence is more than justified by reframing the story with a femme perspective and finding its emotional core in a wide range of female bonds. It’s an unnecessary distinction to have to make, though, since both films are part of a much larger dark children’s fantasy tradition. If you normally fall in love with films that hover between child’s imagination sensibilities & traumatically adult themes, you’re likely to find worthwhile qualities in either picture. If that tension is not usually your cup of genre movie tea, though, I doubt I Kill Giants will be the one to finally win you over.

-Brandon Ledet