Electric Swan (2020)

One of the more uniquely impressive strengths of cinema as an artform is its ability to mimic the loopy, transcendent quality of dreams like no other medium. My favorite films tend to be the most highly-stylized, shamelessly artificial indulgences in cinematic fantasy, the ones that disregard the limitations of real-world logic to instead achieve something distinctly subliminal & surreal. The 40-minute mini-feature Electric Swan taps into that subliminal dream space with an impressive sense of ease. It’s a quiet, low-key drift through a retro-futurist dystopia that’s just as mesmerizing & frustratingly unresolved as any nightmare you’ve had during a mid-afternoon nap. It doesn’t have anything especially novel or pointed to say about the class disparity conflicts that give shape to its story, but the hypnotic, dissociative filter it processes those themes through help them to upset & resonate in a way only a movie or a nightmare could allow.

Almost the entirety of Electric Swan is confined to a retro-futurist apartment building in Buenos Aires. Like in a lot of dystopian sci-fi, the wealthiest residents live on the top floor of the building, with levels of class descending with the floor levels all the way to the basement – where the building’s Indigenous, impoverished security guard lives alone. We mostly watch the guard make his daily rounds, acting as a doorman, handyman, therapist, and babysitter at the beck and call of the building’s residents. Both the wealthy and the working class children he serves describe their dreams to him while he struggles to keep up with his daily duties without assistance. Meanwhile, the building itself takes on a menacing presence, as if it were literally haunted by the class divisions it upholds. The wealthy on the top floors become mysteriously nauseous with motion sickness as the building sways; the security guard’s humble basement dwelling floods from an unknown water source; and everyone in-between acts as if the world’s about to end at any minute. Then, same as if in a dream, their shared reality abruptly shifts entirely in a way that cannot be explained by logic or by narrative tradition.

Electric Swan might only get away with its subliminal loopiness because it’s so firmly tethered to familiar genre tropes. The whole thing plays as if someone explained the plot of High-Rise to you as a bedtime fairy tale and then you scrambled all the details in a half-remembered dream. The ease in which it distorts its matter-of-fact portrait of class disparity through a surrealist dream lens is only really paralleled in recent post-Buñuel oddities from South America like Zama, Icaros: A Vision, and Good Manners. Its style vs. substance balance is more befitting of a music video than a feature film, which is likely to agitate anyone who looks to movies for “a good story” rather than a transcendent sensory experience. If you’re typically drawn to movies that play like dreams or to the eerie space where dystopian sci-fi meets fairy tale fantasy, this is one of the most vivid class allegories you’re likely to find this year. And even if you don’t fall under its spell, it’s too short to truly waste your time.

-Brandon Ledet

The Cell (2000)

I remembered really liking Tarsem Singh’s debut feature, The Cell, when I first saw it as a blockbuster VHS rental in my impressionable teen years in the early aughts. That fond memory has faded over the last couple decades as the details of the film itself became overwhelmed by critical complaints that it was a thematically thin bore and, frankly, by an increasing number of goodwill-tanking stinkers within Tarsem’s own catalog. I have since left The Cell behind as if it were a childish plaything, convinced that The Fall was the sole fluke when Tarsem had stumbled into creating a feature film worthy of his consistently stunning imagery. It was a pleasant surprise on revisit, then, that The Cell holds up to the exquisite nightmare I remembered it being in my initial viewing. Contrary to its reputation, Tarsem’s debut absolutely fucking rules, meaning the “visionary” director has two anomaly masterpieces under his name, and one of them stars Jennifer Lopez.

If The Cell is lacking anything that’s achieved more eloquently in The Fall, it’s certainly a matter of narrative & thematic substance. While the latter film is a morally complex exploration of the nature of storytelling, deceit, and imagination, Tarsem’s debut leaves all its ideas & plot machinations in plain view on the surface. Its dumb-as-rocks premise is an attempt to take the “Entering the mind of a killer” plot from Silence of the Lambs as literally as possible. That’s it; that’s the entire movie. JLo is our de facto Clarice Starling in this ungodly mutation of the Silence of the Lambs template, with Vincent d’Onofrio putting in a deeply creepy serial killer performance in the Hannibal Lector role (and Vince Vaughn taking over some of her on-the-ground detective work). Like in the psychedelic anime Paprika & the dream-hopping blockbuster Inception that followed nearly a decade later, JLo literally enters the subconscious mind of her maniacal serial killer patient via futuristic sci-fi- tech that essentially allows her to lucidly dream inside someone else’s head. Once lodged inside the nightmare realms of his twisted mind, she must race against the clock to discover clues that could save his latest potential victim from death (and hopefully help him heal along the way).

I could maybe see this Dream Police setup being disregarded as too convoluted or silly to be worthwhile in certain audiences’ eyes if the nightmare fantasy realms it facilitates weren’t so intoxicatingly lush. Bolstered by breath-taking creations from legendary fashion designer (and frequent Tarsem collaborator) Eiko Ishioka, The Cell often plays like a haute couture fashion show by way of Jodorowsky. Nature footage, fetish gear, and babydoll-parts art instillations serve as mood-setting set decorations for Ishioka’s designs, which look like they were inspired by the Royal Court of Hell. On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames those high fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise The Cell has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of these high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, however, as it sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).

