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New Nightmares: Brooklyn Horror Film Festival
Brian Raven Ehrenpreis , November 23rd, 2018 10:38

At 2018's Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, Brian Raven Ehrenpreis catches films by Yann Gonzalez, Tilman Singer, Nicolas Pesce, and Guto Parente

I’m alone, lost, and becoming increasingly desperate as I claw my way inch by painful inch through a dark and wretched catacomb. Holding fast to a single candle and a pathetically flickering flashlight, I wade through a chamber whose geometry I cannot even begin to guess at, stumbling clumsily through a mound of animal bones – or rather, what I am hoping to be only animal bones.

A malefic and ritualistic chanting rises and falls in and out of earshot and I find myself unable to tell from which direction it’s coming, The chanting or singing or screaming is only getting louder now, and I can sense something approaching. It’s then that it appears: a nebulous shape sliding in and out of the darkness, its two pitiless inhuman eyes opening onto me through the gloom, drawing me in with their baleful glamor. It wants me to know that it is here, and that it has always been. It wants me to know that I have stumbled into its domain. But most importantly, it wants me to know that its feeding time.

Almost as soon as I secure a glimpse of it, it dissipates and dissolves, morphing into three words, scratched like ancient runes and yet floating impossibly in midair: thanks for playing.

I’m at the opening night party for the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, taking in one of the horror themed virtual reality experiences before the festival begins. Now in its third year, the 2018 edition of Brooklyn Horror has expanded to a full eight days of globe-spanning new nightmares, featuring everything from retro-revivals of slasher classics like My Bloody Valentine and The Burning to the latest in bleeding-edge VR immersion.

The real draw of the festival are the films, however, and while many programmed this year pay homage to the past greats of the genre, revealing in a decidedly retro aesthetic, others still highlight a diverse slate of terrors drawn from what its like to be alive during our current moment of fascist triumphalism and technological anxiety.

The opening night film for the festival is Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart, a deliriously prismatic 35mm marvel that feels like what would happen if Sergio Martino were hired to recreate William Friedkin’s Cruising from memory alone after a long night of binging on Brian DePalma and Tom of Finland. Set in the gay porn scene of 1970s Paris, an expertly cast Vanessa Paradis plays Anne, a porn producer struggling with a bevy of personal problems ranging from alcoholism to a severely broken heart, whose troupe of actors is being picked off one by one by a masked black gloved killer in classic giallo fashion.

Featuring some murders that would do Dario Argento proud, a seductive hint of the supernatural, a superbly sexy synth score by M83, and neon-saturated cinematography that practically oozes lurid sensuality, Knife+Heart is an exceedingly decadent spectacle with style to burn. Despite this, the film is decidedly not a giallo in the traditional sense, nor is it quite a meticulously constructed meta-commentary on the form itself either, but rather something different entirely.

In many ways Yann Gonzalez’s film feels interstitial, and ends up being more of an exploration of the possibilities of the giallo form than a strict homage to it. Gonzalez is much more interested in proffering a sly (and often uproarious) unpacking of what it means to love and live through the creation of outsider art – be that genre films or gay porn – in a world that is eminently hostile to you, than he is with fetishising the actual mechanics of mystery and murder.

There’s the sense that we should be taking the murderer lurking in the shadows of Knife+Heart about as seriously as Paradis’s Anne is taking him, that is, not seriously at all. As the bodies pile up, Anne starts dramatising the real life murders of her employees in her new films, changing the name of her latest production Anal Fury to Homo/cidal and restaging the murder of one of her troupe to the complaints of one cast member who aptly notes that she is “playing with real life.” Gonzalez milks these mise-en-abyme to great comedic effect, having Anne re-create events we’ve already seen, such as a scene of a local policeman taking a statement from her that metastasises into a mockery where a beefcake police stenographer literally tries to fuck his typewriter.

Knife+Heart is a compelling maximalist mélange held together by a meticulously crafted aesthetic and a total devotion to using the giallo form to explore the pleasures and perils of vision and desire. Perhaps the key image of the film is that of an eye looking through a peephole set into a poster of a man’s mouth, as Gonzalez is very much inviting the viewers of his film to taste with their eyes, to luxuriate in all the delectations that genre cinema can provide. In the words of Anne, who we watch on screen trying to convince a ‘straight’ construction worker to star in one of her gay skin flicks: “What do you risk? A little pleasure? You’ll die smarter.”

Knife+Heart is not the only film at Brooklyn Horror drawing inspiration from the genre cinema of the late 70s and early 80s, as Tilman Singer’s unbelievably accomplished debut film Luz genuinely feels like it could be a lost work by Andrzej Żuławski. Shot on 16mm Cinemascope, Luz reads on the screen as if it were a precious unearthed relic, finally liberated from a long buried time capsule interred in the halcyon days of arthouse horror.

A totally unpredictable and utterly beguiling work of mesmerism and madness, the film opens with the titular Luz (Luana Velis), a cab driver, arriving at a local police station after a car accident. Elsewhere, at the same time, we watch as the seductive Nora (Julia Riedler) wends her way into the good graces of police psychiatrist Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) at a bar. As it turns out, it’s not actually Dr Rossini’s good graces that Nora is interested in entering, it’s his body itself. Hijacking his flesh, Nora (now ensconced in Rossini’s body) heads to the police station where she promptly begins an interrogation of Luz with the aid of a police inspector and a translator.

From here on Luz acquires the character of a nightmarish stage play, with the bulk of the action becoming confined spatially to just one room where Luz is placed under hypnosis by Nora/Rossini/the demon and forced to act out a bewildering series of events. All of this eventually culminates in a bloody and apocalyptic climax, where the very plasticity of physical space and time itself bend around the will of the unfathomably powerful demonic entity bent on possessing Luz.

Luz is that rarest of all things in horror cinema in that it manages to feel firmly rooted in a certain strain of arthouse horror while never being directly reducible to any of its influences. Singer’s film is constructed with a radical minimalism that feels boundary breaking and genuinely new, and the way he structures the narrative of his film is absolutely brilliant. Luz is non-linear, unfolding like a complex jigsaw puzzle whose pieces keep disappearing each time you think you’ve solved it; the film a living and breathing testament to the pleasures of narrative disorientation that can stand toe to toe with the most meticulously constructed cinematic mind benders.

Luz feels nearly like a fully formed horror classic, which is all the more incredible when you learn that it was created as Singer’s graduate thesis for the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne. For anyone saying that this is an excellent calling-card film for Singer, full of style but little substance, but that they still expect ‘big things’ from him in the future: ignore them. This is that big thing. Whether or not you’ll appreciate Luz comes down entirely to how much you are able to give yourself over to it, how much you are able to eradicate those nagging thoughts in the back of your mind and just let the film’s nightmare logic flow directly into your veins. Stop trying to understand everything: let Luz possess you.

If Tilman Singer’s Luz is an example of how to imbue an old aesthetic form with a radically new narrative vigour, Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing should serve as something like an abject lesson on the uses and abuses of cinematic nostalgia. Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) has crafted a film that similarly to Knife+Heart and Luz is also very much marinating in a retro giallo aesthetic, but here the cumulative impact is to make his film feel slavishly derivative, like little more than a messy mix of its influences that never quite manages to congeal into any semblance of originality.

Based on a book of the same name by Ryu Murakami (the novelist who also penned the source material for Takashi Miike’s Audition), it’s unsurprising then that much of Piercing tends to feel like a cut-rate imitation of Miike, to which Pesce adds a hefty sampling of giallo atmospherics from Argento. Atmospherics aren’t the only thing Pesce is taking from Argento however, and he even goes so far as to feature several audience abusing needle drops (à la Tarantino), cribbing music liberally from Argento’s films including Goblin’s extremely recognisable tracks from Profondo Rosso and Tenebrae.

For what is supposed to be an icy-veined and precise black comedy, Piercing manages to feel downright smarmy due to its director’s inability to restrain a cloying need to constantly prove how cine-literate he is at all times. Why Pesce would want to sonically quote from films that are much better than his own is truly beyond me, though I suspect that he just wants everyone within earshot to know that he’s done the reading for the class, that he’s heard of that band you like.

Piercing follows Reed (Christopher Abbott), a man who we are first introduced to as he stands over his crying newborn baby while threateningly holding an icepick. Reed needs some alone time, away from his wife Mona (Laia Costa) and yes, away, far away from his baby. Reed decides that in order to get the rest and relaxation he so desperately needs that he will… kill a call girl. Promptly leaving home on a ‘business trip,’ he checks into a luxurious hotel and begins to practice for the murder to come. Deciding that the killing should involve S&M (as he wants to tie his victim up beforehand for maximum enjoyment), he requests that the agency he contacts send him someone who is into that sort of thing. They end up sending him Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) who, it’s fair to say, is into S&M, and then some.

Part of the cosmic joke of Piercing is that Reed’s scenario for the perfect murder immediately collapses because he doesn’t account for the fact that his victim could have any autonomy, which quite ironically – and depressingly – mirrors Pesce’s entire approach to the character of Jackie, who he has Mia Wasikowska portray as little more than a two-dimensional Manic Pixie Murder Victim falling head over heels for her own would-be assassin.

There’s something of the ultimate toxic male fantasy concerning violence towards women lurking at the dark heart of Piercing. Jackie remains entirely two-dimensional for the duration of the film, a woman without any semblance of a psychological interior; little more than an absurd caricature of a manic sex worker without apparent motivation or history. Pesce is all too happy to sample liberally from the greats of giallo, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s also channeling some of the most odious views floating around the zeitgeist concerning the agency of women, and reproducing them almost entirely uncritically. For a film supposedly full of the pleasures of the flesh, Piercing’s psychology isn’t even skin deep.

For as two-dimensional and reductive as Nicolas Pesce’s portrayal of women in sex work is, Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei’s Cam is as rigorously crafted a rejoinder as could be imagined. Directed by Goldhaber and co-written by Mazzei (a former sex worker herself), Cam is a multi-faceted exploration of the reality of camming as glimpsed through a monitor darkly. Reminiscent of some of the best episodes of Black Mirror, Cam is a spiral into the digital darkness that follows Alice (Madeline Brewer), a cam girl who we meet for the first time as she is in the process of slitting her own throat live on stream. As it turns out, it’s all part of an act; just another carefully constructed suicide show, one of Alice’s special tactics designed to get her channel boosted in the rankings of the site she streams on.

It’s a clever opening salvo that deftly defines Goldhaber and Mazzei’s concerns about the reality of what we see when we watch these streams. What Alice is actually selling her followers isn’t exactly sex but the illusion of intimacy – both on stream, as she projects a pitch-perfect image of virtual (yet vulnerable) vitality, and off-stream, where she doles out text-message sized bites of emotional labour to lonely men in-between cam sessions. Goldhaber and Mazzei never let us think for a moment that camming is anything except an extremely involving travail, a never ending hustle, an eater of days that transforms all of one’s personal time into a precious commodity, and an endeavour that completely collapses any recognisable distinction between work and leisure.

Recognising sex work first and foremost as work, Cam is mostly focused on highlighting just how dangerous and unprotected such work can be. When Alice is locked out of her online account and replaced with an exact digital replica of herself who starts to live stream as her, Goldhaber and Mazzei use this supernatural set up as a sort of intellectual springboard through which to highlight a bevy of terrors that are based squarely in the real.

As Alice’s digital doppelgänger wreaks havoc on her online identity, pushing beyond the limits she has set for herself by performing public shows with explicit sex acts, we watch as her family becomes aware for the first time of what she actually does for a living, and the recriminations and shame that follow. At the same time, an overzealous fan of her content morphs into a full blown stalker, moving to her town just to be closer to her, and when she reports her account as stolen to the police she is slut-shamed and hit on rather than helped.

The deeper Alice falls down the rabbit hole of chasing after her digital doppelgänger the more she is forced to reckon with the impact her online identity has in an offline world. Cam is unsparingly comprehensive in it’s depiction of the misogyny, stigma, and precarity that Alice and her real-world counterparts are forced to endure on a day-to-day basis, and just about everything in it feels like it is only one step removed from recognisable reality. From its portrayal of how it actually feels to be part of an intentional internet community, to the aura of persistent and isolating anomie it establishes, the film feels refreshingly interested in grappling with what life is like in the here and now.

