Midsommar (2019)

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Pagan cults in Horror filmmaking are one of those specific niches that very few people have nailed, there are only maybe two or three films which have remained staples in the canon whilst body horror or ghost stories have many variations. Pagan horror remains indebted to The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. Robin Hardy) and possibly Witchfinder General (1968, Dir. Michael Reeves). With Midsommar, Ari Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have created a vision of hell on earth bathed in sunshine and psychedelic imagery that will stick in the mind long past its first viewing.

Much like his last film Hereditary, Aster ties all the events of the film to a tragedy that happens in the first act and from there things spiral out into disturbingly strange territory. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the rocks following this tragedy, and a trip to Sweden to visit one of Christian’s friends’ mysterious Swedish commune, and witness their Midsummer festival presents a chance for them to get away and possibly start afresh. This is of course a bad idea that we as viewers are intensely aware of as soon as we see the white robes and overly smiley faces of the members of the Hårga. I will let the film reveal the events that happen with the Hårga in Halsingland, as it is important to experience what they do first hand, just as the characters do. It is safe to say though that your initial impressions of these pagan oddballs are correct, and things go downhill quite drastically by the end of their trip.

Midsommar is an ambitiously long film running at over two and a half hours long, but the visuals alone were enough to carry the film to another plane for me. It is not a snappy, fast paced, shock a minute film, but this is clearly a conscious choice by Aster. He is ambitious in his focus on horror storytelling and has obviously set out to create a lethargic rhythm to the film which will draw you in and challenge you. The film is probably closer in tone to Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018) than a conventional horror narrative. There is more story at play here, but the tone and pacing help mirror the disorientation of the central characters to you, pulling you in whilst not being sure what is happening.

The fact that you can stick with the film as easily as you can is in a large part in testament to the cinematography and vivid colour of the film. The film is beautiful at points, with Halsingland’s green grass and beaming blue sky contrasting with the creeping horror on screen. There has clearly been a concerted effort to make the experience of watching the film as visually pleasing as possible, despite many people in my screening having to look away when the Hårga really let rip in their pagan ceremonies. The natural beauty of the setting and the strangeness of the events which take place within it make the feeling of increasing dread even more palpable. A strange unease comes over you when you see such disturbing things happen in full daylight, Aster gives you nowhere to hide and you see every element of whatever horror he is showing you. There are multiple moments throughout the film where Aster employs the same dead eyed long shots of his characters going through hell that he used in Hereditary, not giving the viewer a chance to escape from the emotions within the scene. The film even harks back to Bergman at points; it’s hard to imagine a character being named Ingmar is unintentional. Think Wicker Man (the original obviously), mixed with Climax and maybe a little bit of the human angst in The Virgin Spring (1960, Dir. Ingmar Bergman) and this is quite close to what you get.

Leaving the film on first viewing I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it, however having sat with it in my head for a while now I can appreciate just how original an experience I felt it was. If you go into this film expecting to be terrified from beginning to end you could be pretty disappointed. The thrill for me came from Midsommar’s slowly unravelling sanity, until Aster finally releases the tension and the Hårga are shown for their true colours. Of course, there is much to be drawn in terms of meaning from the events on screen, especially about the film and its relation to theories about toxic masculinity and relationships in the modern world. However, for me I just really enjoyed the darkness Aster conjured in broad Swedish daylight, and the slowly building power of its images.

-Ed

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Midsommar (2019)

Suspiria (2018)

Suspiria 2018

To remake Suspiria is a bold move, the original is such a vivid slice of Giallo at its purest form it’s difficult to imagine how one would be able to do the original justice. Luca Guadagnino was named as the director of this remake of the Dario Argento shocker, Guadagnino hot off the back of his much-loved tender romance Call Me by Your Name (2017). You couldn’t help but think that these two names, Suspiria and Guadagnino were hardly a match made in heaven, one renowned for its violence and the other renowned for their deft and classy dramas. Having only recently seen the original (reviewed here by Alex), and loving it for its schlocky otherworldly expressive brand of witchy horror I felt that whilst it is clearly a great piece of horror cinema, it wasn’t perfect and I was interested to see where a retelling by such a different director would take us. From the first trailers it was clear that Suspiria (2018) would be a drastically different beast. Could this be a rare remake that succeeds in justifying itself as a standalone film and not just a clamouring homage? Having seen it now I can safely say that for me it has succeeded and bring so much more to the table than I could have imagined.


