Shock Corridor (1963)

It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).

Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.

Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.

Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.

When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Hereditary (2018)

It’s no secret that I love horror movies. Of my top ten movies of 2015, 3-5 were horror (depending on how you categorize thrillers like Cop Car and Queen of Earth); in 2016, that was a solid five out of ten, and in 2017, six of fifteen. I even did a list of my favorite horror movies by year for the past fifty years in 2017, and that’s not even getting into my months-long Dario Argento retrospective before that. So it might surprise you to learn that I’m rarely actually scared by horror movies. We’re entering a new golden age of horror (both in film and in the real world, at least here in the U.S.), but it’s rare that a film manages to induce such fear and anxiety in the animalistic part of my brain that it manages to topple the wall of critical theory that usually takes center stage in my viewings. In essence, the value, entertainment and otherwise, that I normally get from a horror film viewing, is in the dissection of its component elements and its social statements and theses. For instance, as captivating as Get Out was, the rhetorical space created in the theater between me and the text was one of intense interest in and attention to the social criticism and symbology of the film rather than making me actually afraid at least until the arrival of those flashing lights at the end, when I feared our protagonist was about to be murdered by the police, as so many young black men in our country are every day. In the past half decade, very few films have managed to actually engage with my fear response over my academic interest “in the moment”: Don’t Breathe, The Babadook, IT, The VVitch, Raw, the aforementioned Cop Car, and probably one or two others that aren’t coming to mind immediately. That pantheon now has a new member: Hereditary.

What an amazing film. I’m going to do my best not to spoil anything about it, but be forewarned: if you’re so sharp a person that discussion of foreshadowing and artistic influences can spoil something for you, you should go and see the movie now now now and come back when you’re done. Ok? Welcome back. First and foremost, I’d like to salute the marketing of this film for so thoroughly managing to disguise the premise. I can’t remember the last time a film’s trailers and TV spots threw such an opaque veil over the text’s true subject matter and so effectively obscured the content to preserve the surprise, successfully. Last year’s mother! did this by crafting a trailer that told you nothing about the movie, really, but that ended in more of a severe disconnect between audience expectations and authorial . . . let’s call it “artistry.” That same division may be coming for Hereditary too, given the disparity between the critical consensus and audience response (sitting at 92% for the former and 59% for the latter on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). There was even a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences.

I’ll refrain from making too many broad statements about the general public’s unwillingness to be shocked, but suffice it to say I’m long past being surprised when the average moviegoer expresses disproportionate outrage when something genuinely novel comes along simply because it isn’t what they would expect. This is part and parcel of the democratization of criticism, as the internet provides a platform for everyone to express their views, from that racist idiot in your office, to that guy on the bus who’s been reading the same David Foster Wallace essay collection for months, to that group of women at the next table at Phoenicia who want nothing more out of a movie than a kiss between a handsome man and the lady whose love changed him (and to lowly old me!). This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it certainly blurs the lines of discourse. I’m going off topic (surprise), but the point holds true: the film that you’ll see after you buy your ticket is going to be a different experience than you’re expecting, and that’s a good thing.

So what should you expect instead? (To allay the fears of those concerned that this is potentially spoilery information, let me advise that there are some dream sequences in which the imagery is thematically relevant and resonant but not necessarily literal.) Since you aren’t me, I can’t just say: “Remember that bizarre dream we had after watching the final segment of XX while on post-surgery painkillers last year? It’s basically the same narrative, but with Toni Collette instead of Tyne Daly.” I mean, it is almost exactly that, but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. Imagine a horror movie version of Ordinary People and you’re halfway there; add in some concerns about the heredity of mental illnesses and imbalances, a dash of the St. Patrick’s Day segment of 2016’s Holidays, a few handfuls of Rosemary’s Baby, a pinch of Killing of a Sacred Deer, and a dash each of Hausu, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Ring, and Carrie, just for good measure. Admittedly, this is a jumble, but it leads to a cohesive narrative that is shocking, creepy, and depressing, all in good measure.

Annie Graham (Collette) is having a hard time dealing with the recent death of her mother, Ellen, a mentally unstable woman with dissociative identity disorder. Mental illness seems to run in her family, as her depressed father starved himself to death when she was an infant, and her schizophrenic brother committed suicide after accusing their mother of “trying to put people inside of him.” She is an artist who works in miniatures, several of which appear throughout the sumptuous but isolated home she shares with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and teenage stoner Peter (Alex Wolff). In many ways, Charlie is most like her mother, as she likewise creates miniatures and figurines, but unlike Annie’s meticulously carved, sculpted, and painted recreations of reality, Charlie’s tiny homonculi have electrical outlets instead of faces, or pigeon heads instead of humanoid ones. After further family tragedy, Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd) outside of a grief support group, and the older woman lends her a sympathetic ear before introducing her to the occult as a way to communicate with those who have moved on. Or does she? Is there really a conduit to speak with the loved ones who have died, or is it all in Annie’s head? Or is perhaps neither of those things true? Or both?

I’m at a loss to say more without giving away some of the movie’s biggest swerves, especially given that, as noted above, I wasn’t in “critical film theory” mode while watching. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension (CW for the link: uses a jump scare from a Conjuring film); I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

My First Kiss and the People Involved (2016)

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threehalfstar

A grainy digital camera indie about a group of mental patients in a halfway home, you might be tempted to brush off My First Kiss and the People Involved as something that can easily be understood & forgotten within its opening minutes of lyrical daydreaming. It’s not the film you’re expecting. Surely, My First Kiss and the People Involved traffics in the standard indie drama empathy inherent to small scale films about systemic mental health care. However, it also mirrors the helplessness & delusion of its disenfranchised subjects by veering into the unexpected territory of a psychological horror. At times, the film’s tense paranoia & dread of sudden violence plays like the silent horror classic A Page of Madness by way of a classic Hitchcock thriller, which is not at all the expectation or precedent it sets in its more tender, but familiar first act.

Our window into the goings on of the halfway home is a wordless, listless patient named Sam. As she’s largely nonverbal & extremely sensitive to sensory overload, we specifically experience this world through her hands & singsong daydreams. The movie opens with Sam getting lost in small details: pinwheels, spider webs, flowers, magazine advertisements, television static. In a way she’s the world’s least reliable narrator, in that she doesn’t have the ability to narrate. We just watch her navigate a chaotic space in a daze, which is perfectly fine with the film’s early, minor events. Her quiet, easily-overloaded perspective adds an air of lyricism to her housemates’/fellow patients’ negotiations about movie night or living room masquerades or introduction to a cute rabbit as a household pet. Things get too intense when Sam starts to feel romantic stirrings for a fellow patient, though. That anxiety fully kicks into gear with her witnessing a possible murder, a traumatic event she can’t report or communicate to the outside world due to the limitations set by her particular condition.

Out-of-nowhere actor India Menuez is having a great year professionally, appearing in supporting roles in the two much-hyped indies White Girl & Nocturnal Animals. Her starring turn as Sam in My First Kiss and the People Involved offers a much quieter, tenderer showcase of her talents than those smaller roles are likely to, though. We experience the world through her physical touch & her internal paranoia. When a rabbit appears to speak or when a boy leans in for a too-much-too-soon intimacy we’re dazed in the same overwhelmed, disjointed mind frame. There’s something of a 90s indie movie vibe in My First Kiss’s more familiar aspects. The grainy digital haze, the Courtney Love vibes in its more tragic counselor and the ripped up & faded blue jeans all recall the era. Where a 90s work might’ve stopped at generating empathy for its vulnerable, fractured protagonist, however, this film pushes further into the paranoia of a psychological horror, forcing the audience to perceive the world through that vulnerable lens instead of merely pitying it. Menuez does a great job of anchoring the empathy in this way, bringing a light, but frustrated tenderness to a role that requires surgical precision to work. The film does its best to surprise & subvert expectations within the confines of its means & genre, but it’s Menuez’s performance that allows that subversion to hit with full, meaningful impact.

-Brandon Ledet

Shock (1946)

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threehalfstar

Like a lot of people, I always picture Vincent Price as an older man when his name comes up, as if he were air-dropped into the world as an already-established horror legend in the 50s or 60s. The truth is that Price toiled away as a workman character actor for decades before he was really set loose to chew the scenery in pictures like The Abominable Dr. Phibes & The Masque of the Red Death. One of the earliest glimpses of the Vincent Price that was to be came in the form of the 1940s tawdry noir thriller Shock. A subpar Hitchcock descendant that functions entirely within the rigid boundaries of its genre, Shock is a fairly standard sample of in-its-prime noir, one that might not be especially worth digging back up from its ancient cinematic grave if it weren’t for Price’s villainous performance. The babyfaced future-legend is a lot more measured here than he would become at the height of his onscreen treachery, but there’s enough mad scientist stirrings in this early performance to telegraph the weird, wonderful trajectory his career would eventually take. If you’re a fan of Price’s horror work, this early landmark should not be casually dismissed or overlooked.