If you boil down the most common complaints about The Cell to their most inane essence, the movie has been largely dismissed for following a “style over substance” ethos. This would be an incredibly boring take on any movie in my opinion, but it’s especially egregious considering just how exquisite the style is here (thanks to Ishioka, largely). My best guess is that Tarsem’s prior work as a music video & television commercial director had helped contextualize this piece as an exercise in pure style in critics’ minds, as he even calls attention to that professional background by recreating his sets from his “Losing My Religion” video in the killer’s troubled mind. Helpfully, though, he also calls attention to the aesthetic differences of this film and the grimy torture porn visuals that would soon become an industry standard. The next potential victim is locked in a time-controlled torture device (the titular cell) that will drown her if JLo doesn’t heal the serial killer in time, making the film’s real word setting feel just as much like a precursor to Saw as it is an echo of Silence of the Lambs. That grimy torture device helps establish clear, tangible stakes for JLo’s literal trips into the killer’s mind, but it also serves as a wonderfully illustrative contrast to the lush nightmare-couture of the dream sequences. In comparing that titular torture device to the serial killer’s nightmare realms, you can clearly see how Tarsem’s distinct sense of style transform a potentially mundane genre picture into an impeccable work of fine art – substance be dammed.

The only shame is that Tarsem’s struggled to repeat that miracle in the decades since, with one major exception in The Fall. Still, two five-star achievements in a single career would be an impressive feat for anyone. It’s a miracle that he got away with even that much.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet

Miss Hokusai (2016)

fourstar

Brandon directed us to keep it spooky this past October, and although that’s normally my forte, there was a dearth of time to check out much horror goodness this past month (notably, my only review last month was of Magnificent Seven, while my review of tense anxiety-driven thriller Don’t Breathe found itself online during September). I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of the animated feature Miss Hokusai, which, despite not being a scary movie, does have a lot of the hallmarks thereof: ghosts, dragons, demons, and spectres.

The film exists less as a straightforward narrative and more as a series of vignettes that depict short periods of time in the life of Katsushika Ōi, the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, a painter most well known in the west for The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which I (and probably you) had a poster of in college. Plot descriptions of the film imply that the plot will largely center on the fact that Ōi was herself a painter whose own work was overshadowed by her more famous father, but this is actually a relatively minor element. The most overarching themes are Hokusai’s failure as a father to Ōi’s blind younger sister O-Nao (a character invented for the narrative), whom he ignores in favor of his work and because he feels responsible, as well as Ōi’s attempts to transcend her own artistic limitations. Along the way, she fends off an overzealous suitor and spends time with O-Nao, taking her for walks and treats.

The more striking visual elements come largely from dream sequences and a few scattered moments of magical realism. Most notably, a dragon that Ōi paints (after ruining Katsushika’s painting of the same) appears in the sky over their humble abode, and a courtesan whose neck is rumored to grow overnight is shown to have a spectral head that leaves her body in the night and attempts to fly away, but is kept in check by bed netting. In another sequence, a woman is haunted by dreams of Hell and the demons therein after receiving one of Ōi’s paintings depicting just that scene; Katsushika must correct this error by including an image of salvation in a tiny corner, underlining the apparent message that art releases beauty and terror into the world in equal measure. Ōi herself is also haunted by strange dreams of being trampled by gods when she realizes that O-Nao will die, and that the young girl fears damnation because her handicap prevents her from being a “good daughter” to her parents.

There’s a lot more going on in Miss Hokusai than is first apparent, but the film is not without its flaws either. The vignette nature of the film leaves something to be desired narratively, and there are musical choices that are, frankly, puzzling. Still, this is a beautiful movie with images that intrigue and disquiet, and it’s well worth watching if you can track down a screening.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Girl Asleep (2016)

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fourstar

There’s only so much twee preciousness some people can handle, so I’m just going to throw out a few cultural references up front to send the haters running: Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Miranda July. I can say with total confidence that the surrealist coming of age comedy Girl Asleep is not a by-the-books exercise in twee whimsy that closely resembles any of those particular cultural markers, but I do believe you need to have an enthusiasm for that thematic territory to take delight in its many charms. Romantic awkwardness, paper mache costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape, but I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. After championing little-loved titles like The Future, Mood Indigo, and Gentlemen Broncos in the past I may not have the best track record in distinguishing which twee movies are going to delight or annoy general audiences, but I found that Girl Asleep easily fit in the upper tier of that genre, as divisive as it is.

