In my last post I suggested that the unofficial theme for the 2018 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival is “horror is whatever you want it to be.” With that expansion of themes and ideas comes a flexibility in using both real life issues and fantasy to create something new and memorable. It doesn’t always work, but it’s better than the standard “obnoxious teens picked off by a killer with a vague motive” fare. Thankfully, the last couple of features in this year’s festival don’t just work, they’re among the most gripping, unique movies I’ve seen this year.
Writer-director Danishka Esterhazy’s chilling third feature, Level 16, takes place in a near (and all too plausible) future, where girls are raised in a “boarding school” that looks like an abandoned psychiatric hospital, kept hidden from sunlight and convinced that fresh air is poisonous. The girls are taught “the feminine virtues,” such as obedience, cleanliness, and humility, but not how to read their own names. Their rigid, structured existence, focused mostly on chores, keeping themselves clean, and taking what they’re told are vitamins, is to prepare them for adoption by wealthy “sponsors” at age sixteen.’
Vivien (Katie Douglas), the top pupil in this creepy school, is well on her way to adoption, until she learns from dormmate Sophia (Celina Martin) that there’s something far more insidious going on, starting with the fact that the vitamins the girls are forced to take every night are heavy sedatives. You probably have a pretty good idea of what “adoption” actually means in this case, and all I will tell you is that it’s even worse than that. The service the school’s headmistress, Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), and her partner, Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge) goes far beyond mere access to young, innocent girls into something unimaginable – and yet, in our youth and beauty obsessed culture, not at all outside the realm of possibility.
It reportedly took Esterhazy more than a decade to get Level 16 made, but it seems to have come at just the exact right time. Despite none of the action taking place outside the confines of the school, it builds a rich, fascinating world, where you want to know more about the circumstances leading up to the creation of the school, and even the monsters behind it. Particularly intriguing is Miss Brixil, who looks like a platinum blonde 40s femme fatale, and proves to be an unexpectedly complex, conflicted villain, as trapped in her situation as the girls she oversees.
The movie really belongs to Douglas and Martin, however, as their characters defy the rules first by becoming friends, then by questioning authority, then by challenging it. Ending on a hopeful note, Level 16 is a disturbing, emotionally moving look at the fetishization of teenage girls taken to a horrifying level, and hits the same sort of shudder-inducing notes as The Handmaid’s Tale.
Inspired by Slavic folklore rather than current events is The Rusalka, the closing feature of the festival. Written and directed by Perry Blackshear (They Look Like People), it’s a haunting supernatural romance, and probably the most beautifully shot film about a monster who drags away victims to their watery doom that you’ll ever see.
A lean 70 minutes long and with only three major characters, The Rusalka takes place in a remote lakeside village where Tom (Evan Dumouchel), a young mute man, rents a tiny cottage right on the water. He becomes friendly acquaintances with his closest neighbor, Al (MacLeod Andrews), consumed with grief after the death of his husband, and determined to find the someone (or something) responsible for it.
Barely a day into his stay at the cottage, Tom meets Nina (Margaret Ying Drake), a mysterious woman who just swims up to his house in the middle of the night, and refuses to get out of the water. They’re immediately besotted with each other, and fall into a sweet, almost painfully innocent romance, first to Al’s amusement, and then to his alarm, as he realizes that he thinks he might have seen Nina before.
To clarify, a rusalka is a ghost of a young woman who has drowned, and haunts the waters where she died, luring men with her beauty and drowning them. The movie doesn’t hide that Nina is a rusalka, or at least, some sort of otherworldly creature, whose eyes turn black whenever she’s about to claim another victim. Tom knows there’s something amiss about her (such as the whole refusing to walk on dry land thing), but there seems to be a lot he’s willing to overlook in favor of making a meaningful connection with someone. He’s desperately lonely, as is Al, but neither of them so much as Nina, doomed to swim back and forth from one side of the lake to the other, the “connections” she usually makes with people ending when she holds them underwater until they die.
Though more of a doomed love story than a horror movie (though there are definitely some elements of horror, particularly near the end, The Rusalka is tender and deeply sad, with a pair of romantic leads who are so beautiful they’re hard to look at sometimes. There’s a strange sort of innocence to how Tom and Nina interact with each other, as if it’s the first time either of them have had any sort of courtship with another person (it might be for Tom, who’s at the cottage to study the Bible). Nina’s monstrous urges have an edge of sorrow to them – she doesn’t enjoy what she does, she’s just resigned to it. Much like The Shape of Water, the only way this relationship can survive is if Tom were to enter Nina’s world, but in real life, he doesn’t even know how to swim.