Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth’s mind control sci-fi whatsit Upstream Color was my favorite film I saw in a movie theater in 2013, back when I used to only make it out to the megaplex a few times a year (as opposed to a few times a month). In an effort to encourage other people to experience the film in a proper theatrical environment, I posted the following cringe-inducing paragraph on Facebook, which I am transcribing verbatim here as a vicious self-own: “playing one last time tuesday (tomorrow) night at the chalmette movies, 7:30pm; this movie is terrifying. truly horrific. if you are irritated by expressionistic directors like miranda july, harmony korine & whoever made ‘we need to talk about kevin’ you should skip out on this one; if you find those ppl/movies exciting and you like to be scared/confused/nervous go see it.” Woof. I like to think that my writing skills and frames of reference have both expanded greatly since starting this film blog in 2015 (please don’t report that you feel otherwise) and I’ve just revisited Upstream Color for the first time since that theatrical release, so I’d like to take a second crack at praising its merits here. Maybe I can even pull it off without insulting the great Lynne Ramsay this time. We’ll see.

While my initial “review” of the film was essentially the online equivalent of shitting my pants in public, I do maintain that a few key adjectives in that paragraph genuinely apply to Upstream Color – mainly “terrifying,” “expressionistic,” and “confused.” Shane Carruth still only has two feature films to his name but has earned great notoriety in film nerd circles for executing astonishingly complex sci-fi ideas on meager micro-budgets. His debut feature (2004’s Primer) was notoriously scraped together with a mere $7,000 behind it and yet has inspired entire websites dedicated to parsing out the A-B story of its complex time travel narrative. Although Upstream Color operated with a relatively massive $50,000 budget (still chump change even in indie filmmaking terms), it’s somehow even more stubborn in accommodating its audience narratively, especially since it opts for a sci-fi subgenre much less culturally familiar than time travel: mind control. Over time, Upstream Color sketches out in both macro & microscopic terms the life cycle of a mysterious parasite that, when ingested, leaves its hosts vulnerably suggestible (and inexplicably, inextricably connected to anyone else infected). It’s a closed loop of human connection and subhuman exploitation that makes for a legendarily weird trip for as long as you allow yourself to remain under its spell. It’s just also an uninviting one that doesn’t reveal its true shape until you’ve made it all the way through the loop yourself. And even then, you’re bound to walk away with more questions than explanations.

While their relationship to each other is deliberately obscured from scene to scene, the individual players of this sordid tale are at least distinct & well defined. We open with a nameless thief who harvests a mysterious blue chemical from orchids that he then injects into grubs and force-feeds to unsuspecting victims. This starts as a story of severe & total exploitation, with seemingly the one player with a full grasp on what these parasites can do abusing their mind-control properties for cheap financial gain. We then shift to his victims’ post-trauma haze as they try to piece together exactly what happened to them and why they feel subconsciously connected to each other. Also in play are a pig farmer, his cattle, and nearby orchid salesmen who unknowingly complete the life cycle of this phenomenal parasitic grub – each to their own selfish gain. The bulk of the story’s pathos is rooted in the search for connection & meaning among the traumatized victims of the parasite’s harvester, but making sense of exactly what they’re going through from minute to minute requires a complete understanding of how all these disparate players are connected – something you don’t fully acquire until you follow the entire life cycle to completion. Until then, the film plays like a half-remembered nightmare, with the logical reasoning of what’s happening in the moment making just enough sense to carry you through to the next disorienting crisis.

If any of the directors’ work I foolishly compared Upstream Color to in my initial “review” stands, it’s the only one I didn’t cite by name. If you’re being generous, I suppose there’s a stubborn obfuscation the film shares with Korine and its everyone-is-connected plot structure could be seen as a sci-fi mutation of July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. I don’t deserve that generosity, though. The Lynne Ramsay comparison is at least slightly interesting in retrospect, though, in that Upstream Color‘s greatest feat is surely in its editing (a task Carruth took on himself in addition to writing, directing, producing, scoring, shooting, and starring in the film as its over-achieving auteur). Upstream Color & We Need to Talk About Kevin are connected in that they’re clearly the most impressively edited films of the decade, considering how they communicate complex, internal narratives through a jumble of disjointed imagery and yet their basic outlines are crystal clear if you afforded them your full attention from start to finish. Either film would be doomed to confuse anyone who allows them to compete with a smartphone or tablet at home, as every image onscreen in an essential context clue as to what’s being communicated at large. An occasional special effect or microscopic science lab footage insert will help Upstream Color overcome its limited financial means, but its true spectacle is its editing room alchemy – a purposefully disorienting, alienating terror. In that way (and in that way only) it’s outright Ramsayesque.