A young teenager (Bethany Whitmore, who provided some voice work for the excellent forgotten gem Mary and Max), suffers a perfect storm of coming of age anxieties on the cusp of her 15th birthday. She moves to a new town. Her parents bicker loudly over their dwindling passion. Her older sister acts out in a way that makes her invisible. The popular girls at her new school bully her into acting the way they see fit and the only boy who’s nice to her wants to become “more than just friends.” All of this culminates in the disastrous pressure put on her when her parents invite the entire school to a birthday celebration she does not want to attend, especially not in the homemade dress they pick out for her. Unable to ease her anxiety entirely through her stress origami, she naps a large chunk of the party away & works through her inner turmoil in a surrealist dreamscape where she turns the journey from girlhood to adulthood into a literal trek across a physical threshold. In her dreamworld her dad takes the form of a grotesque booger monster who wants to “protect” her & make corny jokes into infinity. Her mother is a frigid ice queen. Her romantic stirrings take on overwhelming nightmare vibes. She fights the popular girls with physical force instead of verbal sparring (not unlike in the ludicrous Jane Austen bastardization Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Girl Asleep filters the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm and the results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged. It’s a simple story with a familiar tone that could have easily been mishandled (*cough* Me and Earl and the Dying Girl *cough*), but the film somehow pulls through to make for a delightful, idiosyncratic experience.

Something I greatly respect Girl Asleep for is its disinterest in establishing a hard dividing line between its reality & its fantasy. The film traffics in a disco era psychedelia, complete with Soul Train dance breaks and earth tone sprites hiding in its brown stone walls & wood paneling, long before its protagonist indulges in an angry party nap. I occasionally found its squared-off television format aspect ratio to be a distraction that undercut the expansiveness of some of its individual shots, but my initial expectation of that choice differentiating between “reality” and a wider aspect ratio for the dreamworld thankfully never came to be. Instead, the whole film worked as one long fantasy piece where the rules of its loose grasp on what’s “really” happening were constantly shifted to fit the mood & intent of the moment. Often, when films choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama and the result is a thorough delight & a constant surprise.

Again, this film is going to be a love it or hate it experience depending on the audience’s stomach for twee whimsy & sweetness. Personally, I was eating out of its hand for the entire runtime and left the theater smiling, fully sated. I’m trying to think of other titles from this year that came across this imaginative & this aggressively feminine, and the only two that immediately came to mind were Nerve & The Dressmaker, two films I absolutely adored. Coming of age comedies are a dime a dozen & many will likely claim that the whimsical surrealism on display here is nothing too new or too inventive, but I found Girl Asleep to be a wildly anarchic & imaginative fairy tale despite its familiar framework. I’m admittedly a huge sucker for dream logic in my film narratives & have a high tolerance for twee as an aesthetic, but I honestly found it to be one of the most memorably uplifting and surprisingly adventurous cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. Girl Asleep is likely to find the right audience once enough people can get the chance to latch onto its dog whistle charms and I sincerely hope it earns the longevity it deserves.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Paperhouse (1988)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Alli, and Britnee watch Paperhouse (1988).

Boomer: Paperhouse is an odd little film. Helmed by Brit director Bernard Rose, the film follows the frenzied dreams of an artistic young girl, Anna (Charlotte Burke), as she finds herself flipping back and forth between the real world (where she is suffering from a glandular fever) and the fantasy world that is home to the titular paper house of her design. The lines between reality and unreality start to blur as she strikes up a friendship with Marc (Elliott Spiers), a disabled boy living in the otherworldly house and with no memory of life outside of it; when she learns from her physician (Gemma Jones) that Marc is real, things start to get more surreal and bizarre.

This wasn’t Rose’s directorial debut; he had previously worked in various roles on the last season of The Muppet Show and on The Dark Crystal before a short stint making music videos, most notably for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.” After two smaller films that are largely forgotten, Rose directed Paperhouse, which was a perennial favorite on IFC in the early 2000s, before moving on to direct cult classic (and his only other truly great film) Candyman, released in 1992. Candyman is undeniably a horror film, and Paperhouse was largely lumped in with the horror genre upon home video release as well, despite not strictly deserving that distinction. It’s much more of a mood piece, with a relatively simple story elevated by striking visuals and a moodily beautiful score by Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer (Rose certainly knows how to choose composers; Candyman’s Philip Glass soundtrack is so haunting that Glass apparently still makes royalties from it each year, no doubt helped by the fact that “Helen’s Theme” continues to appear in other genre works, most recently American Horror Story).

I love this film, and have seen it at least a half dozen times, but there is always enough time between each viewing that I forget that the film has a longer ending than I expect. For me, the film reaches its narrative conclusion when [spoiler alert] Anna learns that Marc has died. Although I’m not opposed to the resolution of Anna and her family (including her father, whose notable absence informs much of the psychological underpinnings of the film) returning to the seaside and revisiting a happier time, there is something about the ending that seems as little too pat, especially in light of the mildly silly scene in which Marc reappears to Anna. What do you think, Brandon? Did the ending seem out of place to you, or am I being too critical? Would you suggest a different conclusion?

Brandon: If I had to fault Paperhouse for anything it’d be the muddled nature of its central metaphor. The film operates in a spooky 80s kids’ movie headspace that I’m always a huge sucker for and the dream logic of both its set design & its eerie score is wonderfully chilling. There’s just something a little off in its dreamworld narrative that makes it difficult for me to track its overriding metaphor (not that I mind the ambiguity). Two sick children meet in the shared dreamworld set of a hand-drawn house and their recovery in the real world is dependent upon their progress in that fantasy space. Marc, who is unaware of this dichotomy despite Anna’s frequent explanations, suffers a fairly straightforward narrative where he slowly dies due to complications that arise through his muscular dystrophy. As Boomer points out, his death in the real world seems like a logical place for the story to end, but I do believe that the seaside resort epilogue was a necessary addition to the story, because Anna’s own struggle was at that point still largely unresolved.