Luca Guadagnino has done a lot with Suspiria but has kept the basic framework of the original. We still have a naïve Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arriving in Berlin to join a prestigious dance academy under the tutelage of the brilliantly played Madame Blanc, Tilda Swinton is loving every moment of this film in one of three roles she fills in the film. The setting itself is what sets this film so apart from the original however. The opening scenes of the 1977 original had Berlin appear an utterly alien landscape with the dance academy being the only tangible reality, along with a few choice encounters outside its baroque walls. Gone is most of the expressionistic lack of reality, instead we are firmly rooted in Cold War divided Berlin. Guadagnino even places the film around the real-life turmoil the country was going through with the actions of infamous far-left radicals the RAF (Red Army Faction) and their abduction of a former SS officer come powerful industrialist. This is not to say that the film becomes overtly political, at its heart it is still very much a horror film with a penchant for gore, the director has just taken the story into a very necessary different direction. If Guadagnino had just aped the originals colour palate and story overtly the film would be effectively worthless. However, Guadagnino is much more astute and has created a different beast that slowly and surely seeps into your bones.

The beiges and browns of Berlin 1977 are brought out through the Bauhaus-esque dance studio, all wood and sparse modern dance studios. Colour is rarely seen in vivid tones unless Guadagnino wants you to be shocked by them. He keeps the colour central to the story and yet uses the sense of space and time so much more to root the film with some deeper meaning than just a slasher tale based around some creepy dancers. If the original was prog rock, this is much more post-punk, less Goblin and Yes, more Joy Division or Bauhaus (surprisingly) in tone. More screen time is given to the actual dance within the film as well, whilst the original may have had a little it was much more a background for the story to unfold on top of, in this remake however it has become a central point of the plot. Some scenes put the dance front and centre creating some incredible visuals, with the spastic movements of the contemporary dance being performed echoing a darker underbelly of the institution. Guadagnino is clearly drawing inspiration from the art scene of west Germany in the choreography used, echoing the work of Pina Bausch (See Pina, 2011, Dir. Wim Wenders) who would have been working in West Germany in the time frame of the film.

The pacing of this film is not on a par with the original I do have to admit, the originals 90 minutes rips by and Guadagnino has added a whole lot into the story. I found it much more slow burn than some have given it credit for, and for all its plot I must admit I never found it boring. The scope of the film is much wider than the original and I wonder that the fact this is such a drastic departure from the original is more of an issue for some than it needs to be. The acting in the film is also given much more space with everyone able to justify their character motives through backstory, no longer is Susie the blank slate that she is in the first film… Well she kind of is still but Dakota Johnson does a good job in imbuing her with a sense of willing ignorance and obsession. This however is clearly Tilda Swinton’s film, with her work as Madame Blanc along with two more central characters being almost more of the central focus of the film. She is such a mercurial talent, a fact that Guadagnino is clearly very aware of this due to his utilisation of her talents in three overarching roles throughout his Suspiria.

I found this possibly overlong and maybe pretentious art horror film to be a true highlight of the cinematic year. Whilst it may not always be scary in the conventional sense, there are high levels of creepy throughout and the focus by the director on the film and not just the bravado moments made it pop for me. A worthy and brilliant remake of an already revolutionary film, although I sense I may be in the minority on this one.

-Ed

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Suspiria (2018)

Hereditary (2018)

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‘This generations The Exorcist’. (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) This is the quote that the advertising campaign for Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary (2018) have pushed the hardest. Influences in horror films are all-pervasive and in some ways cannot be ignored. The tropes and clichés that the genre holds are always going to remind one of some other totemic example of the genre. However for me it is often the way these touch points are hit which ultimately makes a Horror film work or not. Does the film rely on clichés and tropes to produce an effect or does it create something new and instead stray into homage or use the ingredients of horror in a new or interesting way.

