I have always been a fan of B movies, horror, and Saturday morning shows like Power Rangers. They are all guilty pleasures that — even now, being in my mid-thirties — I still have a deep fondness for and will even revisit on occasion. So when I heard the pitch for Steven Kostanski’s new movie Psycho Goreman, I was excited to see what nonsense could be brought to the screen. Mixing various genres and bringing a sense of fun to the proceedings, Psycho Goreman is B-horror schlock that will have you grinning from ear to ear.
Psycho Goreman wastes no time drawing the audience into its nonsense world, using the convention of a text crawl to quickly give the backstory. While most movies would be happy to focus on the heroes of the universe, Steven Kostanski instead tells the tale of the “Archduke of Nightmares”, a villain who reigns over planet Gigax with an iron fist and chaotic powers. When a group of “good” heroes band together, they manage to defeat him and finally free everyone from his evil grip, banishing him to the far away planet known as “Earth.”
It is here the story starts, and where brother and sister duo Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) discover an ancient amulet while playing a game of Crazyball (think Dodgeball with chaotic rules). When they accidentally resurrect the Archduke (Matthew Ninaber), Mimi thinks this is the perfect addition to their family, despite the numerous red flags, and the misgivings of her brother. As the duo try to integrate the Archduke — who they dub Psycho Goreman (PG for short) — the story proper takes shape, with childish hijinks, family bonds tightening, and enough gore and blood to paint their small town red many times over.
What makes Psycho Goreman so fun is the mix of disparaging elements that on paper should not work, but through the magic of practical effects — and a dash of great characters — all come together in an absurdist mesh of shock and joy. It takes the best elements of a family film — and the camp cinema we all know and love — and builds something memorable.
Psycho Goreman works to not only poke fun at the core elements, such as suburbia, selfish children and lazy adults and blends it with the self serious world of science fiction epics. From the character designs to the way the town is thrown into total chaos by the antics of these children and their intergalactic overlord, it is wondrous to watch. It pushes the limits on what can be expected, and shows the talents of everyone involved — especially director and writer Steven Kostanski. This being his third solo feature film, the talents on display are staggering, especially for the budget they all had to work with.
Besides the great performances by the full cast — especially the wonderfully deranged portrayal of Mimi by Nita-Josee Hanna — the real centerpiece of Psycho Goreman has to be the effects. Calling back to shows like Power Rangers, the rubber suit style monsters manage a fun balance of shock, gore and pure amazement with the practical work making the shenanigans feel more grounded, at the same time bringing the feeling of schlock cinema we all know and love. While The Void demonstrated the terror that could be brought out with the creations Steven Kostanski designed, Psycho Goreman proves just how fun these sorts of effects can be in the right hands, with the right story.
The story of Psycho Goreman felt fresh, if not a bit disjointed at times. While the basic concept of the world was laid out well, the focus got a bit confused as the film moved into the final act. It was often hard to know who to root for, especially in the epic final battle between PG and the forces of “good”. It felt fun and enjoyable, but there was no clear direction on what would happen if either won in the end. But thanks to the dry humour of Psycho Goreman, mixed with the chaos of Mimi and her view on the world, these minor gripes take little away from the overall experience.
Psycho Goreman is a wonderful journey into a blood soaked Saturday morning I never knew I needed. What could have been a mess in lesser hands, Steven Kostanski has managed to craft a B-Horror film masterpiece that is as heartfelt as it is blood soaked. For anyone that loves the classic schlock horror that used to play during late night movie marathons, jump on your favourite VOD provider and give Psycho Goreman a try, you won’t be disappointed.
Fairy tales, grim and otherwise, make for the perfect campfire fodder. For a mother and son on a trip through the woods, the tales of men and wolves take center stage. Opening Huntedwith her spooky tale, the mother warns, “the company of wolves is better than that of men.” Therein the direction of where the film will take us, a fairy tale homage that gives us men as the villain, not of the big eared and sharped toothed canine.
Eve (Lucie Debay) is a stressed-out working woman with a frustrating boss. On a business trip, after the relatable experience of work-related strain, she decides to take herself out for a cocktail. On her excursion, she’s approached by the typical relentless bar star, a man unwilling to take no for an answer. But soon, she meets a white knight, an unnamed man (Arieh Worthalter) who shoos the other away and brings fun to her dwindling evening. But this man, like the one before him, also doesn’t like being told what he can and can’t do. After inviting her to his car to make out, he locks Eve in with his accomplice (Ciaran O’Brien) and takes her on a ride. After some attempted escapes and moments that feel like she might have a shot, Eve is back on route to her supposed demise. A car accident gives her the opportunity to flea into the woods, setting off a hunt, the two men trying to get the woman in a red raincoat. Then it turns into a deranged tale of a woman refusing to be prey that bleeds from every orifice.
