Credit: Dark Sky Films
by Frank Falisi Featured Film Genre Views

Faceless After Dark — Raymond Wood

May 17, 2024

The first onscreen image in Faceless After Dark (2023), is, perhaps in deliberate tension with the film’s title, a human face. It is bloodied, or made up to be bloodied — maybe both. In a medium close-up, the camera holds the face’s spent eyes for nearly 30 seconds while strobes of magenta and pink flash in a steady tempo. The face breathes in and out jaggedly, expressly, expressively terrified. Lights flange faster, as another (or maybe the same?) face is spliced in, momentary ruptures in this long sustained shot. And then horizontal edges of the frame push in slowly, the subject’s eyes never looking away from whoever is watching. The first sound in Faceless After Dark, which occurs in exact sync with the appearance of that face onscreen, is the blip-beep of a digital camera beginning to record. This medium close-up is filmed two times over. The film’s spectator is, primally and primarily, a camera.

Faceless After Dark, Raymond Wood’s second feature, is a film about the business of filmmaking, which means it is a film about paying attention. Bowie Davidson (Jenna Kanell), whose face opens the film, is a struggling actor who got something like a medium-sized break starring in a horror movie (“Flesh Eating Freaks”) about a killer clown. After the anchoring image of a terrified, scrutinized Bowie which opens Faceless After Dark, Wood cuts to in-movie footage of that killer clown movie: Bowie, in a wig or haircut that masks her short-shorn locks, stalks and is stalked by a killer clown. She hunts the clown down, delivers the clunky dialogue against her better judgment. “Didn’t you hear?” she says, back in character after gently protesting the on-set director. She goes on: “The circus just left town, bitch—” but the scene cuts again, this time to a smartphone camera, and the punchline of this dreadful line is being recited by a half-hearted Bowie manning a booth at “Slasher Con.” An awkward fan lingers expectantly after seeking and getting his selfie with the actor. What does he expect? More access and more attention.

The film pushes its narrative from this point, swiftly separating Bowie from her more-famous girlfriend (Danielle Lyn), who books a big gig (“The superhero one!”) and leaves her increasingly despondent partner behind to unsuccessfully audition for a friend’s film (“They wanted to cast a name.”) Genre tropes rear their masked heads when a masked intruder breaks in late one night. That he wears a familiar clown mask marks the film’s collapse of reality and fantasies, of desire and expectations. When Bowie wields a machete prop, poached from the set, against the home invader, it’s not entirely clear who the victim will necessarily be in this setting. At its end, as the film finally provides the context for its elliptical opening sequence, it’s not entirely clear if horror is a thing that can be shown (as image) so much as it must be felt (as affect.)

But it’s in its three brief opening sequences that Faceless After Dark is most suggestive about image-making and -taking. Here are three looks at the camera: first as an unseen element nevertheless wholly responsible for framing its subject’s action, then as a thing that captures a fantasy, and then as an appendage of the attention economy. Wood’s film — based on a script co-written by its star, Kanell, and Todd Jacobs — is attentive to the business of filmmaking; which is to say, to the exertions and transactions that go into composing with images. In his essaying anatomy of Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), Nicholas Russell points to that director’s long-held duology of camera-intent: “captures the glamor and enjoyment of filmmaking,” Scorsese says, “while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates…From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.”

Wood’s film is such a study, as soured by the price paid by subsuming oneself as an actor in attention economies — image-making, capitalism, egoism — as it is thrilled by the variable fruits of its laboring. Even as it punctures, there is a certain delight in its horror tropes, in its flayed fleshes and crusted clown masks. There is the peculiar, trancey ballet in the motion of the magentas and pinks, and in Kanell’s face, as terrified as it is terrifying. The ugly is enchanting, as is the reverse. It’s our awareness and our attention that change our given perspective of an image. Victims become actors. Monsters invert.

Kannell’s athletic performance is an essential component of co-writing the film beyond their screenwriting credit. Their presence as a stunt performer is keenly felt in the film’s varying, violent set pieces, and it’s a joy to watch how freely Wood and cinematographer Randall Blizzard can move the camera around because of how grounded their actor is, especially as Bowie’s stagings and re-stagings of violence escalate. And the script hums with self-knowing glances, both at the state of the genre and the struggle to make a movie on the terms the movie (and not the market) would like. Jacobs’ and Kannell’s script welcomely doesn’t telegraph to the spectator its or its characters’ motivations, and the result is a film that moves with the same oblique blinks and absences that result from days spent half in a phone and half peeking at the simultaneous banality and horror of a social-mediated world.

And a certain self-awareness is inherent in Wood’s project, beyond even its filmmaking-within-a-film narrative; Kannell, like their character Bowie, also starred in a horror film about a killer clown, 2016’s Terrifier (2016). It would be vulgar to suggest that Faceless After Dark exists only to fictionalize some element of the artist’s non-fiction existence, but as a story about a female-coded protagonist navigating the soft and loud violences of mostly male monsters, it’s a unique injunction on representing horrific images. Bowie isn’t just a frustrated actor, or some wronged-and-then-avenging promising young woman because Kannell and Wood have too much faith in the unsteady — and so, possible — potential of the moving image. When Bowie wields the machete against her intruder, rerouting the narrative of Faceless After Dark in prickly, turbulent strokes, the film suggests that it’s as much because of her own desire to receive attention as it is a righteous act against the patronizing gazes she receives. The camera doesn’t reveal us as good or bad, but allows us the language that contains these feelings, as well as infinite others. We don’t make horror movies as stand-ins for the “real” world, but rather to show the way crying and laughing often occupy the exact same space-time.

DIRECTOR: Raymond Wood;  CAST: Jenna Kanell, Danielle Lyn, Catherine Corcoran, Danny Kang;  DISTRIBUTOR: Dark Sky Films;  IN THEATERS: May 17;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 23 min,