Contrary to what many have claimed, the horror genre is one of considerable breadth. For proof check out the following seven films, which include a surreal provocation, a streetwise indie, a twisted black comedy, a couple true crime dramas and an animated epic. All are quite remarkable, yet for all their qualities none of these films have been released in the U.S. (outside the festival circuit).
It’s a sad fact that quite a few films I like remain unreleased on these shores, and are probably destined to remain that way. Having reluctantly given up on flogging undeservedly obscure efforts like Valeri Fokin’s METAMORPHOSIS (2002) and Vladimir Vitkin’s X,Y (2004), I’ll concentrate on more recent films that might still have a chance at being seen in America (although I’m well aware that given the sorry state of U.S. film distribution that chance is a mighty slim one).
First up is SURVIVING LIFE (THEORY AND PRACTICE) [PREZIT SVUJ ZIVOT (TEORIE A PRAXE)] from 2010, an amazing surreal feature from the incomparable Jan Svankmajor. The film represents Svankmajor’s take on dreams and psychiatry, with a working stiff finding his waking life overtaken by subconscious desires and fantasies.
Such material is tailor-made for Svankmajor, who visualizes the proceedings via two dimensional animated cut-outs intercut with close-ups of real people and events. In an introductory speech Svankmajor claims he lacked the funds to shoot a proper live action film; sorry, but I don’t believe that claim, as SURVIVING LIFE is in many respects the ultimate expression of the tension between live action and stop motion animation that has been a staple of Svankmajor’s cinema since his early 1960s-era shorts.
Among the innumerable mind-bending sights on display are giant tongues emerging from the windows of an apartment building…a man with a dog’s head and a snake with a man’s head…animated pictures of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung reacting to a woman psychiatrist’s proclamations by clapping or laughing…and the protagonist getting himself off by ecstatically chewing on the strap of an alligator skin handbag. Obviously this film won’t appeal to everyone, but for those of you who appreciate dark satire and surrealism it’s required viewing, pure and simple.
My second pick emerges from here in the USA: 2010’s vigilante-themed indie BOY WONDER. It’s been written off by some as a low budget DEATH WISH wannabe, and in many respects that’s just what it is. It does, however, boast a richly layered approach, and a mighty impressive lead turn by Caleb Steinmeyer. He plays a college student who as a child witnessed the murder of his mother, which has tormented him ever since. He takes to staking the streets of NYC at night, beating the shit out of and even killing various predators while attending college during the day–but, as you might guess, the violence inevitably spills over into the guy’s “normal” life.
The film has many flaws endemic to independent filmmaking–poor acting by the supporting cast, cut-rate action sequences and cheap lightning set-ups that render the nighttime scenes difficult to make out–but nearly overcomes those things with crisp direction and a terrifically complex script, both accomplished by first-timer Michael Morrissey.
2009’s NORMAL [ANGELS GONE] is a provocative and disturbing Czech docudrama that probes the crimes of Peter Kurten, the so-called “Vampire of Dusseldorf” who terrorized Germany in the years 1929-31. Adapted from the 1991 play by Anthony Neilson, NORMAL centers on a naive attorney (Pavel Gajdos) who attempts to defend the incarcerated Kurten (Milan Knazko). Interviewing the disarmingly intelligent and charismatic Kurten, the attorney finds his already fragile psyche coming unglued as he grapples with issues of crime, punishment and the slippery demarcation between madness and normality–issues that remain subjects of debate today. The protagonist also gets a bit overly chummy with the killer’s wife, with decidedly ugly consequences.
NORMAL, with its highly stylized noirish cinematography, is impressively realized, if a bit overly flashy in spots (a mid-film music video segue feels particularly out of place in a 1930s-set period piece). Nonetheless, the film confronts its many troubling issues with admirable forthrightness, which makes for an oft-uncomfortable viewing experience (and is the primary reason, I’m guessing, that NORMAL has yet to receive any significant exposure in the U.S.).