A soldier returning from deployment in World War II discovers his wife is frozen in a state of stone-faced shock, despite seeming healthy over the phone mere hours before his arrival. Her doctor passes this catatonic state off as a symptom of stress due to her husband’s delayed return from the war. The truth is that the woman witnessed the doctor (played by Price) murder his own wife through a hotel window in a fit of rage. In order to cover his tracks the doctor holds the woman hostage in a mental institution, attempting to convince her & anyone who’ll listen that she’s crazy & the murder was a hallucination. With the doctor’s mistress whispering in his ear & the patient’s husband becoming increasingly skeptical of the diagnosis, the walls start to close in on the dastardly cretin and his cruelty grows in its self-preserving wickedness. Will his evildoing be exposed before his unnecessary shock treatment procedures forever destroy the mental stability of his victim/patient? Surely, if you’ve seen any thrillers from the era before you know the answer to that question, but the because this film is built on suspense instead of mystery, the fun is in the performances & the melodrama, not in guessing what happens next.

Hitchcock expertly, leisurely surfed the balance between trash & art and this knockoff certainly falls on the less prestigious side of that divide. Even 1940s audiences bristled at its tawdry insensitivity, especially miffed that it exploited shock treatment & PTSD, which were hot topics on the heels of WWII, for cheap dramatic weight. In a modern context these transgressions play more entertaining than they do offensive.The film’s mental health mumbo jumbo is quaintly (if not horrifyingly) out of date and it’s actually fairly easy to accept the way it sleazily turns real life issues like women wrongly committed to mental institutions & the real world practice of insulin shock therapy into tawdry thriller fodder, thanks to its distance in time. There’s actually an almost progressive, Rosemary’s Baby type criticism built into the story about the way women are manipulated & institutionalized by men who patronize & refuse to believe them (not that shrieking, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” helps at all in this particular case). There’s one specific moment when the victims’ soldier-husband confides to Price’s wicked doctor, “She’s out of her head. She’s got a crazy idea that she saw a murder. I don’t know what to do,” that had me screaming, “Well, did you try believing her?!” and I assume that was an intentional effect on the movie’s part. There’s plenty to pick at here, misogyny-wise, especially in the way that it’s only the women’s lives that are ever threatened & the fact that the doctor’s heartless mistress manipulating him with her womanly ways is largely to blame for the villainy, but Shock does have its surprising moments of feminist critique peaking through some of its thick noir sleaze.

Like I said, you’re not going to get much out of Shock that you couldn’t find in some other trashy thriller of the era, except if you look to Vincent Price’s performance as the wicked psychiatrist. There are a few moments of post-German Expressionism weirdness in the imagery, but they’re mostly relegated to a single dream sequence featuring the troubled protagonist running in a strange void & a passage of time montage steeped in calendar page-turning noir cliche. A young Vincent Price stands as the film’s sole beacon of distinctiveness, but he delivers in an uncharacteristically dialed back, measured performance that becomes increasingly ridiculous as his rash decisions reflect the walls closing in around him. The movie serves as a sort of bridge between two eras of the iconic actor’s career, starting with a dramatic stage play seriousness, but ultimately touching on some distinct mad scientist vibes by the time he attempts to erase the woman’s memory (and possibly her existence) through overdoses of insulin & hypnosis. Price’s performance makes Shock more than worthwhile as you watch the early formation of a distinct onscreen personality that fully blossomed in the decades that followed, but is rarely seen with such grounded dramatic weight & dead-serious delivery. The campy impulses in me might’ve wished that he went even more over-the-top with the role, but by toeing the line between those halves of his career, he delivered something much more special, something you can only find in Shock.

-Brandon Ledet

Equals (2016)

fourstar

Is it all transgressive or radical anymore to point out that Kristen Stewart is a divinely talented actor? Have her Twilight days been sufficiently been wiped out by the ever-expanding wealth of killer onscreen work she’s put in outside that franchise? I hope so, because it’s becoming tiresome starting reviews like this (my third defensive preamble for her talents after American Ultra & The Clouds of Sils Maria). Kristen Stewart’s main problem, if she has one at all, is that the film industry often seems confused about exactly how to utilize her detached onscreen cool, a visible lack of urgency that lands her presence somewhere between James Dean & Lauren Bacall in its smooth, smoky, effortless charm. Although it nearly approaches the YA romance territory that has threatened to pigeonhole her career, the dystopian sci-fi drama Equals does know what to do with Stewart’s detached cool. Besides indulging in an always-welcome, heartachingly sincere story of sci-fi romance, Equals presents a future where emotion has been outlawed, a perfect platform for Stewart’s own emotive talents, which are typically communicated through subtle body language & small shifts in tone. It’s not my favorite Stewart performance by any stretch, but it might serve as a convincing argument on her behalf for those still on the fence in regards to her immense, underappreciated talent.

As much as I’m rambling on about the many merits of Kristen Stewart here, the true protagonist of Equals is a man named Silas, played by Nicholas Hoult. Silas navigates a cold, clinical world in which war has been eradicated by outlawing human emotion. As a member of the emotionless Collective, Silas lives & works in a society of Spocks. Everything is bland, uniform, and designed for logical, streamlined function, the entire world an Apple Store. Silas’s peaceful life as an illustrator of “speculative non-ficiton” is threatened when an outbreak of the disease S.O.S. (or “switched on syndrome”) starts to trigger “behavioral defects” (emotions) in members of The Collective, including our protagonist. Silas dutifully takes his prescribed pills, but continues to feel anyway (likely a comment on the effectiveness of anti-depressants), and eventually finds himself dangerously infatuated with a coworker, played by Stewart. His love interest is dealing with her own rapidly-progressing S.O.S., however undiagnosed & unmedicated, and initially treats his advances like the unwanted attentions of any other workplace creep. Their attraction is inevitable, though, and sets up an achingly sincere, doomed-to-fail romance full of secretive, tender sexual encounters that put both Hoult’s & Stewart’s characters at risk for correctional “defective emotional therapy” at the hands of The Collective’s governing elite, a “treatment” that often ends in encouraged suicide.

Equals is mostly a slow, sensual drift through a cold, calculated future defined by its clean lines & blue lighting. Its romanceless dystopia most closely resembles the surrealist fantasy of this year’s The Lobster, but it approaches the subject from a more sincere, open-hearted place that recalls the sci-fi romance of titles like Her & Upside Down. There’s a metaphor to be found in the way this future society values “productive” lives over genuine mental health, but its true bread & butter is in the nervous, trembling touches Hoult & Stewart share as two young lovers unaccustomed to intimate human contact. The film finds its own visual language in the way it zooms in on actors’ bodies & faces in search of the tiniest of emotive responses, shrinking even the subtle bodily flirtation of Carol to a more microscopic stature (until, you know, it becomes full-on boning). There’s a little dose of subtle comic relief mixed in with this chest-heaving sensuality in the emotionless delivery of lines like, “You’re going to live, pal,” and [upon witnessing a coworker’s suicide] “That’s unfortunate,” but the film works best for those easily won over by sincere romance juxtaposed with a clinical sci-fi setting, an aesthetic I’ll admit I’m a huge sucker for.

Nicholas Hoult does a great job of selling the heartbreaking sincerity of this futuristic love connection (and, speaking of underappreciated actors, The Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Bel Powley shows up to support the main cast), but Equals is Stewart’s show, not only because it fits the detached cool of her already established persona so well. As much as I appreciate the cold, clinical future presented here, it mostly makes me wish for a not-too-distant future where Stewart’s recognized for the full scope of her talent, not for being the girl from Twilight. Equals is a welcome step in that direction as well as a great, self-contained love story heightened by an oppressive air of emotional restraint.

-Brandon Ledet

Lights Out (2016)

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onehalfstar

When you were watching The Babadook, our favorite horror film of 2014, did you find yourself wishing that the film was tasteless, lifeless, and dismally formulaic? If yes, then you are going to love Lights Out. (Also, you are ridiculous.) The Babadook was a wonderfully written & performed depiction of severe depression and how it can affect parenting, one filtered through a demonic metaphor that both terrifies & inspires sincere reflection. Its delicate conclusion suggests that there are no simple solutions to clinical depression or whatever other monsters haunt our personal relationships, mental illness or otherwise. Lights Out, by comparison, is a grotesquely Hollywood take on the same metaphor. While The Babadook follows a mother as she struggles with her own mental health, Lights Out instead takes a distant, almost vilifying look at the same struggle. In The Babadook we empathize with a woman who finds herself uncontrollably annoyed by her own child; Lights Out shifts to the child’s POV, making the mother seem like a heartlessly selfish brute. Both movies represent depression as a monster made of pure darkness, but only one is visually interesting or at all unique in its specificity. Both are blatant in their shared metaphor, but only one handles it with any semblance of compassion or nuance. Both cover the same territory, but only one is worth watching. Hint: it’s not Lights Out.

Instead of following the story of the people who suffer the most in this mental health horror (the depressed woman & the young son under her care), Lights Out finds its audience surrogate in the boy’s older goth rock sister who no longer lives at home. This one step removal from the crisis at hand does little but deflate the emotional impact of the mother’s struggle (by making her look abusive & downright feral from an outsider’s perspective) and to clear room for a completely besides the point romance with another goth rock knucklehead it takes a significant amount of effort to merely tolerate. The estranged daughter returns home to find her mother in a manic state, the same as she was when she was a kid. The curtains are drawn; the mother is holed up & babbling to herself; her youngest child is too scared to sleep. The depression demon that haunts the household is given the physical form of Diana, a “childhood friend” (translation: lifelong illness) of the mother’s with severe light sensitivity and a jealous rage that threatens the physical & spiritual safety of anyone who dares to love her best bud. The images of a depressed woman’s home life as well as her distant past in a mental institution feel horrifically outdated & clichéd in an entirely stigmatizing, unrelatable way, especially in light of recent, empathetic works like Gabriel & I Smile Back. It’s the exact clumsy hand you’d expect in a Hollywood horror on such a delicate topic, but without any other discernible entertainment value present to distract you from the problem. What should be an interesting metaphor is boiled down to cheap jump scares, haunted house ambiance, and a violently fucked up climax that’s so unearned in its emotional & shock value provocation that it’s difficult to feel anything but cheated & manipulated in the tawdriest of ways when you (thankfully) reach the end credits.

Funnily enough, I went to the theater thinking I was going to watch the upcoming thriller Don’t Breathe, a horrific-looking film about a blind killer that (based on its trailer) could’ve easily carried the title Lights Out. That’s not the first time this happened to me, either. I’ve also gotten this movie’s title mixed up with the goofy Grand Canyon horror flick The Darkness from earlier this year before, for obvious reasons. (Full disclosure: I planned on watching all three anyway.) This confusion points to one of Lights Out‘s biggest problems: mediocrity, a total lack of distinction. It’s not silly enough to be campy. It’s not brutal enough to be disturbing (except maybe in that unearned finale). It’s not memorable enough to justify its existence in light of the far superior work The Babadook. There’s some interesting visual play with the film’s central gimmick that doesn’t allow its monster to appear in light, especially in the way it incorporates black lights, headlights, flashlights, candles, and gunshot flashes in its tool kit. However, most of the best uses of the gimmick (including its blacklit Blood & Black Lace mannequins) are spoiled by Lights Out‘s better-than-the-film trailer and are backed up by a cast of characters completely devoid of charisma. The one exception on that latter point might be the demon Diana, but she gets very little screen time & is mostly dealt with as a monster in the closet/under the bed threat instead of treated with the respect her mental health metaphor deserves. Lights Out is a bland, hamfisted misstep that bungles its attempts to tackle a serious, worthwhile topic. Worse yet, it feels like a subpar version of a recent, iconic work we’ve already seen & (in my case, at least) would rather watch again instead of seeing it bastardized. If you can manage it, I’d suggest skipping this film entirely & sticking to watching it’s actually well-put-together trailer, which works just fine as a two minute horror short. You’ll be much better off & I’ll envy your resolve.

-Brandon Ledet

A Page of Madness (1926)

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I’ve been on something of a silent horror tangent lately,which has lead me to watching some really striking works of early cinematic achievement, but nothing comes close to the (literal) insanity on display in the Japanese film A Page of Madness. The film plays like a cold splash of water or an  open-handed slap to the face. From the first frame on, its wild, chaotic mode of loose story telling and terrifying black & white cinematography feels entirely anachronistic for the time of its release. A whirlwind of rapid edits, bizarre imagery, and an oppressive absence of linear storytelling make A Page of Madness feel like a contemporary with, say, Eraserhead or Tetsuo: The Iron Man instead of a distant relic of horror cinema. It’s an early masterwork of disjointed, abstract filmmaking and it’s one that was nearly lost forever, considered unobtainable for nearly four decades before a salvageable (and significantly shortened) print was re-discovered.

A Page of Madness opens with a flood of, well, madness: storm water pours; train engines roar; a woman dances in a ceremonial gown on a set that is simultaneously ethereal & industrial. The film pulls back here to reveal its hand. The woman dances for no particular audience. She’s wearing a hospital gown, not a fine piece of luxurious fabric. She is a patient in a mental ward, not entirely sure of what place or time she occupies. The audience isn’t sure either. We’re introduced to her husband, who poses as a janitor at the hospital in hopes of setting her free. His attempts to make himself or their former life together recognizable to her are in vain. His attempts to stage a prison break ultimately end in ultraviolent futility. Everything else in between is up for interpretation as a tornado of screaming babies, wild dogs, creepy masks, and crosshatched jail cell bars tear across the screen. From beginning to end A Page of Madness is smeared, stretched, mirrored, sped-up, and doubled over. The result is downright maddening, like Häxan by way of Hausu.

This film is way more expressionistic & chaotic than what I’m used to from cinema’s silent era. It takes a very one-note, stubborn view of mental illness that lacks any semblance of modern nuance in the subject, but the play it gets out of interpreting its mental patients’ hallucinations in a visual language is awe-inspiring even by today’s standards. The overall aesthetic feels akin to turning on a flashlight in pitch black darkness only to be startled by the haunted house terrors lurking within. Very early on the film intentionally relates itself to jazz by throwing images of the then-young art’s instruments in with the rest of its kinetic collage, a very apt act of self-awareness. Its great feat is in the way it consistently disrupts your sense of location and temporal setting. Jail cells & external spaces bleed together, as do the past & present. It’s all delightfully, horrifyingly dizzying.