Looking like a grown Red Riding Hood, Eve makes her way through the woods on an aimless journey for safety, while her attackers remain in desperate pursuit. What writer/director, Vincent Paronnaud, most known for his comic art, does so successfully is keep a cat-and-mouse game engaging the whole way through. There are twists, turns, and bumps in the road hard to see coming that make room for new characters to crop up and join the game. Eve, herself, becomes one with the woods in a way she’d never be expected to. Every moment she learns to eat and drink in the woods paints her as a woman of intuition and ability. Meanwhile, the hunter is being kicked out of the woods by every branch. He trips and gets scathed, spending more time watching his old snuff videos than trying to use the woods to his own benefit. The dueling performances keep it all together, Debay selling the otherwise average woman forced into becoming a feral predator, Worthalter as the over-the-top villain who buries natural rugged charm under the mask of a maniac.
Where the film leaps towards its themes of “men being the real predators” in its adult take on Red Riding Hood, it loses itself a bit in the comedy of subject matter. Sure, it’s intentionally reflecting reality by having men hunting women, but the hammering in of sexual violence makes it more difficult to enjoy the hammy performance and depravity. In one sense, that’s the point, a woman on the run from vile men, in another, its gratuitous sexual violence in a film that might have been a full-blown midnight blast if it was just about bloody carnage. It does well enough to equate “not taking no for an answer” with the violence that comes with it, but the dialogue gets confused with its associating sex with violence and doesn’t always land perfectly.
Taking place in an unnamed European country with a collection of accents among the characters, Hunted creates a fun take on the spooky European horror that is just a bit scented with French extremity. It’s really effective and sets the tone that works with the themes and visuals.
Hunted is a grown-up homage to an old fairy tale favourite that drives home the real villains and monsters hiding under our beds. It looks like everyone involved had an absolute blast with what they made, I am just not sure if I did.
Promising Young Woman opens with a slow-motion montage of men dancing. They’re drunk, grinding ass up, shown crotch first, and they’re spilling their bar rail drinks. Immediately, the movie telling us it’s going to be subversive. But try as it might, some of the attempted subversion purposefully fails here, because in these moments, none of these dancing men are being criticized and none of them appear to be in any danger.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is just a girl living in her world. She pulls shifts at the indie coffee shop, loves a long blonde braid, and spends her Saturday evenings hunting men. No, she doesn’t kill them. Cassie dresses herself up as their prey, a drunk and vulnerable woman, and waits for them to pounce. Just when things get too far, Cassie reveals herself to be sober, scaring the pants back on them. A dangerous game, she throws herself into the lion’s den not just for revenge, but out of a sense of duty to do right by her friend who fell victim to a horrible assault.
Cassie manages to catch and release batches of “nice guys” after letting herself be placed into dangerous situations. She isn’t falling prey to the masked attacker in a back alley, Cassie is seeking out the more familiar sexual assault perpetrator, the regular guy who sees a drunk party girl as an opportunity.
As her vengeance fueled rampage treads on, Cassie slowly learns to trust and love Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate who charms her by popping into her workplace and continuing to ask for her attention. As her romance with Ryan treads on, Cassie learns to make peace with the inciting incident involving her best friend, Nina. But the demons created by sexual assault don’t disappear that easily, at least not for their victims, and Cassie can’t hide from them for long. And if she can’t hide from them, she won’t let the perpetrators hide from them either. Cassie’s trajectory flips with a twist you’ll see coming a thousand miles away, but you’ll beg it not to arrive. Writer and director, Emerald Fennell’s, movie isn’t a “not all men” love story, it’s subverted rape revenge.
Cassie’s story stands out from the other giants in the genre because it’s not her own. She is struggling to ensure the story of her late friend is heard, is taken seriously, and has consequences. This movie isn’t about Nina, Cassie’s ill fated best friend, which could be taken as an error but reads as ruthlessly intentional. Nina was made into vapour by what happened to her. Her entire self was washed away, so much so that the audience will leave the theater not knowing what Nina looks or sounds like. At times, it’s not even Cassie’s story, but the story of the men in her peripheral, another marker that the film is rubbing in our faces how quickly victims are erased and forgotten after their trauma.
Fennell manages to accomplish this fresh take on rape revenge atop a steady stream of beautiful tableau. Her use of colour is stunning and creates a perfect aesthetic within the film universe. It’s bright, sunny, and doused in baby pink save for pops of red that blast through as Cassie licks up strawberry syrup dripping down her arms after slaying a beast. The hyper-femininity is intentional, co-existing with the seemingly deranged vengeance of a cute blonde gal. The bubble-gum pink pop music soundtrack laying beside Anthony Willis’s score further mirrors the bleakness of the pretty horror comedy.
