Limbo (1999)

The trash angels at the American Genre Film Archive recently restored & distributed a shot-on-video horror relic from the late 90s that both transcends & typifies its era in no-budget filmmaking. Limbo is a warped-VHS headtrip that’s all disoriented disgust with the world and nothing remotely resembling coherence. It’s more of a cursed object than a Movie, so that AGFA’s restoration feels less like a standard home video release than it does a black magic spell. The Blu-ray disc includes a feature-length commentary track with director Tina Krause, which I’m hesitant to listen to even though it might help make sense of the film’s eerie, disjointed imagery. I’m worried that any context or explanation would deflate its delirious 3a.m. mystique.

The IMDb logline for Limbo is “A woman makes a descent into Hell after she kills a man she brought home as a one-night stand.” That’s a relatively accurate way of describing the final third of the one-hour runtime, but as a whole the film is far too meandering & self-distracted to support any kind of one-sentence plot description, especially one so concrete. Most of Limbo finds Krause dicking around with camcorder effects & morbid ephemera in a spooky warehouse locale. Lynchian horror imagery—complete with a Laura Palmer surrogate wheeled around in a clear-plastic body bag—is filtered through a D.I.Y. video art aesthetic in a haunted, scatterbrained haze. The only unifying sensibility on a thematic level is a disgust with the nü-metal dirtbag men who ogle & harass our traumatized lead. Parsing out anything else feels like trying to make sense of a half-remembered nightmare.

It’s tempting to dismiss Limbo as something that would be best served as a background projection at a Halloween party or raw footage for a music video re-edit. Yet, there’s something potently angry & distraught about its mood that cuts through its lost, dizzied narrative to save it from being tedious (a quality that’s majorly helped by its succinct runtime). Judging by the bonus shorts included on the disc, Krause was mostly working in sleazy SOV softcore around the time she made Limbo, and her sole feature as a director feels like a defiant protest of that genre. This is a deliberately anti-sexy, impossible-to-pin-down video art nightmare with no patience or interest in the typical genre signifiers of its era. It may not satisfy the usual metrics for A Great Horror Film, but its off-kilter details linger with you longer than with more focused, technically proficient works of well-funded mediocrity. In fact, it’s practically spitting directly in those films’ faces.

-Brandon Ledet

She’s Allergic to Cats (2017)

Because its Adult Swim platform reached so many television sets and the show’s aesthetic somehow informed a wave of early 2010s advertising, the frenetic surrealism of Tim & Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! might just turn out to be one of the most influential touchstones of modern media. The awkwardly non-professional acting, aggressively hacky jokes, absurdist shock value grotesqueries, .gif-like repetition, and deliberately low-fi visual palettes of mid-2000s artists like Tim & Eric and PFFR are starting to creep up in feature length cinema in a palpable way. Often, this psychedelically aggressive amateurism can be nihilistic in its dedication to irony & emotional distance, as with the recent shock value gross-outs Kuso & The Greasy Strangler. Those instances can be their own kind of ugly delight, but what’s even more exciting is when films like The Brigsby Bear imbue this modern form of low-fi psychedelia with something Tim & Eric never had: genuine pathos. The dirt cheap passion project indie She’s Allergic to Cats operates on both sides of that divide. It embraces the grotesque, ironic absurdism of “bad”-on-purpose Tim & Eric descendants to craft a VHS quality aesthetic that amounts to something like John Waters by way of Geneva Jacuzzi. More importantly, though, it allows the earnest pathos of desperate, pitch black cries for help to disrupt & subvert that all-in-good-fun absurdism with genuine (and genuinely broken) heart to strike a tone that’s as funny as it is frightening & sad.

She’s Allergic to Cats opens with the admission “I live in Hollywood. I moved here to make movies, but instead I groom dogs.” In a land where everyone dreams of being in show business, we focus on the Tailwaggers-employed pet groomer who dreams the smallest. Michael is, by most estimations, a loser. He grooms dogs by day to afford to live in a rat-infested apartment where he works on his VHS “video art” projects & watches Bad Movies in isolation by night. His greatest ambition in life is to direct an all-cat remake of De Palma’s Carrie, but he’s laughably bad at pitching the idea to anyone he can get to listen. She’s Allergic to Cats chronicles a series of minor conflicts in Michael’s hopelessly minor life: negotiating with his Tommy Wiseau-like landlord over rat extermination possibilities, struggling to balance his pet-grooming career with his passion for VHS art, attempting to orchestrate a hot date with Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant (the titular “she”) despite his life & home being an unpresentable mess, etc. These trivial conflicts are frequently interrupted by the movie’s most substantive modes of expression: the VHS-quality stress dreams that invade Michael’s everyday thoughts. Spinning cat carriers on fire, naked human flesh, squinched rat faces, and rodent-chewed bananas mix with onscreen text cries for help like “My life is shit. My life is a mess. My mess is a mess,” and so on. Laurie Anderson-style voice modulation & Miranda July-style art project tinkering break down Michael’s comically drab life into a sex & career-anxious nightmare.

Buried somewhere under Michael’s sky high pile of dirty dishes & analog video equipment is a lonely, decaying heart. She’s Allergic to Cats does a great job of subverting the Tim & Eric-esque absurdist irony it touts on the surface by cutting open & exposing that heart at Michael’s most anxious, vulnerable moments to strike a tone halfway between campy comedy & surrealist horror. With a warped VHS look reminiscent of a mid-90s camcorder & a taste for gross-out lines of humor like .gif-style repetitions of expressed canine anal glands, She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls “I need help” across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.

-Brandon Ledet