Anna’s near-death experience with a glandular fever is what puts her in contact with the paperhouse fantasy where she meets Marc, but her true conflict is a mental health struggle related to her anxieties over an absent, alcoholic father. When Marc dies he rides a helicopter to heaven that relieves the real world pains of his body. In the seaside epilogue Anna tempted to leave behind her own pain by joining Marc in the helicopter, a moment that’s coded as a suicide attempt at the edge of a cliff. This last minute crisis might not make much sense in a typical three act story structure, but I do think Anna flirting with the relief of death is a powerful idea that Paperhouse would be lacking without, especially in its indication that her mental health struggle wasn’t instantly wiped away upon her father’s return.

Where I stumble a little in my reading of this conflict is in understanding the exact relationship between Anna & her father. Paperhouse explains the father figure to be a drunk & an abandoner in the real world, which is meant to explain Anna’s anxiety, lashing-out rebelliousness, and eventual disinterest in continuing to live. In the dreamworld, however, her father is far more abusive than that. Blinded by rage (both Anna’s & his own), Dream Dad strikes a terrifying nightmare of an image, destroying the physical objects Anna created & cherished with a hammer and physically beating her in the chest nearly to the point of death. No mention is ever made in the real world of Anna being physically abused by her father, but the brutality & specificity of the hammer & the chest-beating in the dreamworld at least makes it plausible that Anna was afraid that such abuse was a possibility. Coming back to Boomer’s original question, if there’s anything lacking in the ending for me it’s how easy Anna & her father’s seaside reconciliation feels after the brutality of their altercation in the dreamworld. Anna gets in the cathartic zinger, “You don’t have to be invisible to disappear, Dad,” but she does eventually forgive him after the helicopter/suicide crisis and the family is again made whole, which might be a little too neat & tidy of a conclusion given Anna’s near-fatal parental anxieties.

Britnee, how literal did you take the physical abuse in the dreamworld to be? Do you think it was intended as a reflection of something that happened in the real world or simply an amplification of Anna’s anxieties over her father’s alcoholism?

Britnee: One of the many mysteries in Paperhouse is the relationship between Anna and her father. Part of me feels as though the abuse in the dreamworld was more of a reflection of something Anna witnessed rather than something she experienced herself. If her father did indeed abuse her, I feel as though she would have been much more fearful of him in her dreams, but she wasn’t very scared of him considering how creepy the whole situation was. I really think she witnessed her father abusing her mother. Anna’s dreams allowed her to see the potential of her father’s alcoholism, and it really seemed like a big eye opener for her in the real world. There was something about the mannerisms of her mother that makes me believe she had a traumatizing experience with her husband. She seemed a bit shaky when she would light up her cigarettes, and she seemed to be in an entirely different world herself (perhaps Anna’s real world was her paperhouse?). I do agree with Brandon’s frustration with the very simple reunion at the end of the film. It actually made me a little nervous for Anna’s well-being; however, I’ve also been watching a lot of Dr. Phil lately, so that may have something to do with my uneasy thoughts about Anna and Drunk Dad.

What I found most interesting about Paperhouse was the confusing soundtrack. Brilliant, but so confusing. During the film’s opening credits, I was waiting for a dead body to fall out into the school hallway. I kept waiting for a gruesome, terrifying scene, but by the latter half of the film, I just gave up. There were a handful of scenes that were spooky, especially when Drunk Dad captures Anna in her dreamworld, but nothing was half as scary as the tunes in the background. Needless to say, I was surprised to find that the film fell way more on the drama side than on the horror.

Alli, did you feel as though the film’s score was out of place? Did the music add to the creepiness of Anna’s dreamworld? Did you get more horror vibes or fantasy vibes from that world?

Alli: Initially the score felt very spooky and out of place to me and definitely made me feel like more bad things were going to happen; but once in the dreamworld, it felt really appropriate. The low ominous synth sounds seem to enhance the vast emptiness you see around the house. What especially made the score work in the dreamworld was that at some points it became diegetic with the talking radio. While the idea of a talking mumbling radio seems reminiscent of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, here it was very creepy, as the nightmare dad seemed to be talking through it a little bit.

The dreamworld to me was very much a fantasy and an escape from the fact that she’s lonely at school and at home. While it starts off as something she can control very quickly it functions on it’s own bizarre logic, where some of the things she draws turn up very realistically and other things just are crooked and funny. It’s not until the faceless dad that it gets into nightmare zone, and even then he feels more like an intruder than an aspect of the dreamworld. In Anna’s life he is sort of an intruder, showing up whenever he feels like it both emotionally and physically.

