The marketing for Ryan Stevens Harris’ debut feature film Moon Garden has been very careful to center the hand-crafted nature of the endeavor — photographed with expired 35mm film, using antique lenses, and filmed entirely on practical sets built in the director’s garage, Moon Garden wants to be a kind of analog fetish item. It’s a shame, then, that much of it is thunderingly literal, a nightmare dreamscape cribbed almost entirely from Guillermo del Toro, Labyrinth, Tarsem’s The Fall, and Neil Gaiman. It’s a movie almost completely made up of parts from other movies, existing in some gray area where archetypes slide into cliché. Thankfully, Harris has a wonderful performer at his disposal — his daughter, Haven Lee Harris, a delicate, soft-spoken four-year-old.
Here, she plays Emma, an imaginative young girl forced to listen to her parents (Brionne Davis and Augie Duke) argue all day. As the film begins, her mother is waking her up in the middle of the night and packing her into the car to escape. The father catches them, and another argument ensues. Dad isn’t abusive, just a workaholic, and mom appears to be mentally unstable. Fed up, Emma flees from their yelling, but trips and falls down a flight of stairs. As her corporeal body slips into a coma while being transported to the hospital, her subconscious awakes in a symbolic underworld of dank tunnels, industrial warehouses, and treacherous monsters. Emma must find her way back to her parents by traversing a series of scary or otherwise psychologically loaded encounters, while periodically catching snippets of her parent’s voices via an old radio that she is carrying. It’s a skeletal narrative framework on which to hang what Harris really seems to care about: namely, elaborate production design and lots of handmade bric-a-brac.
Working with cinematographer Wolfgang Meyer and production design consultant Delarey Wagener, Harris has expanded his own 2017 short Every Dream is a Child with Teeth into a much larger production, which was reportedly shot piecemeal over three years. Whatever the film’s flaws, the effort is all up on screen. Harris has a nice eye for worn-down, grubby spaces, and a real knack for creepy character design. One stranger that Emma encounters uses a giant sledgehammer to reconstruct a smashed pipe organ in reverse, each swing of the tool putting broken chunks back together. Elsewhere, a disgusting bathroom gives the “worst toilet in Scotland” scene from Trainspotting a run for its money, while a sequence that finds Emma encountering images of her future adult self could have been pulled from a mid-2000s pop-punk music video. At one point, Emma’s beloved stuffed rhino becomes a giant papier-mâché marionette that she climbs inside and pilots like a mech.
But the real showstopper is a haunting humanoid husk that tracks Emma throughout her comatose dreamscape, feeding off of her tears. Referred to in the credits only as “Teeth,” the creature has a featureless face and a gaping black maw where its mouth should be. The monster places a pair of plastic, wind-up chattering teeth into this void, while it drifts around hunting for its prey. It’s a remarkable design, suggestive and creepy and viscerally unpleasant, even as the film avoids any overt violence. Its cursed aura haunts the proceedings, and while Emma’s final confrontation with the beast delivers fairly boilerplate platitudes about facing one’s fears, Harris gets a lot of mileage out of his simple, lo-fi setup — miniatures, stop-motion animation, stuttering frame-rates, and trick photography do a lot of impressive heavy lifting. Still, while it seems churlish to be so harsh on what is obviously a labor of love, one can’t help but wish Harris was more influenced by the actual weirdness of a Jodorowsky or the Czech New Wave instead of a pale imitator like Terry Gilliam. On the other hand, there’s a lot of undeniable talent on display here. Someone give Harris some money and a proper soundstage, and let the man cook.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.