At a festival filled to the brim with films looking to the past for inspiration, the fact that Goldhaber and Mazzei cast an anthropologists’ eye on what it takes to survive and thrive in the age of social media induced atomisation and curated online identities is enough to get me to smash the like button. A few words of advice though, to paraphrase the immortal Dril: never log off.

Directed by the extremely prolific Takeshi Sone, Ghost Mask: Scar, is also a film whose setting would lead you to believe it's interested in exploring the ways which women navigate a modern world governed the laws of entrenched misogyny. Marred by a bizarrely drawn out melodrama unfolding with all the narrative and aesthetic originality of a daytime soap opera, Ghost Mask: Scar sadly suffers from a fatal incuriosity; an abiding reluctance to truly dig into the implications of it’s own chosen subject matter and it’s real-world impact on women that manages to doom it to failure from the very first frame.

Set in the world of South Korean plastic surgery, the film follows Miyu (Yurika Akane), a young Japanese woman on a sojourn to Seoul in search of her sister Hyoshin (Hirosawa Sou) who disappeared several years prior after leaving her home in Japan for South Korea. Miyu canvasses the streets, presenting a picture of her sister to passersby, asking each of them if they’ve seen her. None of them have, for the very simple reason that Hyoshin no longer looks like her photograph.

Thoroughly traumatised by her experiences growing up in the shadow of her more conventionally beautiful sister Miyu, as well as losing her fiancé to philandering, Sone presents a series of maudlin flashbacks that explain how Hyoshin came to consider herself physically inadequate. Moving from Japan, a country where plastic surgery is not generally regarded as socially acceptable, to South Korea, which is presented in the film as having a kind of national obsession with it, certainly does not help matters, and when Hyoshin is struck down by drunk driver and top-flight plastic surgeon Hana (Lee Yuha), it ends up being a blessing in disguise. Asking Hana to give her a new identity in exchange for not pressing charges, Hyoshin acquires a new face: that of Hana’s deceased lover – the “Ghost Mask” of the films title. When Hana and Hyoshin eventually reunite, old traumas and resentments inevitably erupt as the film settles into more familiar horror territory and the butchery begins.

Sone is so focused on maintaining the inertia of the melodrama that he doesn’t think to step back and foreground the most interesting narrative possibilities that setting his film in the world of elective plastic surgery affords him. While there are some sophomoric attempts to address the wider social context around beauty standards and the social pressures that drive women to feel like they need to achieve physical perfection, these feel perfunctory and unsatisfying, and the film is on the whole a massive missed opportunity to really explore South Korea’s cultural turn towards plastic perfection, and its impact on women through the lens of a horror film. It’s unfortunate, but the only way Ghost Mask: Scar manages to live up to its chosen subject matter is in feeling plastic itself, as anodyne, safe, and mass-produced as a whole assembly line of perfectly proportional prosthetics.

Another film whose terror derives from diving deep into the murky waters of sexual violence and abuse is Holiday, the debut feature from Danish director ‎Isabella Eklöf. Of all the films playing at Brooklyn Horror, Holiday is the least like a traditional horror film while also being far and away the most disturbing watch on offer in the festival’s slate of programming. Combining Michael Haneke’s formalism and Gaspar Noé’s commitment to provocation, Holiday paints a portrait of misogyny in motion, a precise and brutal examination of the ways in which powerful men assert their dominance over women; and a nauseating look at the interior logic of abusive relationships.

The film follows Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) as she travels to meet her new super-rich drug dealer boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) at a villa on the Turkish coast. Disembarking from her plane, she is picked up by Michael’s fixer Bobby, who immediately begins to upbraid her for a minor indiscretion involving money. Trapped with him in a car, Bobby hits Sascha several times in the face as he venomously gives voice to an entire universe of deranged patriarchal logic, telling her “Pretty girls get everything for free, no consequences. Just a little smile, maybe sucking off the right guy. That’s the way the world works, huh?” It’s an important bit of scene setting that lets us know that the cinematic world we are about to enter is not going to be an easy one for women, for the simple fact that it almost precisely mirrors our own.