5150 ELM’S WAY [5150, RUE DES ORMES] was the finest Canadian horror film of 2009 (after PONTYPOOL), a consistently shocking and suspenseful chiller that plays like a particularly demented variant on THE STEPFATHER. The French Canadian novelist/screenwriter Patrick Senecal and director Eric Tessier previously collaborated on the impressive EVIL WORDS back in 2002, and 5150 ELM’S WAY is even stronger.
It has a naive film student falling off his bike in an unfamiliar neighborhood and approaching the first house in sight. The place, it turns out, is lorded over by a psychopathic taxi driver who lives with his dissatisfied wife and overbearing teenage daughter. Some pretty nasty business ensues, yet the film is as much a perverse family drama as it is a gore fest. All the characters are strong and well rounded, not to mention superbly acted by a strong cast, with Normand D’Amour as the psychotic taxi driver being the standout.
As a piece of filmmaking 5150 ELM’S WAY is unerringly slick, well visualized and impeccably paced. Regarding Patrick Senecal’s script, it’s a marvel of invention and intelligence, making for a consistently unique and unpredictable narrative.
The French UN LAC (2008), from Philippe Grandrieux (of SOMBRE and LA VIE NOUVELLE), isn’t really horror, but it is one of the most haunting and evocative films I’ve seen recently. It takes place in a dark, windswept forest where a possibly schizophrenic young man lives with his family. The young man harbors incestuous longings for his sister, which makes it all the more vexing to him when an intruder appears in their midst and romances her.
The film is marked by a minutely textured, even hallucinatory visualization of a harsh and elemental landscape. All conventional beauty has been excised from the universe of UN LAC, wherein the precise yet jittery handheld camerawork and crisp sound design assume paramount importance. The naturally lit sight of people desperately chopping wood or slowly emerging from stygian darkness, and the sounds of pattering rain or crunching footsteps, are as vital to this film’s universe as the narrative–indeed perhaps even more so.
The end result is a thoroughly immersive experience that all-but demands to be viewed on a big screen. I unfortunately had to make due with a DVD copy, but the film’s all-encompassing brilliance is evident in any format.
The French-Canadian POLYTECHNIQUE (2009) is as powerful a dramatization as can be expected of the December 6, 1989 Montreal Massacre, in which 14 female engineering students were killed by a misogynistic psychopath. Director Dennis Villeneuve (MAELSTROM) recounts the minutiae of the tragedy in measured and disturbingly realistic fashion, with the overriding stylistic element being a disarmingly relaxed silence that effectively counterpoints the bloodshed. Another striking choice is the employment of three distinct points of view: the killer (about whom we learn little outside the fact that he blames womankind for all his problems), a guy with a hopeless crush one of the psychopath’s intended victims, and the latter, an ambitious young woman who haltingly attempts to get on with her life after narrowly surviving the massacre.
Lensed in stark black and white, the film resembles Gus Vant Sant’s arty Columbine pastiche ELEPHANT but is far less affected overall. The feminist rhetoric is admittedly laid on a bit thickly (nearly all the men in the film are assholes and the sole nice guy commits suicide), although I guess that’s inevitable given the misogynistic nature of the Montreal Massacre. POLYTECHNIQUE in any event works best as a sober and unflinching recounting of a profoundly horrific event.
Finally we have another film that emerges from here in the U.S.: John Bergin’s multi-award winning animated wonder FROM INSIDE (2008), about a nightmarish train ride through a surreal post-apocalyptic landscape undertaken by a traumatized pregnant woman. The basis was Bergin’s 1993 graphic novel, which was quite remarkable. So too is this film, which closely replicates the book’s narrative and visuals yet has a powerfully brooding aura that’s very much its own. Plus, Bergin’s old fashioned hand-drawn animation is undeniably striking, and a welcome change from the expensive CGI cartoons in vogue these days.