A lot of A Page of Madness‘s obfuscation is a likely result of its modernized form. When screened in Japan in the 1920s, the film was accompanied by live storytellers who would clarify characters’ inner dialogue & general intent in a way that’s missing when watching the film in your living room. Without that embellishment, the film’s total lack of intercut dialogue cards leaves the audience to drown without a lifeline. Its hypnotic soundtrack recalls a particularly noisy Xiu Xiu experiment stretched thin & hammered out of shape, which is not likely what original audiences experienced either. Also, the film’s missing footage might’ve softened its abstraction to a degree (although some historians suspect director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself might’ve shortened & sped up the film to enhance this effect once he re-discovered his lost print).

All of this speculation is ultimately meaningless, however. The version of A Page of Madness we do have today is immaculately abrasive & I wouldn’t change one confusing frame of it. I doubt any other silent horror I’ll watch will match its sheer memorability, but I’ll gladly welcome the challenge of any film that’s willing to try.

-Brandon Ledet

Anomalisa (2015)

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fourhalfstar

As is the case with virtually every project that has Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints on it, Anomalisa is an insight into the writer/director’s particularly idiosyncratic worldview and plethora of neuroses. The film tells the story of a lonely, mentally ill man (voiced by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinatti to present a keystone speech at a customer service convention. Every person that he encounters along the way has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), including cab drivers, his wife and son, and even the former lover with whom he attempts to reconnect on his single night in town. When she revels how emotionally and irrevocably devastated she was by his departure, he finds temporary succor in the arms of a shy woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose face is scarred and who is attending the conference with her more extroverted and attractive BFF Emily. Although he contemplates leaving his family for her, in the light of day, she moves from anomalous to anonymous as she takes on the face and voice of everyone else. His presentation goes awry when he has a mental breakdown on stage, and he returns home as empty and incomplete as he was at the film’s outset.

The film is a technical marvel, a stop-motion animated feature that utilized 3D printing to create the many stages of facial expression across a sea of duplicate people, and the design and detail work on display is simply stunning. Michael Stone’s gradually building psychotic episode is beautifully telegraphed in a mirror-contemplating scene that sees his face revolving through a series of different faces, and an operatically composed dream sequence includes a moment where his countenance falls apart and reveals the framework underneath. Technically, the film is virtually flawless once you become accustomed to the world’s aesthetic (the line that separates the tops and bottoms of faces is distracting at the outset), and the concept of a world of interchangeable people is realized elegantly.

The narrative, however, leaves a little to be desired. As a peak into Kaufman’s mind, this is yet another story about a reprehensibly self-oriented and self-interested man whose outbursts this time around are rationalized as the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. Once again, an unsympathetic man is brought so low that we the audience cannot help but feel some empathy for his plight; we spend so much time with Stone alone and in an “unobserved” state that he becomes familiar enough that we’re willing to go along on his journey. Of course, his journey exists only in the literal sense, as, ironically, there is no self-discovery for a man who spends so much of his mental energy reflecting upon himself.

Stone is a man who: passively suggests hooking up with his ex, moments after she reveals that she spent the first year after he left her unable to get out of bed; has raised an utterly spoiled and ungrateful child whose brattiness is communicated in a scant three minutes onscreen; and considers leaving his wife and family for what he presumes would be a life of less self-loathing with an uncomplicated Midwestern woman (who has much more going on under the surface than he is willing or able to see). Although we’re living in a post-Don Draper world and it feel’s like the west is drowning in stories of this ilk, Anomalisa feels fresh, if only because of its unusual visual rhetorical space. It’s utterly impossible to like Stone despite his fundamentally broken nature, but the nature of the presentation goes a long way towards making him stand out from the Tony Sopranos and Dr. Houses of the world. It’s a third-person depiction of a first-person point of view, and this immersiveness saves the film from feeling too stale.

This should in no way be read as an indictment of Thewlis’s performance, which is fantastic. He’s not alone: Leigh also does great work here, playing Lisa’s vulnerability and tenaciousness in equal parts, giving life to a character that is ultimately much more human and endearingly honest than Stone. There’s an edge to her line-readings that gives Lisa a physical presence that could be felt even if there were no plastic bodies awkwardly humping each other on screen. Noonan embues each of the diverse characters he plays with variations on a theme, and his irascible cab driver and burned lover are standouts. Still, Thewlis brings a great dimension to the role of Stone, which also contributes to the effectiveness of the story despite its static narrative.

