Fabio D’Orta’s The Complex Forms opens with a long pan over a burning car, set to an audacious classical piece, that slowly flips 180 degrees until the frame is completely reversed. It’s an intriguing and foreboding opening that signals many elements of what is to come later in the film. Immediately, however, it dials back, and we are suddenly presented with a conversation played out between our central character, Christian (David White), and an unnamed priest-like figure. It’s a bureaucratic conversation about forms and contracts, but at the heart of it is the agreement that Christian will be paid €10,000 in exchange for letting a mysterious entity possess his body for 12 days. Who this mysterious entity is, and what the possession entails, is unclear to both Christian and the audience. Christian is not alone, however, in this contractual agreement; before the possession takes place, he and the other participants — who all happen to be middle-aged men — will live communally in a rural villa, not knowing what is going to happen next. D’Orta spends a good amount of time building up suspense to the events that we think might unfold, via small chattering amongst residents and the mysterious claims made by the staff working there.
Viewers don’t have to wait long, though, as the film runs at a briskly paced 75 minutes, packing a great deal into this short runtime. Roughly a third of the way through, loud thunder crashes around the villa and a mass of towering monsters arises, menacingly slowly, from the misty forest surrounding. Revealing the design of the creatures so early risks overplaying the film’s primary scare and reducing the ominous dread that comes with the unknown; however, D’Orta does an effective job of keeping an air of mystery despite revealing them in full to the audience. In fact, this only prompts the characters in the film, and by extension, us, to raise more questions about what is going on and who exactly these creatures are. It’s through both this enigma and the designs — reminiscent of Bloodborne mini-bosses, except that their flesh is encrusted with jewels and gold — that the film comes to feel heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. Looking like ancient beings from an old world, these Lovecraftian entities appear seemingly out of nowhere; throughout The Complex Forms, they materialize in rooms despite not being previously visible. They never speak and don’t seem to communicate at all, and only prowl around the villa, appearing at any given moment. This mystique manages to inject each scene with a tangible terror.
It’s hard to tell if the austerity of The Complex Forms is the result of a supremely low budget or a stylistic choice on D’Orta’s part (this is his feature debut). It’s a barren film with a minimal number of characters and locations, taking place almost entirely in the haunting villa where the characters wait out their days. But its restraint also comes from the way D’Orta’s camera glides through the mysterious walls and gardens of its central location. In many ways, the formal and even narrative style feels much closer to the type of cold European arthouse cinema that one might expect from Michael Haneke than a typical Italian horror, often known for its maximalist set pieces and gauche, sometimes incomprehensible, narratives. D’Orta’s film feels devoid of emotion and sentiment, with the characters feeling more like Bressonian chess pieces than fleshed-out characters who have clearly defined personalities and goals. But while willful ambiguity can often prove frustrating in unsure hands, it thankfully never hinders proceedings here, and in fact, becomes the film’s strongest feature: it’s undeniably refreshing to watch a film that feels genuinely consumed in the allure of its own narrative.
Disappointingly, The Complex Forms doesn’t manage to develop an effective ending, as D’Orta doesn’t seem confident in how to bring things to a close: the brisk pace quickly cuts to a denouement, resulting in a cluster of exposition about the origins of the creatures and the experiments the characters have gone through being crammed in during the final few minutes. Still, despite the superfluous load of information offered here, the film still manages to leave a lot of questions unanswered after the credits roll and provides a generally satisfactory conclusion. The Complex Forms is a promising debut that is plenty worth watching, especially for anyone enamored with horror of the celestial variety, and hints at grander things to come from D’Orta.
Published as part of Slamdance Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.