This is what you may have to think of after seeing Hereditary. The film is not completely original but does this not make it effective? Not at all. Having recently lost her mother, Annie (played by Toni Collette) is feeling distant and disconnected from her family. She makes miniature artworks portraying real life experiences in minute detail, however whilst she may be able to control her art her family is less stable. Her son, Peter is a stoner who doesn’t seem to care about much apart from his high school crush and when he’s going to be able to smoke the next bowl. Peter however has minimal issues however compared with Annie’s daughter Charlie played with a creepy level of detachment by Milly Shapiro. Charlie seems to be deeply affected by the loss of her Grandmother and it manifesting in strange ways. She skulks around, seeing things and making bizarre figures out of wires and bits of anything she can come across. Her quirks and disaffected presence on-screen make her unbearably disturbing at times even if she is actually not doing anything. Oh yeah and Gabriel Byrne plays the Dad, Steve who actually seems to be alright. Ultimately though this family is not in the most stable of moods when we meet them, and to say that things only get worse for the family is an understatement.

If you’re a fan of the basic horror stylings of James Wan or Blumhouse productions usual schlock then this may stray a bit too far for your liking. Aster isn’t interested in giving you jump scare after jump scare, instead he wants to develop and make you empathise fully with his characters. No one feels like they are acting in a way which is just set up for a death, which so often happens in modern horror. I have to give credit here to the two main leads with all of them doing stellar jobs, particularly Toni Collette who is given space to experience everything in a true gift of a role. Her full range is on display here and she really holds your attention tightly throughout every scene she is in. She both displays completely in control and recognisably sane to the complete opposite with an unnerving ease. Alex Wolff’s Peter is also excellent here giving his character a goofy charm in the opening scenes with him which only adds to the tragedy of what the plot has in store for him. You believe totally in the family and you can really appreciate the effort Aster puts into character in order to actually give the scares a pathos, especially as things start to spiral out of control in the films last movements.

Aster here is as confident a director in his first feature as I have ever seen, there was a variety and confidence in the cinematography and framing of the film that I never felt the visuals fell flat. A simple cut from day to night or a glance in the wing mirror is imbued with a palpable sense of dread. There is a lot to like in the film visually with bold and shocking moments being held on for just the right amount of time. There are some extremely bleak points in the films narrative and yet it never really strays into the misery porn you sometimes see in horror.

However this being said this is not the most original example of the genre and does take a lot from perhaps the two most totemic chillers of the 70s. Yes both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) are written in capital letters on the walls at points in this film, this is not to say of course that it wasn’t done with style and panache but to say this is an original vision for horror like those two were in their day would be a lie. This is kind of what I love about this film though, I felt watching this like audiences surely would have when they watched those films in the cinema first time. Coming out of the film it felt like I had seen something which truly got under my skin and was going to live there for a long time, its little details living in my head every time I hear a particular sound or see something which will remind me of it. Hereditary is a film that genuinely freaked me out at points and made me excited to talk about it in a way that so few horror films give you the chance to, a truly nihilistic but very well made piece of genre filmmaking that leaves you wanting more from Ari Aster.

-Ed

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Hereditary (2018)

A Quiet Place (2018)

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A Quiet Place (2016, Dir. John Krasinski) is a film I went to see. By seeing it, by hearing it, I experienced it. I used all my senses in that cinema, the smell of popcorn, the taste of coke, the feeling of the leather seat pressed into my back. Film might be a primarily audiovisual medium, but your other senses don’t stop working once you sit down to watch a film. Sensory experience never stops, unless it’s absent. A Quiet Place is dependent on that absence, it’s a horror film which depends on silence. It’s world is dependent on being well…a quiet place.

At least the title is easy to understand.


The horror film is becoming a strange genre to understand in a world where live killings can be streamed over Facebook. In a world where all of the world’s real terror, misery and dread can be uploaded and downloaded within seconds, where is the space left for a horror movie? What is left to scare the populace when for example, total annihilation seems commonplace? Luckily, what Krasinski has going for him is quite possibly the oldest feeling humanity carries with it; fear. Fear of the unknown is as old as us, and it’s not hard to exploit that no matter what generation you live in.