Cassie has dedicated her entire self to attempting to dismantle a system by chipping away at it. It’s a near impossible feat that reads as the desperate and unstable actions of a woman scorned. And they are.Promising Young Woman changes the scope of what is seen as violent and does so in a way that subverts rape revenge by not purporting to heal Cassie at any point, and always ensuring it feels like she is in danger. Fennell has created the most powerful movie of the year, and one of the most important versions of a common story that effectively shatters what we’ve seen by making us see what we know. The audacity of the final act is so admirable, and will no doubt divide audiences, but from the perspective of this critic, it’s exactly where it had to go to make sure the punch landed as hard as it was thrown.
Vince Vaughn, post-Brawl in Cell Block 99, can sell me on imposing. So when someone told me he was going to be both a serial killer and a high school girl in the same film, I was in.
Freaky immediately gets the ball rolling with the killer (Vaughn’s Barney Garris) attacking the house. Literally four minutes in: BOOM, first kill. Around 25 minutes in, we get the “high school girl and killer” body swap between Vaughn and Kathryn Newton (as the victim turned killer, Millie Kessler). This is a film that knows pacing and knows what it is. When kids in a high school shop class get a smart phone alert for “brutally murdered teens,” you know you’re in for a ride.
It doesn’t hurt that there’s a very cool (albeit brief) supernatural element for the body swap, with plenty of levity from director Christopher Landon (who also co-wrote the script). I know what you might be thinking: these types of “swap” movies aren’t new. In fact, Jumanji was just resurrected on the back of swapping young women into older men’s bodies for comedic effect, and soared into two stellar box office gains.
With a clear focus on the two, we get plenty of time for some development on top of the antics. It’s funny to see where the other side lives. Each party wakes up in their respective bedrooms, fully swapped. So Millie is in her cozy home full of teen idol posters, while Barney wakes up in a creepy room full of horrors. It’s also great to see the actions of Millie’s tormenters coming home to roost now that the killer is in control.
Although it doesn’t show it in the most elegant way, the swap serves as an allegory for the meek Millie, as she greets everyone in her school with the confidence of a killer by proxy. Naturally, Millie requires a balance between her two states to really come into her own: her development arrested by the death of her father before the events of the film.
It’s just a shame that near the end, things start to go a little off the rails as the script tries to reconcile multiple plot elements. Not knowing how to end things isn’t unique to the horror genre, but even if you suspend your disbelief you might find yourself wanting more. Either way, Freaky could have leaned too far into the slasher or comedy angle and stumbled; but it’s a fun film that benefits from two strong leads.
Family, chosen and otherwise are breeding grounds for trauma, the same trauma that can be exploited for horror. Out of South Korea, a country known for stunning horror like The Host and Train to Busan, comes Lingering. Lingering (or Hotel Leikeu) is a twisted fright that looks at the comfort and horror that seeps out from in-between the bonds we have with family and friends, ones that shake up trust, history and reality.
Yoo-Mi (Se-yeong Lee) lives on her own within humble means. Unexpectedly, after the death of their mother, she’s informed that her child-aged sister is in need of a caregiver. She’s asked to take her in, as there are no further options or social services. Knowing she’s not equipped to be a caregiver, Yoo-Mi takes her younger sister to their mother’s friend’s home, a hotel where she once lived. A hotel where their mother died. The woman, who is still caring for the empty hotel which is closed for the off-season, insists they both stay until the youngest is acclimated. A reluctant Yoo-Mi attempts to settle into a place where she senses death and wretched memories. Before long, Yoon-Mi begins to cave to the old friends’ requests, and struggles with her instinct to leave up against her instinct to care for her sister, while the demons, natural or otherwise, begin to show themselves.
The story unravels a few threads as the film carries on, many that ultimately tie in together but not with much purpose. There’s discussion of another relative who came back from abroad quite ill. A story of a missing North Korean defector. A ghost and an alcoholic hotel staff member. While these moments come together the way a viewer would demand, it’s not with a tonne of payoff. While interwoven story threads are a common signature in Korean genre, these ones are more distracting than suspenseful. A clean up of some side stories might have left more time for scares and to develop more exciting elements of the ghosts and visions, to force the audience to wonder if what they were seeing was real or an extension of the mental illnesses mentioned throughout.
Yoo-Mi’s mother died by an apparent suicide after time struggling with mental illness. The film isn’t super forgiving with its language surrounding the death, but it does consider internal and external forces and their hands in mental illness, be it gaslighting, drugs, or genetics. Yoo-Mi’s visions of ghosts and of her mother raise questions about reality and allow for ghosts to metaphorically explore mental illness, but, again, this doesn’t get wrapped up clearly enough to decide either way, nor does it do so ambiguously enough to be abstract.
