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

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

Oz Perkins’s debut feature I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House displayed an impressive command of an ambient art horror tone, but bottled it up in such a stubborn sense of stasis that it felt wasted on a story that didn’t deserve it. His follow-up (paradoxically completed before Pretty Thing and since left floating in a distribution limbo) is just as tonally unnerving as that quiet nightmare of a debut, but applies it to a much more satisfying end. Perkins’s sensibilities as a horror auteur are wrapped up in the eeriness of droning sound design and the tension of waiting for the hammer to drop. That aesthetic an be frustrating when left to rot in a directionless reflection on stillness, but when woven into the fabric of a supernatural mystery the way it is in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it can be entirely rewarding, not to mention deeply disturbing.

Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) & Lucy Boynton (Sing Street, Don’t Knock Twice) star as two Catholic boarding school students left stranded for their one week winter break when their parents fail to show and collect them. One girl is dealing with the complications of a secret teenage romance while the other just feels painfully alone. Left in an empty school with only snow & prayers to fill their days, their dual sense of loneliness begins to feel violently oppressive. Meanwhile a third girl, played by Emma Roberts (Nerve), escapes from a mental hospital and hitchhikes her way towards the school, establishing a sense of mystery about exactly how her story will merge with theirs and how the three girls’ loneliness will manifest into a real world evil. Evil is both physical & metaphysical in the film, as it is in most Catholic setting horrors, but the way it will choose to present itself is obscured until its presence is inescapable.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter follows a fractured, non-linear structure that teases the possibility of a puzzle that isn’t meant to be solved. Flashbacks of priests, hospitals, boiler rooms, and cops wielding rifles are filtered through multiple unreliable POVs, paradoxical timelines, and unexplained occultist rituals that strongly suggest the film will ultimately be a Lynchian puzzlebox, a question without an answer. Suddenly, without emphasis, its story does become very clear and relatively simple as the cloud of mystery lifts. Notes of classic horror milestones like Halloween & The Exorcist emerge from the film’s deceptively loose, mysterious tone, bringing it to the mix of high art aesthetic & low genre film familiarity I love so much. What starts as an art film meditation on loneliness gradually reveals itself to be a much more familiar mode of violent horror filmmaking, a genre exercise masquerading as a complex mind puzzle. I love it for that.

In some ways The Blackcoat’s Daughter is just as languid as I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, but it sets in motion so many more moving pieces and is a lot more willing to deliver the violence implied by its horrific tone. Personally, I should probably be giving Perkins’s command of tone much more attention as an audience than I am already. Both of his features are hinged on a roaring, ambient soundtrack (crafted by his brother Elvis Perkins) that would probably be better experienced through headphones, or at least on a more expensive sound system than the one I have at home. If you’re curious about his work or just have an appetite for ambient horror in general, I highly recommend starting with The Blackcoat’s Daughter and giving it the full alone late at night with headphones treatment. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but I’m going to have to revisit it for that immersive soundscape experience myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Nerve (2016)

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If you read this blog regularly you might be surprised that there’s no Camp Stamp perched at the top of this review. Trust me, I’m even more surprised than you are. I went into Nerve expecting a trashy thriller version of Unfriended and, in some ways,  that’s exactly what the film delivered. However, I was shocked to find myself genuinely engaging with its smartphone app paranoia instead of chuckling at that gimmick’s over-the-top absurdity. In fact, I think Nerve is actually kind of brilliant? Like, maybe one of the best movies I’ve seen all year? What am I even saying? There’s something really special about how the film adopts the action thriller genre for teen girl sensibilities that I find really smart & fresh, if not long overdue. Other YA action properties like The Hunger Games & The Divergent Series might have female protagonists, so Nerve isn’t exactly unique there, but they typically appeal to a much wider demographic within a certain age range. Nerve, on the other hand, is the single most aggressively feminine action thriller I can ever remember seeing, an aesthetic that mixes with its killer smart phone app technophobia premise to create something really fun & truly memorable without devolving into so-bad-it’s-good schlock. This film is the biggest surprise of the summer for me & I’m already prepared to watch it again, being “the watcher”that I apparently am.

I guess I should admit up front I was already a little predisposed to root for Nerve‘s success before I even reached the theater, because its trailer promised that it’d indulge in one of my favorite recent movie tropes. Something that really excites me in modern genre pictures is when directors incorporate new, cheap forms of disposable digital imagery in their visual palette. I’ve been delighted by the real time Skype horror of Unfriended, the psychedelic emoji & social media game kaleidoscope of #horror, the pixelated flip phone video footage of Amy, etc. The only time cheap digital imagery has actively bothered me in a film was in David Lynch’s persistently ugly standard-definition work Inland Empire, but I’m willing to chalk that up as a failed early experiment. Nerve joins the fray, picking up with #horror‘s particular adoption of social media game imagery in its story about fame-hungry teens completing an escalating series of dares for large piles of cash. It’s basically Do It for the Vine: The Horror Film, with a steady flow of “like” cartoon hearts & glitchy animated .gif imagery backing up its online visual palette with a kind of creepy, “dark web” terror & grotesque message board sense of humor. The visual choices are not subtle here. When the film wants to conjure Anonymous, it breaks out the Guy Fawkes masks. It is, however, very much of the time and, in my opinion, a fascinating new avenue of visual discovery for cinema to explore while it still feels current to the cultural zeitgeist.

Although the film’s premise of teens competing for social media fame obviously carries a lot of millennial-shaming baggage in its basic DNA, Nerve‘s secret weapon is in how it celebrates teen-specific adventurousness within that digital-age moralizing. High school photography student Vee (Scream Queens‘s eternally hoarse Emma Roberts) finds herself frustrated with her reputation as a boring nerd & decides to shake up her safe, suburban life by adventuring into the big city (think of a less racist Adventures in Babysitting) in a game of Nerve. Hideously self-described as “a game of truth or dare without the truth,” Nerve is a social media game that combines modern surveillance state mining of personal information from various online profiles with a deadly version of reality TV game show gawking not too far off from Roger Corman & Paul Bartel’s creation in Death Race 2000. This teeny bopper millennial version of The Running Man drags a reluctant Vee far outside her comfort zone, Trojan horsing a surprisingly potent coming of age narrative inside a tawdry action thriller shell. Nerve might indulge in some occasional eyeroll-worthy Hollywood touches, mostly in its pairing of Vee with a cute romantic partner (“Lil'” Dave Franco, whose brother James apparently exists in this universe as his famous self) & its depiction of female-jealousies competitiveness between Vee & her best friend, but those relationships are actually determined & manipulated by the game’s “watchers”, so they’re more a part of the film’s audience indictment than a blind misstep. For the most part, this film is about Vee’s journey to find her own strengths & desires in a wild, out-of-character night of teenage rebellion & Bling Ring-esque excess set to aggressively girly pop music beats & the same neon lights nightlife palette of films like Drive. Vee is likeable, but also vaguely undefined in a way that allows her to serve as an audience surrogate for the kids playing along at home (both in the movie & otherwise). I can’t remember the last time a dangerous action thriller was so unashamedly marketed for teen girls. I have to say, it felt refreshing.

Unlike the film’s trailer, I don’t want to give away too much of Nerve‘s plot here, but things do get a little more complicated as the film indulges in some Hackers-style onsceen coding on “the dark web” in the third act. Vee & her mysterious suitor find themselves “prisoners of the game” where “the only way out is to win,” unless they can tear the whole system down against in a life-threatening race against the odds or whatever. In some ways it’s actually a miracle, given how much ground it covers & cinema’s current climate, that Nerve wasn’t adopted from its YA novel source material into a years-long trilogy with a two-part conclusion. Instead, we’re blessed with a fairly concise & effortless action thriller that I expected to find delightfully corny but instead just found delightful. The two leads are cute. The internet-specific imagery gimmick afforded the film some all-important distinctiveness. When two girls have a climactic argument it’s over something much more personally significant than boys (despite that conversation’s catalyst). There’s a moment where Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” is actually put to important, narratively potent use, maybe even standing as my favorite pop music cue of the year so far. There’s a “White People Problems” punchline that’s somehow legitimately funny despite this not being 2009. I’m not sure if this technically counts as a spoiler, but my entire theater gasped with joy when Samira “Poussey” Wiley appeared onscreen halfway into the runtime, which was the best communal at-the-movies moment I’ve had in a long while. For the most part, Nerve just made me feel great, an escapist high that marks the best aspect of the summertime action thriller.

It’d be easy to treat Nerve like a campy farce, thanks to its ludicrous premise or details like its drone-based jump scare or its tense shot of a mouse cursor pensively hovering over the “like” button on a Facebook post. However, I genuinely enjoyed the film far too much to treat it that way and those elements mostly play like self-aware summertime fun once the overall tone finds its appropriate groove. It’d also be easy to fault the film for its millennial shaming in the way it depicts teens as smart-phone addicted fame chasers, but I don’t thank that reading holds water either. If anything, Nerve presents a fantasy world where technology actually makes people more adventurous instead of less insular (the same argument a lot of folks tend to use to defend the popularity of Pokémon Go). Instead, I’d pin the film as the most surprisingly successful popcorn flick of the summer, a thoroughly enjoyable action thriller that shouts its teen girl femininity just as loudly & proudly as its instantly dated, 2016-specific pedigree. I’m honestly still in shock over how much that dynamic worked for me.

-Brandon Ledet