So A Quiet Place. A horror film made for a generation which can still be scared, don’t let anyone else tell you different. But what does A Quiet Place find scary, what does it think scares us? If its playing on the oldest feelings we have, then A Quiet Place boils it down to the oldest scenarios mankind encounters. Pure, brutal survival against nature. Every element builds into that. Its monsters are unknown, dangerous and very ready to kill our protagonists. Our protagonists are an archaic image, the family. A rough protective father, a caring and earnest mother, kids who are either wholesome, rebellious or cowardly. It’s an image which could be ripped straight out of the bible, hell that’s the template for Noah (2012, Dir. Darren Aronofsky). If you can’t find its inspiration in their however, try looking for it in The Simpsons.

Where A Quiet Place decides to innovate is in the senses. If everything in its structure is old hat, then where it decides things need freshening up is its big concept. Everyone must be very, very quiet. If people talk, if they make noise or sound, the acoustic hunters who hunt by sound will come find you and kill you. So what to do? Well, stay silent. As a result the whole film unfolds in almost genuine silence for large portions of its running time. It’s an impressive commitment to make in an overly saturated overly stimulated film landscape. The films’ silence is not just a cool technical trick though. Besides being woven into the story, it’s also woven into the characters; Regan (Millicent Simmonds) being deaf provides the film with one of the true moments of genuinely deep sympathy, as the agony of her condition continues to eat away at her. Honestly the film shines in its ability to breathe life into so much quiet space.

But I’m not gonna mince words on this one, I don’t like it. It brings to the table an idea which intrigues, captures the imagination. And then as the story unfolds it starts to shrink and crawl backwards, each clichéd beat washing over you, the water getting more foul each time. Because what does this film have to say? What does it want to communicate? That taking care of your family is important? That taking care of your children is hard and you have to sacrifice yourself for them? There is nothing wrong with telling us this, but to be honest so what. If these are the oldest characters in the stories of humans, we already know this. Krasinski doesn’t exactly wrap these messages up in a way which reminds us of something we’ve forgotten, he’s just telling us something we already know but without finding a way to deliver it to help remind us why we know this, why it’s the right thing.

Beyond this central idea, this idea that in the scope of things what Krasinski is saying is ideas seen before and done better, a whole host of way more grounded criticisms come into play. It’s cinematography is boring, dull and looking like it was shot for TV (bad TV). It’s score is so stock horror music, shrieking violins and jump scare music. It’s monsters do look wild and are handled well however, so it is not all bad. However less can be said of its human participants, who are given so little “acting” to do because their characters are simply so threadbare. The story gives almost everyone beyond John Krasinski as the father nothing to do but hang around and wait for things to happen. It poorly overused its characters being in danger to the point you’re not really worried, and finally goddamnit its’ ending is bad. I won’t spoil it, but it builds and builds a theme which it ends up ignoring because guns.

Honestly I’m not here to disparage a film needlessly. A Quiet Place gets at me because somewhere in there, is a genuinely great horror film which could last the test of time. But it’s not the film I experienced in the cinema. There are many many reasons, including some ludicrous and bizarre narrative jumps, but most of all it’s not that scary and not that revolutionary. It’s a horror movie, but there’s no way it’s a horror classic. I’ll say no more and be quiet.

-Alex

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A Quiet Place (2018)

Mother!

Mother!

Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) is a film which as that exclamation mark in its name suggests, is not for the fainthearted. It has quickly become one of the most controversial pictures of the year, with many critics and audience members being torn over what to think about it. When I had first came out of the screening I was in the same boat, baffled at what I had just seen. One thing I knew for certain was  that it’s an experience that will need a strong constitution to take. This of course shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Aronofsky’s past work, he is not exactly a comedic romp kind of guy. As he has shown in his past work, he really does not have any fear in delving into darkly twisted moments of depravity and horror. He sits in the same box as Lars Von Trier in my mind as an individual enfant terrible kind of figure, railing against sense and decency with an admirable verve. Unfortunately for many of Mother!’s paying audience they did not quite get the memo on Aronofsky’s style and it feels like he really has pushed this boat to its limits for many people.