Writer and director Yoon Een-Kyoung has a stellar visual style. The hotel makes for such a fun horror movie location with endless hallways, empty space, multiple marked rooms, and an atrium reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The hotel is used expertly to make it feel endless and open while simultaneously like the walls are closing in. Harsh lines and angles are used stunningly so that every scene change looks like a photograph, and the use of colour, especially red and blue, creates a grounded reality that never lets on whether you should be afraid or comfortable.
Though Lingering has a few too many rising actions to feel focused, it’s ultimately a beautiful film. It does well with the Korean horror tradition of family focused stories and fear arising from familial relationships. The appearance of the simple scenes is certainly it’s strength in the creation of scares.
Lingering will be streaming on AMC’s service, Shudder, on November 12, 2020.
The transformation of the self is a common theme that feels all the more real as we imagine ourselves letting loose and becoming that which we repress. For Amelia Moses’ Bloodthirsty, the repressed self is the werewolf that is stuffed inside an artist, an artist with an insatiable hunger for respected art.
Grey (Lauren Beatty) is a pop musician coming up on the creation of her sophomore album. With the pressure of her second release landing atop her, she shops for producers to help create the next big thing. She is excited when Vaughn Daniels (Greg Bryk), a notorious producer, wants to work with her, and quickly brushes off any hesitations in favour of great art. Grey’s girlfriend, Charlie (Katharine King So), expresses reservations when she comes across sinister details about Vaughn’s past, but the two ultimately head to his remote home to immerse Grey in the music creation process. As Vaughn drags beautiful music out of Grey, Charlie becomes more and more concerned about her and her mental health, knowing that Grey has been struggling with dark thoughts and hallucinations. As Vaughn dig his claws deeper into Grey, her primal urges start to surface, testing her relationship, her will, and her sense of self.
Written by Wendy Hill-Tout and her daughter, Lowell, and directed by Amelia Moses, Bloodthirsty showcases the beautiful work that can be done with limited resources. The story leans into supernatural elements without getting so caught up in them that it becomes lost in the film’s constraints. Where Moses really stands above the rest is in her ability to use simple shots and cuts instead of leaning on special effects. It smells like the type of small budget technique that could start a trend like the shakey cam in The Evil Deador the removal of frames in Saw. Moses shoots the all important “transformation” in simple ways, made better by the work of Beatty’s physicality that moves well past mere suggestion and reads like a well crafted moment. It’s inspiring and will make you want to grab a camera and shoot your epic.
It seems negative to say that the parts of this film are greater than the whole, but it’s only as a means of describing how there are stellar small pieces that rise above the so-so narrative. The songs, which were written by Lowell, are standout. Movies about music make a tall order when they commit to creating “popular music” outside real world popular music. It’s another huge task in and of itself that the movie manages to pull off. The titular track, Bloodthirsty, is an earworm and I’ll admit to be humming it aloud in this moment. Lowell, a musician, has worked with acts like Demi Lovato, Madison Beer, Hailee Steinfeld, so it’s both impressive and unsurprising that the music feels like it could stand on its own.
Hill-Tout was inspired by Lowell’s stories of art as martyrdom which is a theme woven throughout the narrative. It takes off in interesting ways, testing how audiences and producers demand so much from artists, sometimes to the artists’ detriment. Grey is struggling before she even begins, and Charlie can only protect her so much from her will to work on her craft, and Vaughn’s insistence that her pain will deliver stronger work.
Where this narrative gets lost is in the relationships the film creates and sidelines. Grey’s relationship with Charlie is very quickly pushed out of frame, and Charlie is reduced to a sparring partner for Vaughn. As the film switches focus to Grey and Vaughn’s relationship, the revelations are almost unnecessary in a way that they become distractions from an otherwise interesting story about intangible connections.
Bloodthirsty gets a but too caught up in the twist to let its subtleties breathe, but it’s a well crafted scary story about a hungry artist who chooses the version of herself she believes she needs to be.
The sympathetic villain s a familiar character trope in superhero media, and often found in horror when ghosts are revealed to be acting in confused distress. In Justin G. Dyck’s horror, Anything for Jackson, the sympathetic villains are grieving satanic grandparents.
Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) and Henry Walsh (Julian Richings) are grieving the loss of their grandson, Jackson. As their grief pushes them further to the edge, they find themselves enamoured by a group of Satanists, and join their church to learn how the Dark Lord could potentially bring back their grandson. They acquire an ancient spell book and plot to use a pregnant woman’s fetus as a vessel for the spirit of their late relative. Henry, a doctor, exploits his access to pregnant people and their personal history to select a vessel, Shannon Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), whom they kidnap and prepare for their ritual. Having thought of everything, in the way an elderly couple with no previous murderous exploits would, they sound proof the room, translate the book best they can, and set up the cover story and escape plan for them and the resurrected child. But when the would-be disciples of the Devil make the mistakes you’d imagine a rookie set of grandparents might, they open doors they didn’t intend to and find themselves fending off dark spirits seeking the shelter of any vessel.