But as much as the dad seems like a dark figure in Anna’s life, her mom is really not better at all. It’s no wonder she acts out with a mother who is as unsupportive as we see on screen. She criticizes Anna’s drawings very rudely and isn’t really nurturing at all until Anna is extremely ill, in a sort of trying to make it up to her way. Both parents seem to just make up for the lack of love with material things like riding lessons and manufactured happy trips to the seashore, which I think makes the ending more depressing and bitter.

Boomer, what did you think of the mom’s role? Is she just as bad as the dad or is she just a single mother at the end of her leash?

BoomerI feel like we’re being more critical of both parents here than is called for, at least based on my reading of the film. Multiple times, we see how the dreamworld of the paperhouse is influenced by things that Anna sees or vaguely recalls, or by her physical circumstances in the real world. The reason that Anna feels like she is being beaten in the dreamworld is because, in the waking world, the paramedics are giving her compressions to keep her alive. The reason that her father appears as a backlit creepy shadow is because she encouraged her mother to let the photo of him at the beach develop for too long, until he becomes a dark figure in the image, and thus in her mind. The father doesn’t seem abusive to me, either to his wife or to Anna, so much as he is an unknowable being, his absence making him a figure that is half-remembered and half-imagined, larger than life but imposing.

The mother, for her part, reads more as a woman who’s been run ragged by holding down a household with a misbehaving young girl, suddenly stricken with illness. She has artistic pursuits of her own, as evidenced by her home dark room, and likely has had to sublimate her interest into being both breadwinner and full time caretaker to Anna due to her husband’s chronic and prolonged absence.

One of the things I like most about the film is the fact that no character is a paragon. As a heroine, Anna is a surprisingly postmodern. She’s a girl, but not feminized. She’s not stereotyped as drawing a dream house that’s reminiscent of the kind of future home girls are encouraged to imagine, but a strikingly dull building instead. She tries on make-up, but not to impress a boy; she just wants to try it for herself. Usually, female protagonists can only avoid being sexualized if they are infantilized (and, unfortunately, not even then), and although Anna is young, she’s not treated as an idealized perfect child. She lies, she throws tantrums, she skips school, and, most importantly, she’s not demonized for this either. These are just aspects of her character, not flaws that need to be corrected with external discipline, but that make up the gestalt that is Anna. Her mother, though her screentime is shorter than Anna’s, makes her seem fully-fleshed in her own way as well. She even seems genuinely loving, going so far as to dig through the whole building’s trash to placate what she must assume is some feverish madness.

Am I giving the film too much credit, Brandon? Am I making excuses for the movie because I like it, or have I convinced you that there’s more going on at the character level than there first appears?

Brandon: Please forgive me for the banality of this answer, but I think a lot of that ambiguity falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation. Paperhouse is in the most basic sense a story about lucid dreaming. Dream logic always comes with a certain level of impenetrable surrealism to it and there’s been an entire industry full of psychologist “experts” built around the therapeutic benefits of dream interpretation. Then there’s the film’s art therapy element, in which Anna creates a personal space for herself where she can exude total control as an omnipotent (and highly fallible) god. Both the weird dream logic & the art therapy surrealism of the film’s basic plot leave Paperhouse with a lot of room for personal interpretation in its symbolism, especially once Anna’s drawings start affecting real world change in Marc’s medical condition. Personally, I see a drunk dad who scares Anna (who points out his alcoholism in the darkroom scene) and a mother who may be frazzled, but is not at all abusive (as evidenced in the manic trash-digging scene). I also read a third act suicide attempt at the edge of the cliff, but I’ll willingly admit that I’m reaching for a solid explanation for an intentionally lyrical moment there, which may be the wrong way to go about things in this movie.

So much of this movie is literally in Anna’s head that it’s near impossible to tell what’s “really” happening from minute to minute. How much of our darker interpretations of the parents’ behavior is being influenced by the horror film dread of Myers & Zimmer’s score? How much of the dreamworld content is merely, as Boomer suggests, reflections of images Anna encounters throughout the day, as many dreams tend to be? There’s no “true” answers to these questions, as the film intentionally deals in ambiguity. There’s evidence that Anna’s dreamworld surrogate was truly communicating with Marc’s, a boy she never met in a physical space, but everything else is left open-ended. The film kind of works like a coloring book: it provides a basic outline of how its world works and invites its audience to color in the details. Maybe we’ve been coloring a little outside the lines in our personal interpretations here, but I think the movie invites that kind misbehavior. I also don’t believe that misbehavior is a detriment to either of the central characters, though, as I never felt like I lost track of Marc or Anna as complex, multifaceted human beings. It’s their own personal interpretations of the adults in their lives that throw off our perception as an audience & complicate some of the film’s intent & metaphor.

Britnee, I’m getting some flashbacks to our Movie of the Month conversation about Black Moon here, particularly in our attempts to parse out what the film specifically “means.” Instead of picking apart an intentionally inscrutable art film, though, we’re discussing a movie that was ostensibly made with a very young audience in mind. Do you think the darkness & ambiguity helps the film in this case, considering the flexible imaginations of the children intended to see it? As adults, are we reading more solid, static interpretations of the film’s metaphor than we might have as kids, when Paperhouse could possibly have survived purely on mood instead of concrete symbolism?