The storyline of the film really comes as secondary to the experience of watching the film, the second half especially almost defies any kind of pithy explanation. Ostensibly the film is about an evening that goes awry for a poet and his wife when a doctor turns up out of nowhere, forcing himself on the couple. He is then followed by his wife and as time goes on more and more people turn up, much to the husband’s amusement and his wife’s alarm. The husband here is played with an eerie level of glee by an electrifying Javier Bardem who is a both charismatic and crazed character the role of ‘Him’ (as he is credited). ‘Him’ is a poet, a title that as the world starts to crumble around Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence’s character ‘Mother’ comes to mean a lot more than first thought. Bardem is surely one of the best psycho actors working today, the way he can portray a crazed and unpredictable temperament at times come startlingly close to a Kinski level of crazy. In many other films his performance here would seem ridiculously overblown and scenery chewing… However this being one of the most ridiculous films in so many years he fits right in.

Bardem however only remains so effective due to the at times subdued but at all times masterful performance by Jennifer Lawrence in one of the most unique roles that she has surely ever attempted. The film is from her viewpoint for almost its entire runtime and Aronofsky has used her in such a way that he really has no choice as an actor but to push herself to her limits. ‘Mother’ is not an easy role for her to undertake, she is so often a reactive figure in the plot, not really contributing to the overall path of the story and instead having to play off of, whereas the other characters force the plot. However the focusing on Lawrence for so much of the film means that Lawrence has to do a lot of the legwork in keeping the audience grounded to a sense of place and viewpoint. She is often not saying or influencing much but Lawrence always hold the attention of the camera in her grip and never lets your attention stray from the screen. In such a melodramatic and attention grabbing film as this Lawrence is the lynchpin that without her, the film would fall apart.

The film is centred around these two main roles and does give these characters a lot to do, however Aronofsky’s figure looms large in this film and it is clear that he is the real star of the film. Mother! is so dense with little details and clues as to what is actually going on, every moment is significant to him, it’s clear to see. He wants to baffle and astound you and leave you naked to the possibilities of the film. I am trying here to be as vague as possible to the actual events of the film because I feel that if you are interested in seeing the film it is probably best to know as little as possible about it beforehand.

As I noted earlier though, there are probably some caveats to this you should take into account before seeing it. I would say that to actually enjoy the film you do have to surrender to its surrealist, allegorical viewpoint, just let yourself go along for the ride and make sure you have a stomach for some darkness before going in. For me the coiled spring at the heart of the narrative just tightened and tightened to an almost unbearable level, this is not to say I regretted seeing it . It was an experience akin to being on a truly terrifying rollercoaster where you may want to get off, but you can’t because you are strapped in for the ride whether you like it or not.

Mother! is at times beautiful, at times horrific and at times willingly ludicrous. I never found myself bored or found my attention straying from the events on-screen and as I get further and further away from my initial viewing I have certain images from it that will stay in my mind long after this review is published. It’s an impressively daring piece of work by a divisive filmmaker, which is worth seeing if you know you can take it. If  however you just like Jennifer Lawrence and home invasion films I would say, this is not the film for you.

-Ed

Mother!

A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

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I think it’s easy to forget three things in cinema.

1) Films are made by real people. Even though they often pertain to fictional events and involve a complex network of people who work in different departments who work to feed themselves or at the very least, be fed by the catering department, films are still spearheaded primarily by real people who have a significant stake in not just whether the film makes money, but whether its well received or not. They care is what I’m saying.

2) That by the time a film reaches distribution level, the creators behind it have often been sitting on the film for at least 1-3 years, pre-producing, actual production, and long periods of incubation in the edit. By the time it comes round to a director’s Q&A such as the one I attended when seeing this film,  the sparks which set off the idea are long since gone, resigned to the past. Film is always about creating a space and a time which doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s also important to remember that it often has a different relationship to the artist that you might immediately assume from the outside.