What begins as a an exorcism style movie morphs into a haunted house terror. The first act feels like it sprinted to the end of Rosemary’s Baby and is immediately a story of aged Satanists and an unwilling pregnant woman. But as the story unfolds, and spirits begin populated by a gaggle of creative monsters. The illustrious house the Walsh’s call home becomes filled with a list of monsters whose nicknames you’d expect to hold up against Insidious’ Lipstick Faced Demon or the monsters from each season of Channel Zero. There’s a well created group of effects from acting (a contorted demon being suffocated by a plastic bag appears), practical effects and makeup, and CGI. The delicate marrying of these styles leaves for a house full of nightmare fuel that creates enough interest for the second act of the film.
The second act is where the film slows down, and though the monsters are terrifying and interesting, it switches to a haunted house film in a way that stops the main story in its tracks. The rules are unclear and the ritual is sidelined for a story about evading ghosts. Though, the film does effectively exploit its own story ambiguity to give itself license to create the best scares, it does leave the conflict in the dust. As it barrels towards the third, a throwaway character from earlier, Ian (Josh Cruddas) arrives purporting to assist the Walsh’s with carrying out the rest of their ritual. He bring another layer of villain to the film, which is already filled to the brim with plenty, whose motivations and power are unclear enough that it’s hard to decipher if you should fear or fear for him. Cruddas is great as the menacing basement dweller with a dark power complex, but it comes at a part in the film where we’ve probably seen enough and don’t know who to root for.
While the convoluted story sometimes creates more boredom than excitement, the film is the most successful at being scary. The ghosts are terrifying, and the jumps and scares are well shot and timed. The entire house makes you feel unsettled, such that even the Walsh’s who’ve called this place home for a long time feel unsafe in their own home, unable to trust their own senses or curl up for even a minute. The use of sound is incredible, specifically the clattering sounds on the toothy ghost that buried themselves in my ear drums and woke me up hours later in the night.
McCarthy and Richings are the standouts as the Walsh’s. They look like the stepped directly out of American Gothic and slipped into evil deeds when they were left with no recourse. The subtle physicality they bring, like reading their directions to their victim from cue cards, needing reading glasses to see their ritual book and their “nice old couple mannerisms” make for the interesting characters that aren’t the familiar small town Satanists, but a pathetic old couple in too deep. It’s this that sets the film apart from its categorical cohorts.
Anything for Jackson is a fun take on the possession and haunted house film that successfully delivers the scares and the characters, but its narrative gets a bit lost along the way.
A substantial amount of the Indonesian films that made big waves in “the west” have been their stellar action movies that usually come with extra kicks and blood splatter. Headshotamong them, was co-directed by Kimo Stamboel who has come back to direct one of the latest in delicious scary movies out of the country, The Queen of Black Magic(Ratu Ilmu Hitam).
Written by Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves), The Queen of Black Magic tells the haunting tale of an orphanage plagued by a witch and its sordid history. When some grown orphans, now married with children, return to their old home to visit their patriarch, they’re plagued by bad omens and the devastating look of their withering parental figure. Leaving their children to explore the spooky home, some of the adults check on the deer one suspects he hit up the road and discover a bus full of dead children. Terrified, they investigate the fright, while the visitors slowly descend into a haunting madness that begins to reveal the dark secrets held within the orphanage’s walls.
The story is a loose remake of a 1979 film by the same name. Anwar’s version takes the elements of a vengeful witch and applies them to the story of youth, exploitation, and a different shade of a woman’s vengeance. Not a direct rehashing of the original nor the familiar tale of a woman being accused of being a witch, The Queen of Black Magic leans on the story of women believing to have been unjustly harmed by men and finding justice through the craft of magic. That’s what adds a deeper layer to this otherwise fun twist on the haunted house and dark witchcraft tale.
Though the story ends up having meat on its bones, the film’s larger successes are in the tone and visuals. The whole stage is drenched in drab colours that both feel like the sunny yellow of the resort the orphanage could turn into or the gross yellow tone of dirt and decrepit walls. Beyond that, the gross out blend of CGI and practical effects create really fun scares that rely just enough on camera tricks and perspective. There are bugs aplenty, which sometimes look a bit too cartoony, but it also lends to a spooky feeling of not being able to keep track of them since they move so freely. The knife cuts and blood are gross and are played in fun ways with changing camera perspectives. The magic makes for the types of scares where characters lose control, something familiar for those who’ve seen, for instance, The Blair Witch Project. The magic isn’t just to make for scary physical entities, but it can mess with your perception, change directions so you feel lost, and make it impossible to communicate with the outside world.
With the slow burning ramp up to the big finale, it comes as a larger surprise than perhaps it should, but it’s still effective. The last hurrah is big, scary, and yelly and has some pretty great gags you’ll want to revisit for any of your year end “best moments” lists. The story falls off a bit, convoluting who is sympathetic and who to root for, but this is done in service of the scares which are effective enough to throw the rug over the mess.
There’s a lot to keep track of in this story of orphans returning to their old home, now with partners and children of their own, sharing space with the new residents, all of whom have their own metaphorical demons. But it’s effectively played so that no singular issue is imperative to follow. Each characters’ tale stands up just enough on its own to make for specific scares, and they all blend together to create the blanketing sense of dread. This culminates in a disgusting display of terror that is mean to everyone who dares stumble into frame.
The Queen of Black Magic is coming soon to AMC’s streaming service, Shudder.
Self awareness is a difficult thing to handle in the post meta-slasher and high camp horror landscape, but Bloody Hell manages to take on the tough guy trope and give it self aware freshness in a completely different way than American Psycho and Fight Club.
Rex (Ben O’Toole) is a gritty action hero type. He’s ex-military and not afraid to take on a slew of bank robbers donning a cool jacket while trying to impress a girl. But in his tough guy slaughtering of a gaggle of robbers, Rex causes some collateral damage and lands him eight years behind bars. Having served his time, Rex attempts to re-enter society but learns that he’s become a celebrity and can’t enjoy a deli sandwich without the clacking and flashing of paparazzi cameras. Wanting to start anew, Rex boards a flight to Helsinki intent on starting his new life, but he can’t escape his celebrity and some locals that spot him in the airport kidnap him, tie him up, and prep him to feed to their cannibal son.
It took some time to get here, it seems, but the meat of this background is filled in out of order. Telling a story out of order only works when it’s for the craft, and that’s something Bloody Hell (written by Robert Benjamin and directed by Alister Grierson) smashes on the head. It tries its best to waste no time getting Rex to Finland and strung up by his wrists, but still takes the time to interject with the “you’re probably wondering how I got here” flashbacks at moments when Rex is otherwise festering alone. It’s a creative and effective way to start the film where the action is, while controlling the pacing by throwing in added action scenes for excitement in the middle of the slower part of the story. Where this works well once we’re dopped in Helsinki, it lands a bit flat earlier on in the film where we’re on a fishing expedition for what’s going on. There were a couple moments it seemed like I’d missed something as opposed to the movie hiding it from me, but the questions are eventually answered, and it was easy to brush off.
Once Rex finds himself with a missing appendage in a dark basement, he is joined by the manifestation of his PTSD, a fantasy double of himself who takes on the role of “training kicking in.” Rex, hinting to us that he’d spent time “overseas” switches into the Jason Bourne mode of resourcefulness to manage a hairy situation with brains and brawn. In doing so, he exploits the affections of the cannibal family’s black sheep, Alia (Meg Fraser). Alia isn’t like the other killers; she wants to be a doctor and fantasizes about fixing Rex to live happily with him spinning in a field. The disaster of a clunky romantic narrative is expertly lampooned via the slapstick fantasy sequence and the oversexed nurse scene centered around the stump of a severed foot. As I gazed at Alia gently caressing the ankle stump set to sexy tunes, I muttered “now this is how you subvert and transcend.”
Much of the film leans on the charisma of its lead. Playing dual roles; Rex Prime and Rex’s coping mechanism double, Ben O’Toole steps up filling in the conversation at times Rex might be alone or in his own head. He’s charming, quite simply, and does so much to bring comedy and heart to the otherwise hilariously clunky (I submit, purposefully) lines that slip past his lips.
The fun in this movie isn’t just the hilarity associated with a charming action hero dangling by a rope in Helsinki, but in how the charming action hero lands like a tonne of bricks in a spooky European nightmare. They took Rambo and chucked him face first into the middle of We Are What We Are. Bloody Hell reads like a completely self-aware take on throwing it’s ‘Murca right in the center of the otherwise brooding and moody European haunt. It pours light beer all over the Euro scare and showcases the signature military zeal, complete with an American saviour in a foreign land. It’d be unfair to criticize the movie for that, since it knows exactly what it’s doing and does it with a charming O’Toole (an Australian) wink.
Bloody hell takes everything we know about the American ex-military badass and strings it up in a basement in an arbitrary European country having it shout “do you speak English?” at every opportunity. A blood-spattered disaster complete with femurs as a murder weapon and kids getting their noses broken is a clever deconstruction of a collection of saviour narratives, internet celebrity culture, and American military fervor. That, and it’s a freaking bloody blast that’d make the Ex-Presidents shudder.
Brandon Cronenberg rapidly became known for his stylistic dreamlike films that dance with the goriest explorations of philosophical concepts. In his latest, Possessor, Cronenberg weaves a yarn about Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a contract killer who does her dirty deeds by transplanting her consciousness into patsies. Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), sends her into her most high stakes job yet, taking over the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) in order to execute a wealthy CEO and his would be heirs. The stunning movie leans into the philosophical implications of theories of the self, and uses them to further explore the simpler ideas of sense of self, something that pits personal and work life against each other.