Britnee:  While I was in college, I took a history class that focused on the 1960s, and most of that course involved watching films, such as Go Tell the Spartans and Easy Rider, and writing about them. Before viewing each film, my professor would say, “Remember, every detail, whether major or minor, in a film means something. There is symbolism everywhere.” That really stuck with me, and since then I always feel somewhat guilty if I don’t search for meaning behind every little detail in a movie. I’m glad that Brandon brought up the point that this is a film intended for a younger audience. I need to remind myself every now and then that sometimes (maybe even most of the time), films are created solely for the purpose of pleasure and entertainment.

Ignoring the interpretations we made of Anna’s dreamworld as well as her relationship with her parents (Drunk Dad in particular) and viewing the film through the eyes of a child, Paperhouse seems a bit more whimsical. A film about drawings that come to life in dreams and a magical friendship that only exists in the dreamworld seems a lot better than a film about a girl with neglectful and abusive parents. Paperhouse becomes another film entirely. Even the darker elements of the film take on a new meaning. Anna’s scary dream father becomes a product of a mistake in her magical drawing instead of an abusive parent turned villain. As for the darkness and ambiguity of the film, I think it actually contributes to the film’s fantasy elements and makes it much more exciting for the intended adolescent audience. If I was eight years old watching Paperhouse for the first time, my imagination would be running wild during those scenes in Anna’s dreamworld.

Alli, I was really irritated by the mystery between Anna and Marc’s friendship. If only we were able to know if Marc was having his own recurring dream with Anna. What if they were possibly sharing the same dream? The fact that we will never know just kills me. What are your thoughts on the telepathic connection between Anna and Marc? Would you have enjoyed seeing Marc’s side of things?

Alli: I think the interesting thing about Anna and Marc’s friendship is that he has no knowledge of the world outside the dream, which leads me to believe that he was kind of subconsciously called there. Not to try to make too much technical sense of dream logic, it seems like they are sharing a dream, but since he’s less in control of it he is much more wrapped up in the dream state. Like Brandon said Paperhouse seems to be about lucid dreaming. It would be a lot harder for Marc’s dream-self to be aware what’s going on. For him, this is probably just a really crappy dream where instead of being a fantastic escape he’s still sick and unable to walk and there’s this girl urging him to be happy. As we’ve already said, we’re very sympathetic with Anna though and it’s hard to fault a girl for accidentally summoning a sick boy into her dream. I think not knowing Marc’s side of things gives us an opportunity to watch Anna grow more from her perspective. Not seeing Marc’s side, we’re figuring him out as she is. By doing that this film really captures the vulnerability of making friends as kids with kid emotions. They’re so tumultuous and dramatic, because kids are still figuring out themselves and their own boundaries.

I’m going to dare to interpret the dream logic more and say that a lot of these volatile, underdeveloped emotions are mirrored in the dreams. Her dream house is bare. The dreams themselves go from just having a conversation to terrifying faceless dream dad pretty quickly.  As traumatic as they were, the dream conflicts help Anna find more of herself. These dreams are so hard and scary because figuring out yourself is hard and scary. She learns more how to honestly interact with people and to take responsibility for her actions. She learns empathy, which is really hard for kids to learn, by talking to Marc. As she learns more about herself and matures, the dreams become more fleshed out and less bleak. 

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Brandon: Paperhouse reminds me of a very specific time in 80s children media where stories were allowed to be dark & ambiguous in a way that a lot of the more sanitized kids’ movies of late wouldn’t dare. Titles like The NeverEnding Story, Lady in White, and Return to Oz all specifically came to mind while watching the film, but I have to admit I think it’s closest comparison point was released in 2005. The Dave McKean & Neil Gaiman collaboration MirrorMask is a children’s fantasy film in which a young girl feels immense guilt over fighting with her mother before they’re separated by a sudden illness. She wrestles with this anxiety during an extended dream in which she enters & explores a world she drew by hand in her own bedroom. Sound familiar? MirrorMask is a little more obvious & blunt in its central metaphor & a lot more expansive in its dream space, but otherwise the pair make interesting companion pieces.I think if you really enjoyed one, it’d be more than worthwhile to seek out the other.

Alli: I also thought of MirrorMask, and its terrifying dreamworld, but another Neil Gaiman creation came to mind as well, Coraline, which is another story about a girl upset at her parents entering a dreamworld with duplicate parents. The terrifying Other Mother is reminiscent of faceless dad. But there’s another similarity for me. One disappointing thing the Coraline movie did that deviated from the book was to add in the male character, Wybie, that besides being a sidekick also seems to have an unnecessary crush on Coraline. And that kind of touches on my one gripe with Paperhouse. I kind of wished that Anna and Marc hadn’t become crushes and just remained friends. You so rarely see male-female friendships in movies.

Britnee: I feel really bad for being so rough on Anna’s father. He was probably just a really nice, hardworking man that has to sacrifice spending time with his family to make a decent living. Instead of seeing that initially, I jumped to conclusions and labeled him as an alcoholic and abusive father. Shame on me.

Boomer: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading the father as an alcoholic, as there is certainly reference to his drinking in the text. That having been said, the mind of our main character (and perhaps all children) has a tendency to exaggerate the real world, as evidenced in the way that things become larger than life in the dreaming, and that’s how I interpret that particular nuance. Still, although that’s my reading of the text, the other readings are certainly valid as well.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Alli presents Last Night (1999)

January: The Top Films of 2016

-The Swampflix Crew

Ink (2009)

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three star

Online piracy is usually the scourge of the film industry, since many ticket & home video sales are lost to content that’s easily downloaded illegally. Occasionally, though, a small budget film will actually benefit from digital word of mouth & peer-to-peer sharing. The sci-fi fantasy epic Ink is a decent example of the way online piracy can boost a film’s notoriety. After a couple premieres at low-profile film festivals, Ink never scored a major theatrical or home distribution deal & initially suffered a limited, self-distributed DVD release with little to no fanfare. It wasn’t until the film saw major traffic on peer-to-peer torrenting sites that it earned any significant attention & it eventually scored VOD distribution that landed it on major streaming services like Hulu & Amazon Prime. Ink might be one of the few concrete examples of a film being saved instead of savaged by online piracy.

It’s not at all difficult to see how a film like Ink could attract a loyal cult fanbase. The specificity & intricately detailed structure of its dreamworld full of “pathfinders”, “storytellers”, “codes”, “access to the Assembly”, and magical bongos that open interdimensional doorways is perfect for fantasy nerds who eat up that kind of immersive worldbuilding. The film follows a group of mysterious dreamfolk who visit us while we sleep to protect our REM imagery from bad vibes. Aching to interrupt the fantasy are the nightmare assassins of bad vibes personified, a The Dark Side of dream warriors who range in style from plague doctors dressed in rags & chains to some kind of cyberpunk cross between Hellraiser‘s Pinhead & Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys. These fairy-like whimsies & cyberpunk nightmare baddies stage a literal battle between good & evil (complete with martial arts) while the “real” world tries to sleep through the night in peace. The fate of one little girl’s slumber & her workaholic father’s weakness for addiction give the story an in-the-moment sense of purpose & specificity, but for the most part the film is a work of fantasy genre worldbuilding more than it is a well-sketched out narrative.

The bummer about Ink is that it never feels like its means or its talent match the massive scale of its ambition. The film aims for the go-for-broke loopiness of a Terry Gilliam epic, but, unfortunately, also carries Gilliam’s languid sense of pacing without every nearing the same level of visual talent that the Monty Python vet commands with ease. At best the film feels like a lesser version of titles I hold in much higher regard. Its bedtime spookiness & made-for-TV visual cheese recall the sleep paralysis “documentary” The Nightmare. Its storybook push & pull between the dream world & waking life feels like a direct descendant of the far superior Dave McKean epic MirrorMask (right down to the annoying street performer/tour guide). Honestly, most of Ink feels inconsequential until a climactic narrative twist that lands with enough of a significant impact that you feel compelled to give the movie a second watch . . . or at least a hearty recommendation to a fantasy-minded friend (who’s already watched MirrorMask 1,000 too many times).

Still, I was ultimately surprised & charmed by what Ink delivered, if not only because of its limited budget visual cheapness & lack of a vocal fanbase. The film has an endearing pedigree as an underdog story of mishandled distribution & subsequent reappraisal. I found myself rooting for it to succeed & there was enough payoff in its last minute narrative twist & overall attention to worldbuilding that made the effort feel worthwhile.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorority House Massacre (1986)

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threehalfstar

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By the time the dirt cheap slasher flick Sorority House Massacre made the journey to DVD it was being marketed as a companion  piece to the similarly-titled Slumber Party Massacre franchise. The two properties aren’t entirely dissimilar. At the very least they’re both female-directed slashers (in this case the sole credit of someone named Carol Frank), which somewhat of a rarity in a genre that relies so heavily on the male gaze to generate its terror. Sorority House Massacre has a much more easily recognizable point of reference with connections that run a little deeper than that titular similarity, though. The film is largely a cheap knockoff of the seminal John Carpenter slasher Halloween, and not only because Halloween pioneered the art form. Sorority House Massacre‘s escaped mental patient killer shares Michael exact backstory, right down tot the sister who escaped the bloody end of his knife. The difference is, of course, that this time his potential meat-bag victim of a sibling is a sorority pledge college student instead of a high school teenybopper.

