All the Moons
Though it at first looks like a typical, if particularly handsome, period vampire film, Igor Legarreta’s All the Moons soon distinguishes itself as something less familiar: not a horror movie so much as a coming of age(lessness) fairy tale that seriously considers the existential dilemma inherent in the fantasy. Towards the end of the Third Carlist War in 1876, an orphan girl (Haizea Carneros) is saved from certain death by a cloaked woman who turns her into a vampire. That word is never uttered here or anywhere else, but the thirst for blood and aversion to the sun are accounted for: the vampire clan the girl falls in with stalks the remains of battlegrounds like vultures at night and hides from the sun during the day. But soon the girl is separated from her found family and presumed dead in the sunlight.
Ten years later, the girl develops immunity to the sun and is taken in by the widower Candido, whose biological daughter died some years before. The father-daughter-like relationship that forms between the two characters becomes the tender core of the film, the village becoming increasingly fearful of the girl — whom the man names Amaia, perhaps after his biological daughter — while Candido only becomes more protective. Unlike the child vampires of Interview with the Vampire or Let the Right One In, Amaia is an uncomplicated moral innocent, a demon by circumstance but not by action, who hurts no one save a neighbor’s chickens or a few wild animals.
What All the Moons is about then is not the familiar push-pull between sympathy and revulsion that informs so much vampire media, but about being stuck in time, a child forever. To Candido, Amaia is a gift, a girl permanently at the age of his departed daughter, allowing him a chance at a fatherhood free of pain. His love is returned, but Amaia is cursed to watch him — and everyone else — grow old. It’s a sorrowful movie about how seeing “all the moons” there ever will be drains the beauty out of each night’s sky and how eternal life becomes a deadening slog, especially in a world set upon by cycles of war and destruction. It’s telling, then, that the film is bookended by wars, opening with the end of the Third Carlist War and ending with the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, a title card reading 1936 superimposed over the face of a girl who has looked the same for 60 years hitting like a freight train. The setting and subject of Legarreta’s film recall Guillermo Del Toro but stripped of his phantasmagorical fascination and doubling down on achingly sensitive storytelling. The gorgeous final stretch of All the Moons sticks the landing, offering a profound moment of parental sacrifice and an unexpected ray of hope for Amaia.
Writer: Chris Mello
Timur Bekmambetov’s Screenlife films have been a proven source of forward-thinking cinematic fun and big box office returns for a good many years now, with a recent five-picture distribution deal for Universal that suggests a long-term commitment to the technology/filming style from the studio. Great news, as Bekmambetov and the filmmakers he selects to direct his projects (he’s generally acting in a producer role) have only gotten stronger and more confident at realizing this approach to telling cinematic story, using the screens of laptops and smartphones to convey a variety of stories and genres. 2021 Sundance selection R#J proved to be the liveliest and most adventurous Screenlife project yet, taking the mode out of the horror/thriller genre and into Shakespearean territory for the first time, to great effect. One hoped that this suggested the path forward for Bekmambetov and co., and perhaps it does (he has been quoted as having 50 Screenlife projects in varying stages of development, after all), but sadly, latest effort #Blue_Whale is a step backward for the producer and his generally consistent vision.
#Blue_Whale brings Screenlife back into horror territory, for what ultimately plays as a less compelling take on the masterpiece of the form, Unfriended: Dark Web. Taking Bekmambetov back to his native Russia to work with relatively fresh director Anna Zaytseva (this is her debut feature, following a few shorts), #Blue_Whale capitalizes on the recent real-world fervor around The Blue Whale Challenge, a sinister social media game ostensibly originating in Moscow that encouraged teenage participants to self-harm and eventually commit suicide. The real life Blue Whale phenomenon was characterized and complicated by an intense media scrutiny that may or may not have turned a creepypasta into upsetting reality (three people were eventually arrested in connection to the dissemination of the challenge, but who knows).