To further dig into the themes of the film, Cronenberg joined us for a roundtable discussion about his influences, his personal theories of the self, his upcoming projects, and, of course, the blood.
Talking about identity, do you feel like it’s more solely in the mind, or do you think it is connected to our physical body?
I don’t really think there’s a difference between mind and body. I think it’s all the same. I think the mind is really a process of the brain and you can’t really disconnect the two, even though in the film, it plays it a little bit like that through the science fiction because she’s inhabiting other people’s bodies remotely, that’s more of a metaphorical thing to discuss identity, but in reality, I don’t think those need to be really separated.
Antiviral was a spectacular debut and Possessor has just surpassed that and it’s an amazing film. Are there aspects of the two films which overlap? Or were you looking to go in a completely different direction?
I wasn’t intending for them to overlap. I’ve had some people suggested there are some preoccupations across the two of them; construction of identity or injecting identity, in a sense, into someone else’s body. But I honestly wasn’t thinking of Antiviral when I was writing Possessor. It’s its own separate film.
Talk to me a bit about the conception of the explanation piece. So the part where the handler (Girder) is explaining how the job’s going to go, how the implants are going to dissolve. I’d just really love to hear about all the considerations you made as you created that.
A lot of it was, I guess, necessary exposition to set up the premise. I was, to a certain degree, trying to think through the reality of the tech and how that could function. Not to go into too much detail about it, of course, because in some ways, it’s fantasy technology and intended to operate metaphorically, but it has to feel plausible for the film world, and there has to be a certain amount of logic set up, at least initially.
What can you tell us about the brutality of the violence in the film and how it relates to the state of mind of some of the characters? At one point, Girder actually asked her (Vos) why she resorted to stabbing and not shooting.
Her relationship with violence is very much at the heart of her character. So the violence in the film is really very much narrative. I felt it had to be visceral. People had to feel on an almost bodily level, what she was experiencing emotionally, and it also tracks with her psychology. So sometimes, we’re seeing it from a more observational perspective, then looking back on it, it’s more sort of stylized, almost fetishistic for her. I don’t want to go too far into analyzing the character, because I had very specific ideas about how their arcs would play out, and the narrative arc is designed to leave a little space for various interpretations from the audience. I don’t want to preclude the possibility of having audience members explore it for themselves. Certainly, I was thinking of her, in some sense, like one of those drone pilots who experiences PTSD because of the violence that they’re engaged in, even though they’re engaged in it remotely. And yet, at the same time, there’s something in her character that’s very much drawn to it. I think it’s a bit of a question whether that’s something inherent to her, or whether that’s something that’s being planted in her character by her mentor to be run by the Corporation.
One of the things I thought was so interesting, especially at the end of the film, is the conversation between Colin and Tasya and this battle between who is culpable in that case as things start to spiral out. Can you speak a little bit to where you think that line may be? We talked about identity before, with who we are and the effects of what has been done in our past, because here, you have a character that’s saying, “I’m not guilty and you were there.” I was just wondering what that line means to you.
I’d like to say two things about that. First of all, one of the things that I keep coming back to when I’m writing Possessor, and other things I’ve been working on, is the process by which we construct a sense of unified self, despite the fact that doesn’t really exist. I think a human being is a chorus of conflicting impulses, and ideas and emotions. Some of those come from our own brain, some of them don’t. There’s this very interesting science, examining, for instance, human microbiome, and how other micro organisms in our digestive tracts or parasites can affect our personality and affect our behaviors. And of course, in a more figurative sense, there’s the question of what you could call psychological infections, how we can pick up ideas from other people and claim them for ourselves. That’s especially interesting, and kind of terrifying right now, when you look at what’s happening on social media, for instance, foreign states meddling in the US elections. We are, in a sense, hackable right no because we’re so completely online. I don’t think we really yet understand what human society is becoming because of that, but certainly a lot people believe that they have certain ideas that they’ve generated themselves but they’re actually being manipulated in fairly nuanced ways online.
I did some research into the neuroscience behind brain control. One of the things that I found was a Spanish doctor named Jose Delgado had done some experiments in the United States, involving brain implants in animals and also in human beings. There’s a scene in the film, where there’s a kind of documentary playing on the television where there’s this bull fight and the bull is implanted with this receiver and then the bull ring, that’s actually footage from one of his experiments.
A particularly interesting one that he described in a book that he wrote was an experiment where, because of the spot in the brain that he put this wire that was simulating different areas of the brain electrically, because of where that wire was, the subject was acting in response to stimulation, but then claiming those actions for himself. So, for instance, the experimenter would press a button, every time he pressed the button, the subject would get up from his chair, walk in a circle, and then sit back down again. But every time he did that, he would insist that he had done that of his own free will, that he was just looking for shoes, or that he had heard a noise somewhere, and was going to investigate. I think there’s a very interesting process of the brain by which we, in a sense, determine after the fact whether an idea or an action was generated internally, which I think has fascinating scientific and philosophical implications.