Yet, there’s a really strange undertone to Sorority House Massacre that elevates it above the lowly dregs of solely functioning as a blatant Halloween ripoff. The film’s title card, which spells “Sorority House” in Greek letters & “Massacre” in corny-even-for-its-time bloodsplatter, promises the same kind of shameless gore fest that opens De Palma’s Blow Out. Indeed, its very limited theater fun positions the film essentially as a straight-to-VHS horror, but I honestly believe it pulls off something much more interesting than what’s typically associated with that pedigree. Sorority House Massacre sets itself apart from its dirt cheap home video peers by playing with the loopy surreality of dream logic & memory, allowing the simple concept of deja vu to tamper with & complicate its visual narrative. The film is bargain basement trash, to be clear, but in the moments where it allows fragments of the past to interrupt its strict genre film present, it somehow manages to approach an art house effect.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the film’s plot follows a young college student who moves into a sorority house that just happens to be the exact childhood home where her estranged brother murdered every member of their family in cold blood. It’s a trauma she doesn’t remember, since she was a young child at the time & her brother has been institutionalized ever since. The film keeps the exact details of this setup clouded as long as it possibly can, but as soon as you can piece together the Halloween mimicry, that obfuscation is a wasted effort. As I said, the most interesting aspect of the film is not the plot itself, but the unnerving way its visual narrative is affected by memory & dream logic. The film opens with the deja vu-inspired back & forth imagery of the sorority house & the mental institution co-mingling. Then the childhood memories creep in: little girls playing on the lawn, a creepy dining room tableau of mannequins at a pristinely set dinner table, blood dripping from the ceiling. Things get even weirder from there as our Prime Victim starts having visions of her brother, a total stranger, attempting to stab her from the other side of a mirror. If this weirdness were entirely isolated to nightmare sequences it’d be one thing, but the way past & memory mixes with the two locations in the waking life present is a much more fascinating push & pull than that.

Of course, that’s not to say that Sorority House Massacre is some lost gem from a short-lived auteur. Carol Frank, whoever she is, constructs a visually interesting slasher here, but it’s still a trashy slasher film nonetheless. As a camp fest, the film delivers on the cheap dream imagery, terrible acting, and cheesy dialogue. Sometimes this aspect cheapens the artier visual experimentation, like in a classroom montage that directly references deja vu, foreshadowing, pop psychology, and mortality or in lines like “The knife is a phallic symbol!” & “Maybe we’re the haunted sorority house after all!” Any hopes of the film being taken seriously are already dashed by the time a cheap John Carpenter knockoff synth score & a first person cam from the killer’s POV confirm the its Halloween ripoff pedigree, though. It also doesn’t help that the film’s stabbing deaths are never brutal or creative enough to be particularly memorable. And that’s not even to mention the scene where the girls are watching TV during a power outage or the one where a boom mic makes a guest appearance on their walk to class.

I think what does make Sorority House Massacre feel special in the context of its genre is its uniquely feminine energy. The title promises the salaciousness of a softcore porno, but the nude breasts that are on display, although copious, are somehow treated less exploitatively than they would normally be in the genre. For instance, the first nude scene features not one, but three topless co-eds, but it’s a hilariously cheesy dress-up montage featuring enough saxophone riffs & rapid outfit changes to make even the  most dedicated Blossom or Teen Witch fans roll their eyes. Just as the booby-leering is oddly diffused, the film also softens the inherently misogynistic nature of the slasher genre’s woman-hunting by culling most of its terror from weird images like bleeding mirrors & photographs instead of the more traditional lady-stabbing horror, which plays here almost like an afterthought.

Given this slightly feminized energy and the strange back & forth of the dream & deja vu imagery, I’m more than willing to forgive Sorority House Massacre‘s glaring similarities to the Halloween franchise. In the long run, what is it that makes a film like this a “ripoff” & films like It Follows or The Final Girls an “homage” except the thirty years that separate their release dates? Sorority House Massacre is not a mindblowing, exceptional forgotten gem of the slasher genre by any means, but it is a lot more visually striking & weirdly energetic than I expected. If nothing else, when I discovered that a Sorority House Massacre II was released in 1990, I found myself surprisingly game,which might be the best possible litmus test for a straight-to-VHS slasher of this caliber.

-Brandon Ledet

Dream Lover (1994)

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Thrillers and James Spader are two of my favorite things, but they do not come together harmoniously in Dream Lover. The film’s director, Nicholas Kazan, seemed to be more interested in making this a chic, sexy movie instead of a genuine psychological thriller and that was a bad move on his part. Many thrillers, especially those in the early 90s, have sexual elements that enhance their appeal, but something went terribly wrong with this one. Dream Lover isn’t a well-balanced film, but it was sort of enjoyable because it was so crappy (hence the Camp Stamp).

Ray Reardon (James Spader) is a successful businessman that becomes instantly attracted to Lena Mathers (Mädchen Amick), a beautiful woman he meets at an art gallery. They partake in a passionate love affair and after sleeping together a few times decide to tie the knot. Of course, after marrying Lena and not knowing much about her past, Ray finds himself in a marriage filled with mystery and deception. He has recurring clown nightmares that reflect his crumbling love life and I absolutely hated them. They didn’t blend in with the rest of the film and are insanely annoying. It quickly becomes obvious that Lena is psychotic and after Ray’s money, but her plan to get her hands on his money doesn’t surface until the end of the movie. Thankfully, Kazan allows the audience to have a little bit of fun attempting to figure out Lena’s diabolical plan.

Uncovering the mystery of Lena’s scheme was a bit fun, but the film was ultimately a very unsatisfying, predictable thriller. There weren’t many surprises or unexpected twists, which are some basic components to a decent thriller. Spader was the best thing about the film because his acting was flawless (as always), but it wasn’t enough to save the film from falling into the depths of bad movie Hell.

Dream Lover is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Britnee Lombas