3) Almost every artistic choice is influenced by financial availability. Every acting performance, every part of a film’s mise-en-scéne, every camera motion and every cog it’s machine is in some way affected by the amount of money they have to play with. Things in films which can on first glance seem aesthetically motivated, choices by the director on how to convey this world, can often be simply issues of there not being enough money to do it any other way.


These three things informed my watching of The Ghoul (2017, Dir. Gareth Tunley),  as of writing a brand new low budget British independent psychological thriller. Attached to the project is Ben Wheatley as an executive producer, a name which surely helped to get the film’s status get above the water line of thousands of micro-budget produced features each year. But this is not Ben Wheatley’s film, and according to the Q&A he came onto the project at a much later date in the film’s lifetime, so let’s put that to bed right now.

The Ghoul is on first glance, a horror movie about a riddle which can’t be solved. By the end of the film, it is still that. Just in a very twisted, disorienting and unexpected fashion. See, The Ghoul is also about psychological issues, about people who construct realities around them, realities which become true to them. For example, if a person constructs a reality where they believe everyone really is out to get them, and then they find some evidence of that,  it reinforces that reality, it becomes more real. A chain of logic begins to develop, it’s just that logic can be at odds or it might fit in with what’s happening around you.

When you see someone who is mad, it is always hard to imagine “how” they can think like that. How someone can really think the whole world is made of eggplants, or that their own son is actually a secret service plant who also is an exact double of their son (thanks Human Traffic, 1999, Dir. Justin Kerrigan), or even those opinions I might find difficult to understand, like people who believe the Earth is flat or people who believe global warming is a myth. What I can never see, is the logical (but not necessarily correct) chain of events leading up to how that person can think in that way. The Ghoul is a class in how that happens, and at times it’s a very disturbing class. So it’s a film about madness.

But then, it’s also a film about dealing with issues. The main character spends large portions of the film in therapy, talking with those who engage with the mind in all manners of ways, psychotherapy and later mysticism and the occult. It’s concerned with those draining and intense psychoses which follow so many people around, cling onto them and build pressure inside their brains, feeding into our unconscious minds. And how to deal with them, and how to battle them, and the very scary fact that sometimes we could potentially lose. That not everything is a celluloid dream, sometimes it can be a nightmare. So it’s a film about psychotherapy, the unconscious and recovery.

But then, it’s also a film which has other film DNA in it. If you wanted to be mean and glib about it, you could say it’s a lo-fi and weaker Lost Highway (1997, Dir. David Lynch). None of the style, and half of the substance, but the themes and the structure and the content mirror each other in extensive respects. It’s also aping the detective genre, paranoid and nebulous mysteries to be revealed or perhaps not, like The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). Dangerous and confusing labyrinths which while desperately trying to sort out its pieces, only get more and more blurred together. So really it’s just a film about remixing old films.

But then it’s also a micro-budget film. So it has scenes where the seams come through. Portraying depression is always a filmmaker’s nightmare, because you have to convey someone doing nothing and somehow make it not boring. Sometimes The Ghoul gets away with it, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the production details hold up, and sometimes they don’t. And I felt the acute sense of pain that must come with every film made on a shoestring budget, as the director and producer discussed the fact that honestly there was so much which had to be parred back, shaved off and cut down just so the film could get made, let alone get made well. Entire scenes, production designs and even time when filming, which affects everything else, all the mechanical cogs in the production machine. So just due to financial restrictions, the film is about people because they didn’t have a bigger budget.

All these perspectives are ways of looking at the film, and all of them make some good points but fail to capture any of the other ways of looking at the film, all equally valid in some respects. I like the film a lot, its intelligent and thought-provoking even if its ability to do so is restricted by real world problems. But that’s what marks out filmmakers, those who can at least work around their restrictions to create something. What marks out good filmmakers is getting around those restrictions and making something that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

The Ghoul did not waste my time. For the sum of its parts, its a grounded and creepy genre film (kind of) that had moments of genuine dread. It may not have an unending legacy, but it was a film made by real people who did it with practically no money and have spent years trying to piece it together. And it was good.

That’s really important.

-Alex

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The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces