The Dark & the Wicked
It’s unfortunate that Bryan Bertino’s debut feature was 2008’s The Strangers. The film is the 21st century’s best instance of studio horror, a legitimately terrifying vision that both afforded the director instant credibility and established impossible expectations. The Strangers’ formalism marked a filmmaker in complete control of both his craft and the emotional pulse of an audience, who he successfully manipulated with the glee of a sadist. His follow-up, 2014’s Mockingbird, was so bad that Universal dumped it straight to DVD, while 2016’s thoroughly average The Monster couldn’t even excite king shit indie studio A24. Glimpses of the Bertino that once was can be seen in his latest flick, The Dark and the Wicked; shot composition is on point, aptly utilizing the empty space in his widescreen vistas to thoroughly keep audiences on edge. It’s too bad, then, that his script is such a half-baked mess. In the age of horror films like The Babadook and Relic, if you aren’t going for broke with your allegorical scare tale, you’re doing it wrong.
Here, there are seeds of something great: Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. star as a brother and sister returning home, apparently for the first time in ages. A dying father (Michael Zagst) gives cause for their sudden reappearance, although, of course, something evil lurks in the shadows. There are the obvious signs: Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) whispers about demons; objects move on their own; the skittish goats in the barn bleat with discomfiting abandon. Put more simply, there’s an overwhelming dread that seems to infect the siblings upon their arrival, at which point the film’s metaphor practically writes itself: the pair are afflicted by Satanic visions, otherwise known as the guilt-induced manifestations of adult children who turned their backs on the very people who gave them life in order to pursue their own. Unfortunately, Bertino is uninterested in plumbing the psychological depths of his protagonists or their situation — not surprising considering the blessed simplicity at the heart of his previous films — instead favoring countless shots that play like a “Best Of” reel from The Strangers: here, a wide shot of a female character getting herself a glass of water from the kitchen sink while something evil lurks in the background; there, a close-up of a record player spinning an eerie tune; everywhere, evil antagonists lovingly framed by open doors and windows. Once in a while something cuts through the monotony, such as the menacing image of a three-legged goat running across a field, nursing a bloody stump, but even the very presence of goats seems passé after Black Phillip’s deliciously sinister use in The Witch. The underwhelming ending makes clear that Bertino had no intention of committing to the film’s obvious metaphor, an especially galling development given its potential and the seeming attention paid to it throughout. Ireland, for one, certainly deserves better — she manages to imbue her wholly underwritten character with a genuine, rending pathos. Given her remarkable and undeserved work here, coupled with her affecting turn in last year’s more groundedly eerie and criminally underseen Light from Light, it’s easy to get excited for what she’ll do next. It’s a shame that, at this point, the same does not apply to Bertino. Steven Warner
In its first half, Liao Ming-yi‘s debut feature, I WeirDo, fits the mode of the cute, quirky rom-com. It bears down hard on its appropriately oddball flourishes: the strange typography of its English title; the bright, candy-colored cinematography, often resembling an exploding bag of Skittles (the digital images are given an extra pop by being shot entirely with iPhones); a decidedly unique take on the familiar, requisite montages of romance flowering. But the love story in I WeirDo has a bit of an unusual hook — the central couple both suffer from the same mental illness, specifically obsessive-compulsive disorder. We are first introduced to Chen Po-ching (Austin Lin), whose condition has him mostly confined to his home, constantly washing his hands and sanitizing every corner of his pristinely ordered dwelling. He ventures outside only once a month, precisely on the 15th, to meet with his doctor and to pick up food and household disinfectants from the local supermarket. During these outings, he diligently insulates himself from any dreaded germs by wearing a face mask, gloves, and protective rain gear. Coming back home on the subway one day, he spots Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh), a young woman outfitted exactly like him. Po-ching breaks his routine to surreptitiously follow her to another supermarket, where he observes a particular manifestation of her OCD, which partly involves compulsive shoplifting chocolate candies. It’s not long before they discover each other, and they quickly enter into a relationship, bonding over their shared disorder.
I WeirDo was shot before the current, ongoing pandemic, but it goes without saying that the image of the mostly homebound Po-ching and Ching donning their PPE uniforms lands much differently now than it would were we not living in such times. It’s a fascinating development, perceiving the film according to two different moments: in conception, these two individuals are both defined by their outcast status, and couple up perhaps because of that shared societal position; in execution, viewed from 2020’s vantage, the duo could otherwise simply represent the prudence and caution of our new normal. (In that way, it’s perhaps the most organic realization of quarantine cinema yet precisely because of its incidental nature, in contrast to the number of intentional, micro-budget creations that have been shot and released over the past several months.) In keeping with the more somber connotations with which the current global malady imbues the film, at its midpoint the “com” is largely jettisoned when a change occurs in one character’s condition, upending the couple’s blissful equilibrium and erupting the cozy cocoon they’ve weaved around themselves. And so, an enjoyable but slight scenario quickly transforms into a poignant examination of relationship power dynamics and compatibility, while also questioning our cultural constructions of “normal.” The result is a film far richer than its initial eccentricities suggest: a haunting and melancholy experience, powerful in its own right, and further vitalized by a unique relation to its time of arrival. Christopher Bourne
Writer-director Ben Hozie’s latest, PVT CHAT, is another film firmly planted within the emerging subgenre of telecom cinema. Given the evolving cultural discourse around the nature of communication and connection in an age of virtual platforms, there is admittedly a rich trove of material here. While Catfish introduced the genre’s (melo)dramatic potential to the mainstream, subsequent entries have skewed toward fiction, frequently embracing horror as their preferred texture; films like Unfriended, Cam, and the recent Host all rely on an undercurrent of technophobia, capitalizing on the viewer’s lack of knowledge of or intimate exposure to certain computer-centric innovations to recontextualize fear of the unknown. PVT CHAT at first, and for a while, suggests that it might morph into this type of horror — through low-angle shots and canted compositions, it creates a sense of disorientation in its otherwise low-key proceedings. Cramped, dark quarters dominate early on: we see medium shots of an isolated Jack (Peter Veck) hunched in front of a laptop in varying states of undress, while the computer’s screen frames and diminishes all of his social interactions.
But PVT CHAT soon opens up, mostly to its detriment. Hozie’s film is specifically concerned with camming culture, and it’s more of a relationship film than a stylistic exercise in dread, with Jack as the sad-sack nucleus. He’s a would-be hustler prone to compulsive lying, whether about his fictional tech ventures or his online blackjack prowess, and trawling camgirl chatrooms looking for love. He’s a grating presence, but Veck mostly pulls the performance off, cutting Jack’s more unsettling incel tendencies with a palate-cleansing goofiness. The film elsewhere pads its hip factor with a bit of Safdie cred: the brothers’ regular Buddy Duress once again maximizes his screentime through a performative inclination toward mania, while Julia Fox, as the female lead, proves to be as compelling a presence as her role in Uncut Gems suggested. But despite these isolated strengths and the director’s evident ambition, PVT CHAT isn’t up to either the Safdies’ standards or those of its more horror-minded subgenre fellows. Where the latter films intuit new, if obvious, modes of filmmaking from the material, Hozie seems interested only in its dramatic potential, and even that remains mostly undeveloped. It’s the kind of film that strives to be observational only, mistakenly trusting that its content is sapient enough that poignancy will simply happen rather than working to establish any guiding ideas. Its contemporaneous signifiers — anti-capitalist rhetoric, outré installation art, yoga — are broad and insubstantial, scuttling any meaningful interrogation of internet-era transaction and interaction. Hozie mistakes lampoonery for incisive critique, which muddies PVT CHAT’s tone and confuses its attempt at trenchancy. What’s left is a film that unflatteringly plays like a post-mumblecore version of Men, Women, & Children. Luke Gorham
It’s not often that object sexuality (or, OS for the sake of brevity) is discussed outside the confines of lurid reality television, and as such, Zoé Wittock’s debut feature Jumbo represents somewhat unfamiliar territory. For one thing, significant studies on OS weren’t conducted until about 10 years ago (it has been theorized that OS is, in fact, a sort of “neosexuality”), and while it has been assessed to be a legitimate phenomenon and sexual identity, there isn’t a whole lot more that is known (in large part because it manifests in a pretty miniscule portion of the population). As such, Jumbo, which details a real life romance between a young woman and an amusement park ride, finds itself in a spot that is at once privileged and challenging; a premise that can be explored in countless interesting ways, but comes with the real responsibility of sensitive depiction.
To her credit, Wittock is very aware of the balance this movie must maintain, but unfortunately, the balancing act eats up much of Jumbo’s focus, resulting in a film that is tasteful and well-intentioned…but not a lot else. This isn’t to say that there aren’t standout moments in Jumbo — the title character/theme park ride is shot and framed with an appropriate reverence that at times manages to cast the unwieldy machine as a natural descendant of King Kong. There’s also an oil-based sex scene that conceives of this woman/machine coupling in a striking, Under the Skin-esque fashion. But while such scenes stand out independently, they fit next to each other rather awkwardly, and in this specific scene, the old Hollywood romanticism of the former clashes against the more contemporary, abstracted lustiness of the latter. In turn, the film eventually settles into what you might call a social justice drama that finds the human protagonist fighting against family and status quo culture (and a creepy boss) in the hopes that her unconventional relationship will be respected. Noémie Merlant (in her first role since Portrait of a Lady on Fire) does good work in the lead role of Jeanne, maintaining a withdrawn, considerate approach, but the script opts to avoid much probing of her character, limiting where and how far she is able to go with it. This was probably the responsible choice by both director and performer, but the script’s attention is too divided and does little to otherwise elevate the material, resulting in a film that is overwhelmed by its own possibility. M.G. Mailloux
Bleed With Me
Amelia Moses’ Bleed With Me plays equally like an accomplished student film and an overly mannered A24-style calling card. She’s got the formal moves down pat, but the narrative is shallow and overly familiar. As the film begins, Emily (Lauren Beatty) and her boyfriend Brendan (Aris Tyros) have traveled to her family’s isolated cabin for a weekend getaway, also inviting her friend Rowan (Lee Marshall) along for the trip. Moses conjures a palpable sense of unease from the start, filming the group’s car ride from oblique angles and giving us hazy, out-of-focus shots and muffled snippets of dialogue from Rowan’s point of view in the back seat. Once they arrive at the cabin and settle in, Rowan proceeds to get drunk and eventually falls into a boozy stupor. Beatty and Marshall are fine actors, but neither can make these early scenes of idle, casual chit-chat sound natural, and scenes often unfold as if there was time for a single take. A fundamental problem with the film’s narrative setup quickly arises: there is no clear reason why these people would be friends in the first place, nor is it evident why this couple would have bothered to invite a third wheel at all. Emily is recovering from some kind of accident, and Brendan is ostensibly her caretaker, but this plot point comes and goes. Brendan is cold and rude towards Rowan, until he’s not. Emily is caring and outgoing, until suddenly she’s not. There’s one scene that suddenly suggests that Emily is fostering some jealousy towards Rowan’s easy rapport with Brendan, but that too is forgotten as quickly as it arises.
What becomes clear, then, is that the characters here simply exist to take on whatever attribute Moses needs them to in any given moment. Rowan is obviously damaged in some way (Moses is careful to show glimpses of self-harm scars on Rowan’s arms) and almost immediately starts hallucinating and sleepwalking. Before long she’s convinced that Emily is sneaking into her room at night and drinking her blood. It’s awfully familiar stuff, tilling the same claustrophobic, psycho-sexual tensions as Repulsion, Persona, and more recently the work of Josephine Decker or even Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. Moses demonstrates a good eye for off-kilter framing, and she uses this, as well as a hypnotic, droning sound design, to develop an effectively creepy atmosphere as Rowan gradually loses her grip on reality. But it’s all in the service of tepid game playing, a series of rhetorical gestures that don’t add up to anything. None of these characters ever seem like real people, so their psychosis becomes not the product of human trauma or mental illness, but simply an affectation, purely performative. Bleed With Me wants to question what’s real and what’s dream, and how those we trust might have ulterior motives. In this regard, it’s not successful, but Moses’s technical acumen and grasp of tone are evident. If she can figure out how to place real humans within a mood exercise, she’s one to keep an eye on. Daniel Gorman