Given Upstream Color‘s stubbornness to provide upfront explanations for what its isolated images, characters, and even sounds signify in the larger picture, it’s the kind of film that demands your full attention from start to end, completing its closed loop for yourself. As hard as I cringe over the word choice of my seven-years-stale plea that more people experience it in a proper theater, I can at least stand by the sentiment that full, undistracted immersion in that environment was its best shot of wholly winning over an audience. The best you can do to recreate that experience now is locking your smartphone away in another room and burying your ears in some high-end headphones. Hopefully this better-elaborated reasoning on why this film is worth that effort will convince someone new to experience this low-budget, high-ambition sci-fi chiller for themselves. Either way, I should probably cut myself some slack for my shortcomings in singing its praises – both now and in 2013. It’s an exceedingly difficult film to describe to anyone who hasn’t already fallen under its spell themselves. However, I do feel an eerie, soul-deep connection to those who’ve been a defender of it as one of the decade’s great works, as it could have easily been one of the many great 2010s indies to slip into total obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Shivers (1976)


three star

When watching the recent psychological/philosophical horror High-Rise, a movie that ranked very highly as one of my favorite films of 2016, I could only think of one viable comparison point for why it worked so well for me: Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic The Exterminating Angel. The class system resentment & nonstop-party terror of The Exterminating Angel informs so much of what makes High-Rise a deeply unnerving picture, but something I had initially overlooked was how Cronenbergian the film was at the same time. The unspoken, unexplained psychology & philosophy that terrorizes audiences in High-Rise is very much reminiscent of the best of David Cronenberg, which is no surprise once you consider that Cronenberg is an avid fan of J.G. Ballard, who penned High-Rise‘s source material (as well as the source material for Cronenberg’s Crash). In fact, Cronenberg had made a film, his very first feature no less, that closely resembles High-Rise even more than The Exterminating Angel, especially in its narrative structure & visual palette, presumably because it was inspired by Ballard’s text.

Much like High-Rise, Cronenberg’s debut film Shivers is set entirely within a high-rise condo community where residents have very little reason to ever leave the convenience of their homes. An opening slideshow, narrated liked an advertisement, takes the audience on a guided tour of the high-rise, making a big deal out of its convenience commodities like swimming pools, medical facilities, and recreational sports courts. Unlike with High-Rise, however, the catalyst for this self-contained society devolving into an orgy of uninhibited bloodlust is never left ambiguous or open for interpretation. This particular community is torn apart when a mad scientist perverts an experiment meant to supplant traditional organ transplants with a bio-engineered parasite that can be made to assume an organ’s functions by making that parasite a kind of aphrodisiac & a stimulant. This experiment gets out of control when the mad scientist’s teenage mistress spreads the parasite through copious amounts of promiscuous sex and the entire building devolves into zombie-like behavior, except with a lust for sex instead of brains.

It’s fascinating to see a young, scrappy Cronenberg working within the framework of a drive-in exploitation horror before honing his craft in more focused, better funded works like The Fly or Videodrome. Although the usual Cronenberg themes of body horror & unexplainable paranoia are certainly present throughout, Shivers becomes a fairly standard creature feature once the venereally-spread parasite is let loose onscreen. Even the creature itself, which looks like a monster’s detached & wriggling tongue, is a far cry like from the special effects mastery of later Cronenberg works. You can also feel the cheap exploitation edge to the film in its various alternate titles, which are very un-Cronenberg: The Parasite Murders, They Came from Within, and (the shooting title) Blood Orgy of the Parasites. Unfortunately, Shivers is mostly notable because of its cultural significance as proto-Cronenberg & an early glimpse at what would later be perfected in High-Rise. On its own, it’s only a moderately interesting slice of exploitation cinema where a mad scientist torments an entire apartment building (including horror legend Barbara Steele among his many victims) because humanity has “lost track of its instincts” and would supposedly be better served engaging in “a beautiful, mindless orgy.”

The sexual nature of the violence in Shivers, as fascinating as it is in relation to venereal disease paranoia, means the film is far from a “fun” watch. Also, the budget of a first time filmmaker means Cronenberg couldn’t push the mayhem anywhere close to the scale of High-Rise‘s dissent into widespread madness. I can only recommend Shivers to those interested in the humble beginnings of Cronenberg & the influences of one of last year’s more unnerving (and incredibly divisive) horror films. It’s most interesting as a telegraphed version of better work that was to follow. That’s not to say there’s no value to that kind of entertainment, though, and Shivers worked best when it deepened my appreciation for movies that I already loved.

-Brandon Ledet