As horror continues its gradual moving away from traditional monsters and slashers to rawer, more unsettling scares that are COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE, we can look forward to more internet discourse about whether a movie qualifies as “horror.” This requires the sort of pedantry that is the lifeblood of Twitter, where you can post with a straight face that Hereditary, a movie in which a character’s rotting severed head is shown in close-up (twice), is really a “family drama,” and that Mandy, in which motorcycle riding Cenobite-like creatures demand human sacrifices, is a “revenge thriller.” I’ve even seen the theory floated that IT, in which a child is murdered by a clown monster within the first ten minutes, doesn’t qualify as horror because it has jokes, an idea so dumb I won’t ponder it any longer than it takes to write this sentence.
This year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival seems to be leaning hard in the direction of “horror is whatever you want it to be,” to intriguing, diverse results. Of the 26 new features screening, less than half of them involve traditional horror elements, and several have plot descriptions that don’t sound like horror at all. Their aim seems to be to unsettle rather than scare, which sometimes has a more lingering effect.
The best of the bunch I’ve seen so far is Jagoda Szelc’s Tower. A Bright Day. Szelc’s debut feature as a writer-director, it won multiple awards in her native Poland. “Based on future events,” according to the opening title card, the film takes place over a weekend out in the country, where a family gathers for a First Communion celebration. Kaja (Malgorzata Szczerbowska, the youngest of three adult siblings, returns for the first time after an unexplained six-year long absence, much to the consternation of older sister Mula (Anna Krotoska), who immediately sets some ground rules. Kaja must “act normal,” which includes lying about where she’s been all this time, and most importantly, she can’t tell anyone that she’s the real mother of Nina (Laila Hennessy), the little girl who’s making her First Communion, whom Mula has been raising as her own child.
Though Kaja does little more than smile and look vaguely ethereal, her presence has a miraculous effect on her and Mula’s bedridden, near-catatonic mother (Dorota Lukasiewicz). On the other hand, Mula finds herself plagued with disturbing dreams, and an ever-growing sense of paranoia that Kaja’s child-like nature is hiding something dangerous, and that she means to snatch away her entire family.
Though that plot description sounds like a Lifetime “evil woman” movie, it really isn’t. It holds back on some of those clichés, such as making Kaja sexually alluring to the men of the house, and focuses more on the strain of caring for ill family members, and the shame, resentment, and guilt it causes. A false, somewhat predictable ending is a fake-out before a far more unnerving, ambiguous conclusion, with a closing image that will stick in my head for a long time.
Szelc cleverly reveals the bare minimum needed to keep the plot moving – we never learn the circumstances under which Mula gained custody of Nina, or the nature of the illness that Kaja and her mother both seem to share, or even if it’s a mental or physical affliction. Mula seems a little cold and unbending initially, but it doesn’t take very long before we start wishing that Kaja would return to wherever she came from to, even if she’s just sitting there and smiling.
One of the most heavily promoted features of the festival is Yedidya Gorsetman’s Empathy, Inc., described as “an extended and decidedly bleak Black Mirror episode,” and I honestly can’t think of a better way to serve it. Written by Mark Leidner and shot in crisp black and white, it stars Zack Robidas as Joel, a venture capitalist whose finances and business reputation are in ruins after he unknowingly gets caught up in a scam investment. Forced to move in with his nagging, pushy in-laws, he’s offered an opportunity by former classmate Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) to invest in “Empathy, Inc.,” a form of “extreme” virtual reality in which wealthy people can pay to experience life through the eyes of someone less fortunate. “People are miserable because they forget what they have,” Nicolaus explains, and the experience helps them gain perspective.
Much to the chagrin of Nicolaus and his creepy business partner, Lester (Jay Klaitz), Joel finds being inside the body of an elderly man living in a shabby, unfurnished room so exhilarating that he immediately becomes addicted to it. He sneaks into their lab to try it again, ignoring Lester’s rules about never leaving the room, interacting with other people, and, most importantly, looking at himself in the mirror. It doesn’t take long, however, before Joel starts to notice that what he experiences in the virtual world is bleeding over into his real world.
The twist as to how Empathy, Inc. actually works comes pretty early in the movie, and though I would have liked to have seen more about other customers’ experiences, this is a clever low-fi tech thriller that does indeed ask, in a Black Mirror sense, “what if VR but too much?” It’s a tall order to make a venture capitalist a sympathetic hero, but Robidas as Joel pulls it off, along with a strong supporting cast, particularly Klaitz, who plays Lester like a Comicsgate thread was made sentient. While it could have been fleshed out in a few more areas, it’s an intriguing concept spun well, with an unexpectedly moving conclusion. When Lester is asked earlier in the movie what inspired him to invent his VR technology, he explains “When I was a kid, they told us we could be whatever we wanted to be. I actually believed it.”
Finally, if you were thinking “Hey, shouldn’t it be about time for another Blair Witch Project?,” well, you’re in luck. Making its world premiere at the festival is Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, a purported documentary about a mysterious movie made in the late 70s that was so upsetting it caused riots and even death after viewing. The documentary, complete with news footage and supposed experts on the occult, frames the actual movie itself, low budget horror about a teenage girl who takes her brother on a camping trip so that they can dig a hole to Hell and save the soul of his recently deceased dog.
Thirty seconds of research online will show that this is, of course, all made up. Though the subliminal imagery of demonic faces and occult sigils is a little silly and repetitious, Antrum is an entertaining exercise in showmanship, right down to the countdown title card at the beginning warning that pregnant women and people with nervous conditions should leave the theater (directors Michael Laicini and David Amito, who were in attendance at the screening, maintained without a single wink that it was for real, much to an audience member’s chagrin). Though interestingly the documentary portion makes no mention of the internet and the frustrating trend of viral videos blindly passed around without anyone checking their legitimacy, it’s clear that the point of it, real or not, is the power of suggestion. It isn’t that anything in the movie itself disturbs people to point of violence, and perhaps even death, but that it makes them think it will. Supposedly at least three people died within 24 hours of watching Antrum, so I guess we’ll just have to see what hap–
This review is posted in loving memory of Gena Radcliffe, 1972-2018