Delivering Sascha to Michael, we watch as she parties alongside him as he entertains a bunch of gauche lowlifes at his villa. As their relationship curdles amid a sea of drugs, drink, jealousy, and power games, eventually erupting into a truly disgusting rape scene, we watch as Sascha stays with Michael through it all. We also see how the man on whom she has projected her hopes of being saved from Michael fails her miserably, and instead of offering her kindness instead chooses to berate he (“what the fuck is wrong with you? The way you let yourself be treated is fucking disgusting.”). For Sascha, there is no such thing as a man who can save her and all that is left for her is a universe of choices that must be made within a social framework built to be inherently hostile to women.

Set from Sascha’s perspective, Eklöf manages to press the audience into adopting a traumatised gaze, one where we see danger around every corner for Sascha as she makes a series of ‘mistakes’ that she herself doesn’t even realise she is making. Holiday is so terrifying because it forces the viewer to warp the very way he or she perceives the decisions it’s protagonist makes to conform to the twisted axis of Michael’s misogyny and madness, making clear that the experience of being in an abusive relationship is that you are always doing something wrong in the eyes of your partner, no matter how normal your behaviour actually is.

Full of scenes of graphic rape, sexual coercion, emotional trauma, and abuse, Holiday is an unquestionably tough watch, but it’s never exploitative. Eklöf is ultimately interested in looking at why women stay with their abusive partners, and her film ends up being so powerful because of its refusal to be moralising. If by the end of Holiday, Sascha has descended to Michael’s level of moral debasement, the lingering ambiguity of how we are supposed to feel about her decisions is the films greatest strength. It’s as if Eklöf is suggesting that Sascha, abused and traumatized, has been judged enough already, and needs neither the opprobrium or approval of the audience, or anyone else at all.

Also set in a milieu of the morally debased super-rich at play, Guto Parente’s The Cannibal Club is a pitch-black social satire from Brazil that shows the 1% to be the deranged human-flesh devouring monsters we all already knew they were. Reminiscent in many ways of another recent Brazilian horror comedy cum political satire, Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Good Manners, The Cannibal Club boasts a conceit that isn’t exactly original, but does happen to be tragically resonant for a Brazil that just recently elected president, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro.

The Cannibal Club follows Gilda (Ana Luiza Rios) and Octavio (Tavinho Teixeira), two members of a cabal of bourgeois upper crust cannibals who pass their time by sunning themselves by the pool, partying with reckless abandon and, of course, feasting on the flesh of the poor. Parente uses his set up to roast the affectations and mannered moral depravity of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, noting in particular the perverse pleasure they take in torturing the lower classes.

The film is full of wry and biting humour and Parente is clearly taking devilish delight in making a mockery of the traditional bourgeois marriage (and male virility in particular), showing Otavio and Gilda as they attempt to spice up their sex lives by including their private security guards in their sinister sex games. That those guards are all promptly killed and eaten after the sex doesn’t really matter, as the lives of the poor aren’t worth much in the Brazil of The Cannibal Club. The situation is made even simpler because Otavio runs a private security firm which he uses to farm a steady stream of impoverished men directly into his home and his bloody hands.

Less outlandishly depicted are the all too real attitudes of the super-rich, who are shown constantly talking about how Brazil is nothing less than a dangerous smouldering ruin filled to the brim with rabble worthy of death. At a meeting of the cannibal club, we watch in disgust as the sinister tuxedo-attired cannibal cabal dines on human flesh carved tableside in an extravagantly arrayed restaurant, as Borges (Pedro Domingues), the head of their group, gives a speech espousing their eternal values of “family, faith, and work.” Attacking the club’s enemies, Borges gives a speech that would make Bolsonaro himself proud, full of references to smashing their enemies and ridding Brazil of its “poors, delinquents, pederasts, and filthy scum.”

The Cannibal Club is fine work, but it’s not a particularly original, challenging, or complex piece of satire. While it is occasionally funny and is certainly competently crafted, it feels like the scenario is not fleshed out enough. Marred by a serious lack of subtlety, Parente’s film ultimately feels undercooked and lacking enough meat to really sink your teeth into. It’s a shame, but what should be a deliciously filling Grand-Guignol feast ends up feeling mostly like empty calories.