I just got back from a weekend at the Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival, where some amazing films were in the lineup. Thanks to Hughes Barbier for putting together such a stimulating event.
Here are my top five, all of which you should watch when they become commercially available:
1. The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama (USA). Grade: A+
Michael Gingold of Fangoria introduced The Invitation at IIFFF, saying it was one of the best horror films of the last couple of years. I agree (though I still think the standout horror film of 2015 is David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, which I review here).
Gingold also said that the less you know about The Invitation going into it, the better—and I wholeheartedly agree with that too. I (purposefully) hadn’t read any reviews of the film ahead of time, and so I got to experience the disconcerting and disorienting events just as the protagonist did. It’s very difficult to write anything about the film without giving too much away and thus spoiling it, so I guess the two principal things I want to convey here are: (a) see the film (which will apparently get general release in March 2016); and (b) don’t read any reviews of it before you do.
All I will say is that the film begins with a dinner party that reunites old friends who haven’t seen each other in two years. From the moment the main character, Will (Logan Marshall-Green), and his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), walk through the door of his ex-wife’s house, things seem off, to say the least. Will thinks so, and, even though the other characters seem hell-bent on pretending everything is perfectly normal (which I think is part of the point of the film), the viewer tends, I think, to side with Will. (How many dinner parties have you gone to where the host locks the door and takes the key with him?)
All the performances here are stellar, with not a single false step. And the writing and directing are superb, creating almost unbearable tension as the dinner party gets into full swing. It is to Kusama’s credit that I kept waiting for the shoe to drop . . . and waiting . . . and waiting . . . and it didn’t. She just ratcheted up the suspense just a little bit more. And before the shoe did drop (because it did!), she unerringly played everything straight down the line between perfectly-normal-dinner-party (normal, at least, for one that reunites a now-divorced couple, each with new partner in tow) and sinister-as-hell-dinner-party. The viewer never quite knows which it is, especially since we experience it largely from the perspective of a man (Will) who is at the same time increasingly disclosed as unreliable.
The film will keep you thinking well after it’s over, thinking about grief, faith, love, death—all the big questions. It’ll make you think about what you do with the pain you accrue during the course of a lifetime, what you should do. And the final frame is one I never saw coming.
2. Men and Chicken, directed by Anders Thomas Jenson (Denmark), which I review here. Grade: A
3. They Look Like People, directed by Perry Blackshear (USA). Grade: A-
Blackshear demonstrates in this film what spectacular results you can achieve on a small budget when you’ve got good acting, writing, and directing. The premise of They Look Like People is simple and is a time-honored one within the horror tradition: are there indeed monsters, or are they just in our heads?
Christian (Evan Dumouchel) finds his old friend on the street outside his apartment in NYC and, since it seems he might be in trouble, invites him to stay. But Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) seems a little off-balance and, as the plot unfurls, we start to think he may well suffer from full-blown mental illness (schizophrenia, perhaps?). Or, the film also asks, is he just uniquely attuned to the fact that people aren’t what they seem and aliens are indeed intent on conquering the planet? In probing whether there really are monsters—or whether Wyatt’s brain is broken in some way, TLLP hearkens back to some of the earliest of ghost stories (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw), as well as more recent films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman’s versions). It also brilliantly asks whether the seemingly “normal” of the two friends, Chris, might have his own, more socially-acceptable variety of “voices” in his head—and where exactly the line is between mentally healthy and mentally ill.
Despite being very different from Kusama’s The Invitation, TLLP strikingly shares a couple of things with that film. First, both directly take up the power of the human brain—how it literally creates our reality. (And, as I suggest above, one of the great things about the horror film is precisely this way in which they continually question how “real” our reality is.) In The Invitation, a couple of characters espouse the idea that all emotion originates in chemicals in the brain, insisting that we can take control of the brain, change the brain, and thus change the very nature of our reality. In TLLP, the brain is equally as powerful but much less under human control: it seems to change reality, and who we are, without our say so. Both The Invitation and TLLP also raise the power of love (and trust)—and, in fact, the last scene of TLLP is incredibly suspenseful as it puts the latter starkly to the test.
Finally, as with The Invitation, TLLP kept me on edge till the very end. I never knew exactly what was going to happen—what was, in fact, “reality”—hence the brilliance of the film.
4. The Survivalist, directed by Stephen Fingleton (UK). Grade: A-
The Survivalist evokes a host of other post-apocalyptic narratives, notably Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and, of course, The Walking Dead (minus the zombies).
A lone man, compellingly played by Martin McCann, lives an increasingly stripped-down existence on a farm in the middle of a forest (breathtakingly shot in Northern Ireland). When a mother and daughter arrive (Mia Goth and Olwen Fouere), we discover, as in most post-apocalyptic narratives, that humans are always their own worst enemies. The Survivalist lays starkly bare the choices humans make when their survival is on the line, and the primary strength of the film is its unflinching vision, which makes other such narratives look sentimental by comparison. Indeed, there is a crucial moment, after the middle of the film, when the older woman accuses her daughter of being “sentimental.” The younger woman disabuses her (and us) of any such belief, though, by replying that she’s simply making the choice that is in her own best interest. She continues to do so, taking aim even at the bonds of family which usually (even in the witheringly bleak The Road) remain sacrosanct.
The Survivalist raises the interesting question, I think, about whether the main character actually lays the path to his own destruction precisely by giving up all that’s “human” about himself (we see him ripping up the Bible to feed the fire and burning a photograph, for instance). Indeed, the very surprising ending suggests that he may have been suffering from a failure of the imagination, becoming too entrenched, and needlessly so, in his animal life, in mere survival. The film suggests that human survival may in fact depend on clinging to ways in which we transcend our animal nature.
5. Emelie, directed by Michael Thelin (USA), and reviewed here. Grade: B
Just wanted to reiterate here what a great performance Sarah Bolger gives here!