But, none of that has much bearing on what happens in #Blue_Whale, which opts to turn this material into straightforward horror, concocting a spooky, conspiratorial organization responsible for coaxing depressed teens into ending their own lives over the course of 21 steps. Each step is a different challenge designed to humiliate and isolate the already vulnerable, high school-age participants, a process that claims the life of the film’s protagonist’s sister in its opening moments. Following this loss, Anna Potebnya’s Dana infiltrates the Blue Whale group chat with the intent of getting revenge on those who orchestrated it, but “pretending” to play the game ends up boiling down to about the same thing as actually playing it. A low-tier thriller plot in the vein of many Screenlife films, Bekmambetov’s phone-screen formalism is generally so accomplished that considerations of plot are far from the mind, but unfortunately, #Blue_Whale’s grasp on the language of this medium isn’t as firm as the films that have come before it, with the editing (re: switching between apps and tabs) failing to establish a rhythm and taking too many chronal shortcuts. Non-Russian speakers will also inherently get less from the film, as the dense, text-heavy Screenlife compositions aren’t completely translatable, your eye always immediately drawn to the most relevant text, everything else eschewed. An unfortunate, noticeable step down from what’s come (recently) before, #Blue_Whale exemplifies the worst possibilities offered by Screenlife, which had thus far been nimbly avoided. Though, with a take on Cyrano de Bergerac apparently right around the corner (Liked, still no official release date), Bekmambetov may already be steering the ship back where it needs to go.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
The Righteous, the debut feature from actor Mark O’Brien, is the type of film that practically begs to be viewed as respectable, serious-minded fare, seen in everything from its austere black-and-white photography to its thematic focus on a crisis of faith. Press materials make bold comparisons to the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Charles Laughton — audacious propaganda for even an established director, let alone a debut — setting viewers up for disappointment long before the first frame unfurls. Taken on its own merits, The Righteous should be lauded for its lofty ambitions; those expecting a modern-day classic in the vein of Diary of a Country Priest or Night of the Hunter, however, would be wise to look elsewhere (seriously, why?). In fact, the film’s philosophical ruminations on guilt and spirituality more readily call to mind Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, but establishing that comparison isn’t all that much kind to The Righteous.
Henry Czerny stars as Frederic Mason, a former priest who, as the film opens, is dealing with the loss of his 12-year-old adopted daughter, the victim of a hit-and-run. Frederic lives in the middle of nowhere with his grieving wife, Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), with each day proving an endurance test of pain and guilt. But into the lives of these two troubled souls enters a stranger, Aaron Smith (Mark O’Brien), a good-looking yet mysterious chap who emerges from the woods one night seeking shelter and treatment for a sprained ankle. While ultimately welcomed in by the Masons, questions of identity and intent linger, with Frederic especially troubled as revelations lead only to more suspicions. This also leads to the film’s biggest stumbling block, namely that the actions of the characters make little to no sense at any given moment, jerked around by the script in the name of convenience. It would be easy to understand Aaron’s presence as a balm or at least a welcome distraction for the grieving couple, his arrival nearly serendipitous as Frederic and Ethel desperately try to fill the void left by the loss of their daughter. But such an angle is never teased out, as Aaron comes across as archly sinister from his first appearance, to the point that Frederic’s aid seems downright stupid. It is also rather telling that Ethel’s acceptance of this stranger is brushed off with an explanation of “We talked for hours last night,” as if O’Brien was desperate to paper over the gaping plot hole at the film’s center.
That’s not to suggest that plot mechanics are the focus of The Righteous, as O’Brien is far more interested in the effect that Aaron’s appearance ultimately causes in Frederic, a man running from a mysterious and troubled past, his day of spiritual reckoning finally within reach: “Be careful what you wish for, but be certain what you pray for,” a local priest solemnly intones to Frederic as he seeks spiritual guidance. Indeed, there’s no shortage of questions raised by The Righteous in regards to religious atonement. Is payment for past mistakes ever truly possible? Can one sin simply cancel out another? Why is the pain we deserve — even crave — seemingly inflicted upon the innocent, loved ones caught in the crossfire of a faith crisis? It all leads to an ending that is nearly apocalyptic in what it implies regarding such questions, one likely to garner as many champions as it does detractors.
O’Brien certainly gets points for mounting a film that interrogates spirituality in a thoughtful and meaningful way, especially when the empty-headed likes of God’s Not Dead clog theaters across the country, but The Righteous is the kind of film that isn’t half as deep as it thinks it is, trading on empty posturing for most of its runtime, its bold ending feeling like another calculated move intended only to maximize shock value. It doesn’t help that Czerny, a character actor who has appeared in various films and television projects for the past 30 years, doesn’t have the dramatic chops to pull off the emotionally-nuanced performance necessary to make this material work. He scans as more testy than haunted, which becomes grating before long, but at least he looks the part of an anguished soul, which is appropriate for a film that is nothing but surface, even as it supposedly plumbs the depths of humanity. To that end, the black-and-white photography is undeniably gorgeous, but the image itself looks somehow too crisp, its digital roots impossible to disguise by O’Brien and at odds with the messy inquiries the film is built upon. Ultimately, that’s The Righteous in a nutshell: a compelling forgery, and one whose aspirations for profundity are far too visible.