The story is really only tired in broad strokes, however, as the particularities of details are generally novel. Lisa is essentially the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl, a customer service team leader from Akron who lives in Emily’s shadow and considers herself stupid; her favorite food is scrambled eggs and her musical interests skew heavily toward Cyndi Lauper, but she is genuinely interested in improving herself and the state of her life. Her encounter with Stone changes him not at all, but she grows as a result of it, which is a narrative anomaly (no pun intended). The film is also quite observational in the way that it captures true-to-life moments in awkward conversations with eager service industry personnel (including phone reps, cab drivers, bellboys, bar attendants, and cashiers) and being forced to witness interactions between unhappy couples.

This all illustrates the film’s interest in drama but fails in its recapitulation of the comic elements. Much like last year’s Queen of Earth, there is a conscious meditation upon the way that living with or adjacent to mental illness is not the perpetually joyless experience that forms the narrative basis of most literary interrogations of the subject. It’s a rarely discussed observation of the human condition, that while some people are comic or tragic figures, most of us have varying percentages of both throughout our lives, and it’s not always easy or indeed necessary to categorize existence in such binary terms. That’s not to mention the other subtle jokes throughout the film; for instance, Cincinatti chili sounds intriguing and horrifying, and I appreciate the pride that the fictional Ohioans take in their bizarre concoction and their zoo. There’s also a lot to unpack about the fact that Stone’s breakdown stream-of-consciousness is interpreted to be critical of soldiers, prompting an attendee to shout about “supporting the troops,” especially combined with the hotelier’s framed George W. Bush portrait in Stone’s dream sequence.

Speaking of which, as the film largely sticks to a realism even if the point of view is warped, the surreality of Stone’s nightmare sequence is worth the ticket price alone, and is what I expect most people will be talking about long after seeing the film. It’s also the most recognizably Kaufman-esque part of the movie; the sea-of-interchangable faces conceit is present throughout and is obviously evocative of the restaurant full of John Malkovitches seen in Being John Malkovitch (and revisited in Adaptation), but Stone’s story doesn’t otherwise lend itself to Kaufman’s more eccentric imagery. In the dream sequence, however, there’s an exploration of space that is reminiscent of the half-floor in the office building from Malkovitch, and Stone’s attempt to escape through a sea of improbably-close desks is pure Kaufman visual flourish. There’s less Synecdoche, New York in the film’s DNA, which may be for the best, as this film feels less like a masturbatory ode about being a misunderstood and self-destructive artist and isn’t also largely impenetrable (individual responses may vary). That having been said, in defense of Synecdoche, none of Anomalisa’s images are as haunting as that film’s perpetually burning house, curling tattooed leaves, or infinitely recursive series of miniaturized metropoli.

Overall, Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mary and Max (2009)

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fivestar

The 2009 stop motion animation indie drama Mary and Max is somewhat of a strange case. It’s ranked among the highest-rated titles of all time on IMDb, but it’s not a particularly well-known film. That disparity is readily recognizable in the film’s box office numbers, which posits it as a financial flop that only managed to earn back $1.7 million of its $8.2 million budget, despite near-universal critical acclaim. Perhaps the divide between its critical & financial accomplishments is a question of tone. The sole feature film credit of stop motion animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max adopts the visual format & storybook narration of a children’s film, but it’s, at heart, an emotionally merciless drama that touches upon, among other things: mental illness, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, atheism, war crimes, repressed homosexuality, obesity, and the endless cycle of poverty. It’s likely that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office because it’s difficult to market an animated feature about heartbreaking loneliness, depression, despair, and the search for human connection among the disenfranchised. I’m getting choked up right now just mulling over the film’s themes, so easy to see why it might’ve been a difficult sell as a comedy (however black) & a fun night at the movies. All that being said, Mary and Max is a masterful work in the stop motion medium, easily one of the best examples of the format I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame it couldn’t have turned that achievement into financial success, though, or we might’ve had a few more Adam Elliot features in the six years since its release.

Detailing the strictly-epistolary friendship between two total strangers, a young Australian girl & a middle aged man in New York City, Mary and Max relies heavily on storybook-style narration to move its story along between its back & forth letter reading. This narrative structure doesn’t allow much room for complicated plot maneuvering or a fast-paced momentum. Mary and Max, as its title suggests, is more of a two-handed character study than a whirlwind of action & consequence. Mary is a young girl with an alcoholic mother & an emotionally reclusive father. Initially described as looking like mud & poo, Mary is somewhat of an outcast, self-conscious of her appearance, bored, and alone. Max is a lonely, atheist man of Jewish descent who has difficulty navigating the modern world due to his struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems at first like they might have very little in common besides the drab greys & browns that define their respective worlds & their shared love of a children’s show called The Noblets. As their friendship deepens & is challenged by decades of hard-fought battles with mental illness & life at large, though, a remarkably rewarding swell of emotion begins to elevate the film miles above the basic precociousness & impressive handmade craft stop motion automatically commands as a medium.

For a film loaded with fart jokes & gags involving bird anuses, Mary and Max is a remarkable achievement in emotional provocation. Toni Collette (who I’ve recently been binge-watching in United States of Tara) does an excellent job voicing the adult Mary & Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, of course, everyone has been inadvertently binge-watching in quality work for the last two decades & mourning in more recent years) is even more of a treasure as the deeply-complicated Max, although neither personality is especially essential to the film’s charm. The real crux to Mary & Max‘s perfection as a small stakes drama/black comedy is in director Adam Elliot’s nuanced characterization of his titular leads & in the finely detailed visual world he made by hand (with help, I’m sure) in a painstakingly meticulous method/dying art. I like to imagine a world where Mary and Max was a wild financial success that allowed Elliot to immediately produce a long string of other feature films, the same way the success of Coraline, released the same year, launched Laika Studios. As is, I’m happy that this pitch black gem was ever produced in the first place. It’s not often that an animated feature about the importance of “real friendship” is this well constructed & this reluctant to play by the rules of its medium/genre. Just writing about the film’s emotional severity is making me tear up in the retrospection, which is a clear sign that Elliot got something significantly right here, even if that something was a difficult commodity to monetize.

Side Note: You can go ahead & include Mary and Max as yet another indication that no place in time has ever loved ABBA quite as much as 1970s Australia. The ABBA poster in Mary’s bedroom feels more significant than a mere callback to Toni Collette’s starring role in Muriel’s Wedding. It’s part of a larger Australia Loves ABBA narrative that I swear is A Thing. It makes more sense every day that ABBA: The Movie was set in Australia. It’s the band’s home away from Sweden.

-Brandon Ledet

I Smile Back (2015)

three star

Sarah Silverman is somewhat of a required taste as a comedian. Personally speaking, she’s one of my all-time favorites. Her Liam Lynch-directed stand-up special Jesus is Magic & her sadly defunct sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program are among my favorite examples of their respective mediums, but they have more of a small cult status than a widespread appeal. A small role on the television series Masters of Sex & the recent mental illness drama I Smile Back, however, have revealed that Silverman has a much more universal appeal as a dramatic actress. She’s downright Julianne Moore-esque in her ability to convey utter devastation through mere body language, an incredible talent considering how much of her career has been rooted in the other end of the entertainment spectrum.

In I Smile Back, Silverman plays a frustrated housewife suffering from anxiety, depression, and chemical dependency. Her mental illness inspires rash behavior she can barely control or keep under wraps – drug & alcohol abuse, adultery, inappropriate modes of masturbation, body image issues, and the impulse to duck her lithium prescription in favor of her self-medication routine. As she makes one self-destructive decision after another all you can do as an audience is cringe, silently shouting “No! Stop! Stop it!” with no control over her behavior. She reacts similarly, immediately regretting each transgression, but unable to stop herself in the act. Completely detached from her own sense of self, she confesses, “I need to remember how to be a good wife and a good mother and a good person,” but her disorder consistently interrupts any moves she makes to reconnect with her past healthy behavior. I Smile Back‘s broken protagonist loves her children – perhaps excessively – but the responsibility of that love is too much pressure for her to handle. She confesses, “It’s terrifying to love something so much.” This pressure leads to a quiet, seething hatred she can’t control and various self-destructive modes of releasing pressure.

I Smile Back is not a particularly unique film as far as mental health dramas go. Hell, Gabriel is a better example of the genre from just earlier this year. There are some flashes of brilliance on the filmmaking end, especially when the pacing & sound design attempt to match the protagonist’s inner anxiety. An opening montage’s frantic, scattered, rapid-fire edits recall a depressive, unsexed version of Russ Meyer‘s work. Shots of Silverman’s protagonist stumbling down the drug-warped nightmares of her own hallways are extremely effective in adopting her POV (as well as recalling the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”). I also appreciated the way the film focuses on how men in her life dismiss the severity of her illness by pointing out how “crazy” & “crazy hot” she is or demanding to know “Why does everything have to be such a big deal?” For the most part, though, I Smile Back is a no frills portrait of a woman with a chemical imbalance & a history of family members suffering the same.

The real story here is how vulnerable Sarah Silverman makes herself for the camera. For the film’s press tour she has been very vocal about her own personal struggles with anxiety & depression & how they drove her connection with the film’s source material novel, a sentiment reflected in early scenes of the character/actress examining herself in a mirror. Her soul is laid bare here. I’m not sure that the quality of the film matches the intensity of her performance, but she was still fascinating to watch. I’m glad that an artist I respect chose to push her boundaries in a passion project like this & I hope the emotional weight of what had to be an exhausting experience doesn’t discourage her from taking chances like this again in the future. Silverman was phenomenal, even if the movie wasn’t nearly as special.

-Brandon Ledet