I think all of us at some point deal with having some imposter syndrome, especially when something monumental is happening to us. I guess we want to pinch ourselves and questions whether we’re just pretending this whole time? Is that something Possessor was meant to tap into?
I would say it goes even deeper than that. Ultimately, I don’t really think we have a true self. Beneath everything, I think it’s all, to a certain degree, performance. Sometimes we’re performing for other people, sometimes we’re performing for ourselves. Definitely, there is an interesting common experience of being in a particular situation, or trying to accomplish something, and not being able to see yourself in it somehow, because it’s at odds with your identity, whether it’s imposter syndrome in the sense that you mean it or whether it’s just that disconnect between our own self image and how other people see us.
You’ve touched on this a bit, just now and when you were talking about the comparison to a drone pilot, but I know some people read this film as a statement on the woman balancing career and family life and struggling with it. Some others thought it was more of a general statement on careers permeating our personal lives and the duality of us that way. Can you speak to those themes and what was intentional or how it turned out?
To me, the career aspect of it is maybe a part of a broader struggle that we have, again, with how internally we see ourselves, but also, on a certain level, we’re all apes living animal lives, but in the strange human civilization that we built for ourselves. I think who we are internally is very chaotic and animal. Then who we are, as a result of civilized societies is somehow very restrained. I feel like there’s often a disconnect between what’s expected of us, and all the inner turmoil within us. That’s certainly true in a professional sense. The intention was both a bit more broad and a bit more specific. Broad in that I meant to comment on how all of us are dealing with that. Specific, in Vos’ case, it’s a very pronounced disconnect, because she has this sense of violence in her and these impulses, which are so at odds with what’s expected of her in a civilized domestic setting. In many ways, that is more horrific than the violence.
One of the more memorable sequences in the film was the host analysis, which swapped back and forth between reality and subconscious and the subconscious in the world. What were some of your visual influences?
To be honest, I can’t remember. I tend to watch a lot of movies with my close collaborators, like Karim Hussain, my cinematographer and Rob Cotterill, assistant director and producer. They all kind of mash together in my mind, in a kind of loaf that I store somewhere in the back of my mind, and in the development of it, it becomes hard to untangle the influences. But I mean we watched a lot of Argento, his Opera, we looked at Inferno for camera trickery, and then we just spent a lot of time experimenting and finding things that felt good to have.
At the end of your career, what you would like to be known for as a filmmaker?
I try not to think about that, because it’s just not something you’ve ever really have control over. On a film by film basis, I’ve tried to make movies that are somehow satisfying to me and they’re a lot of expressions of my own creative impulses and interests. I think that’s sort of all you can really do. I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to think about the end of your career, maybe at all. But, also, it’s so out of your hands how people are going to see your film. And of course, that’s something that always evolves. You have filmmakers, who, long after they’re dead either go in or out of style, depending on previous discoveries, and what ideas people have about their work. So once the film is done, it really becomes something for other people to either take value from or not.
You said before that Possessor was one much denser script, which you broke into two screenplays. Will we be seeing that other film in the future?
It’s quite possible. The other screenplay’s still in the early malformed phase of writing it, it’s not really shootable in its current form, but it has some stuff in it that I am very interested in. I ended up writing two films over the course of Possessordevelopment because it took a very long time to get it together. Those will presumably be my next projects, they’re both fairly far in the development process. One is called Infinity Pool, which is kind of a touristy resort satire with sci-fi horror elements. The other is a hallucinatory based horror film called Dragon. I would love to shoot those back to back as soon as I’m allowed to. But definitely the other script is something I’ll probably return to when I have some time.
Tell me everything about the blood in the film, what you used, how much you wanted, how you lit it, everything.
The blood was spectacular and I can’t tell you too much about it because it was actually a secret recipe and I don’t know what it was. We had this fantastic effects artist, Dan Martin, on the film, and he’s responsible for so much of the wonderful practical trickery. He had some contact who had this incredible formula for this very advanced kind of fake blood which looks amazing. It actually coagulates like real blood and then washes off anything incredibly easily so it’s great for resetting. But I don’t know what’s in it. I don’t even know if he knows what’s in it because it’s someone’s secret formula
How do you feel you evolved as a filmmaker the eight years between Antiviral and Possessor?
It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t really have that kind of perspective on myself. I like to think that I have maybe, a bit of a bit bigger filmmaking toolbox. Obviously, the more you do it, the more you evolve, and you end up pursuing certain paths in directing, but I don’t really have an answer for you because I think that’s a question for other people looking in at the work from the outside.