Writer: Steven Warner
The Fantasia Festival program and various press materials for Kelsey Egan’s Glasshouse all describe the film as a variation on The Beguiled (either Don Siegel’s 1971 version or Sofia Coppola’s more recent interpretation, take your pick). There are indeed undeniable similarities, so perhaps it’s better to simply lean in to the comparisons. But Glasshouse gradually transforms into something altogether more insidious than that Southern Gothic mainstay: It explores the phenomenology of memory and how it shapes the interpersonal dynamics of a hermetic society. This bold subject creeps into the margins of the film slowly, but eventually takes over the narrative.
At some unknown point in the future, a global pandemic that disrupts or otherwise erases human memory functions has rendered large swaths of the world uninhabitable. Survivors refer to it as “the shred” (although at one point a barely glimpsed magazine cover suggests the possibility that it’s a late-stage Covid mutation, a nod to current events that’s left tantalizingly vague). Living a cloistered life in a small wooded clearing are Mother (Adrienne Pearce), along with oldest daughter Bee (Jessica Alexander), middle child Evie (Anja Taljaard), their brother Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), and youngest child Daisy (Kitty Harris). They live off only what they can grow, tending to crops and gardening, wearing makeshift plastic masks and hazmat suits when outside. The glasshouse of the title has been sealed up with homemade glue and is adorned with years of accumulated bric-a-brac, part fairy-tale camping ground and part religious temple. The children take turns on sentry duty, killing anyone who stumbles too close to their property and repurposing the corpses into paste, fertilizer, and even hanging severed limbs in the surrounding forest to discourage other drifters. The family is awaiting the return of eldest brother Luca, who ventured out into the world at some point and has yet to return. One day, for reasons unknown, Bee allows an unnamed stranger (Hilton Pelser) to enter their home. The stranger is injured, but brings news of the world “back East,” so Mother stitches him up and allows him to stay. We learn much about this familial unit through the eyes of this outsider: their adherence to arcane, vaguely religious rituals, an obsession with naming and classifying each other, Gabe’s deteriorating mental state due to exposure to the virus, and Bee’s unsettling obsession with the missing Luca, which borders on incestuous lust. As he begins insinuating himself into the family, Egan and co-writer Emma Lungiswa De Wet are coy about just how dangerous this stranger really is. Inevitably, he begins a physical relationship with Bee, which horrifies Evie even as Mother encourages it.
Glasshouse appears at first to be a story about an Edenic sanctuary ruled over by a benevolent matriarchy that’s at risk of being disrupted by untrammeled masculinity. And it is that, for a bit. Cinematographer Justus de Jager gives the film a sensual, tactile sheen, with heavy natural light in the daytime and the soft glow of candles at night. The atmosphere is hot and heavy, full of repressed longings and sexual tensions. Once Bee becomes pregnant, Mother demands that Bee choose one person to leave the house, claiming that there’s not enough pure oxygen for another body and that a careful balance must be maintained. So begins a complicated matrix of repressed memories and tearful recriminations, as long-simmering secrets finally surface and the true nature of Luca’s absence and how Gabe was exposed to the shred is revealed. There’s no surprise twist here, at least not in the “gotcha” sense. Instead, there’s a careful, precise removal of layers, as the filmmakers unravel their own narrative to emphasize the opaque, fallible nature of memory. Glasshouse eventually approaches a similar philosophical stance as Nolan’s Memento, another film about willful self-deception: Is something a lie if you really believe it? And if no one remembers an event, did it actually happen? By the time the end credits roll, Glasshouse has entirely reconfigured its cast of characters and recontextualized the preceding 90 minutes of narrative into a horrifying example of survival of the fittest. Here, in this ruined world, ignorance is truly bliss.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Hotel Poseidon comes courtesy of Abattoir Ferme, a Belgian theater ensemble whose website characterizes the company’s voice as “provocative, physical, immersive, disturbing, highly visual, and often with a dark sense of humor.” That certainly describes Hotel Poseidon, the first feature film from the troupe, one with a style reminiscent of the likes of David Lynch, Roy Andersson, and Darren Aronofsky. An existential dramedy-horror hybrid with a hefty dose of surrealism coursing through its veins, the film instantly creates an atmosphere of such nauseating dread that it threatens to suffocate the proceedings within its opening moments. As the camera makes several sweeping revolutions around the lobby of the eponymous location, we witness such distinct sights as dead fish, peeling wallpaper, mold-covered walls, dripping ceilings, a coffee maker bursting into flames, and an elevator whose malfunctioning doors invite comparisons to the gaping maws of Hell, its horrific sounds cast by sharp dissonant strings — courtesy of Belgian project Kreng, headed by composer Pepijn Caudron — that fill the soundtrack, guiding viewers toward their own personal panic attack.
A nifty title reveal created out of items within the lobby itself gives way to the introduction of our protagonist, Dave (Tom Vermeir), proprietor of the hotel and whose room is pure nightmare fuel. The production design by Sven Van Kuijk is the stuff of Harmony Korine’s wet dreams: the detail afforded to each present atrocity is effectively nauseating, from the yellow water pouring down the walls into crud-covered catch-alls to the shit-filled toilet to the stained sheets to the pair of pants in the corner so crusty they literally stand on their own. Dave himself resembles an embalmed Will Ferrell, white pancake makeup covering his face and greasy hair splayed across his head. A disembodied voice from a neighboring room implores Dave to get out of bed and face the world, a proposition that will prove to have dire consequences. In this way, Hotel Poseidon gets by on sheer audacity alone for its first 15 minutes. Writer-director Stef Lernous creates a world of stunning specificity, its mood of mounting anxiety making it tough to look away. But the film soon takes on the air of any number of debut indie features in which weird affectations exist solely for the sake of their outre qualities: Dave’s mascara-smeared girlfriend(?) is introduced finger-banging herself on a soiled couch before getting on all fours and meowing, rubbing her head on Dave’s legs; a tourist stops by and demands to be given a room even though she has no money and should run screaming upon entering the lobby; a deceased relative prompts the arrival of two giggling funeral home workers. And the stunning authenticity of the production design clashes with the artificiality of the performances, all operating in an exaggerated register of theatricality.
Indeed, it all becomes quite numbing and more than a little obnoxious, that is until a late-film pivot into Aronofsky/mother! territory, as the hotel hosts a party that spins wildly out of control. At this point, it’s already fairly easy to read the hotel as a physical manifestation of purgatory, with representations of Heaven and Hell both fighting for Dave’s soul…and that’s even before we get an extended riff on the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Taken as a whole, Hotel Poseidon seems to posit that life itself is nothing more than its own kind of purgatory, a place between the binaries of right and wrong, good and evil, an exhausting, never-ending game in which mere survival is its own victory. But while suggesting that getting out of bed might not even be worth it is about as pessimistic as it gets, it’s not all that interesting or profound, and these dank thematics are a primary reason why Hotel Poseidon ultimately feels so trite and empty. The film’s immersive and undeniably impressive style invites viewers to peel back layers, but all there is to find is a poisoned pit as its center. Lernous and, by extension, Abattoir Ferme, prove their mettle as creatives with Hotel Poseidon; next time, they would be wise to leave the Philosophy 101-level posturing at the door.
Writer: Steven Warner
Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ Stanleyville confines itself to a single room, a kind-of auditorium space that could be found among your local long-term care facilities. Barren, disheveled, and ultimately anonymous, the environment articulates rather bluntly the film’s formal and aesthetic qualities; it’s this room, and the failed coloring of its geography, that submits to us an utter lack of insight and intuition and abandons its cast of characters to an aimless whimsy. Stanleyville follows Maria (Suzanne Wuest), a lowly office worker with little-to-no reason for living, at least in the context of her current affairs. In nothing short of a miracle, she is approached by a stranger who offers her a placement in some game — its prize a standard and polished SUV — and sees this moment as a sign of rejuvenation, as an opportunity to reimagine her life and live vigorously. However, she soon finds herself stuck in this room with four strangers, each vying for this monotonous reward.
McCabe-Lokos seems intent on cloaking the relationships and dynamics of his characters with obtuseness. Certainly, the decision to do so crystallizes any dramaturgical friction into short humor, although it simultaneously estranges us from the troupe. A capacity for emotional intellection is stunted and each player strays from wall to wall, corner to corner, without any discernible orchestration. McCabe-Lokos cuts frequently between Oners, stares glazing over as the image emptily fixates on covering each action. If the editing weren’t as imprecise, there might be an argument to be made for the innate solipsism that defines the relationships and the dramatic inertness of the whole work. The persistent failure, however, to conceive of connective tissue between the elements it engages with (either through some development of narrative or in formal playfulness) ensures that the thematically derivative interests and pedestrian existential angsts of Stanleyville on the whole amount to little more than nothing at all: no intrigue, no query, no quandary of any sort. We’re left with a vacuous representation of undefined space, and no particular way to even interpolate ideation in between the gaping cracks of logic and affect.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind