Tag Archives: psychological horror

THE HORROR OF IDENTITY: DOUBLE BILL FILM REVIEWS – DEERSKIN (2019) & POSSESSOR (2020)

THE HORROR OF IDENTITY: DOUBLE BILL FILM REVIEWS – DEERSKIN (2019) & POSSESSOR (2020)

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde


We’ve all wanted to exist outside our own skin. Or perhaps inhabit someone else’s? Or, maybe even change our own identity, both literally and psychologically. Or is that just me? At the least we have all thought about it. Even losing weight and going down the gym or giving up alcohol or changing our hairstyle is a means of basic transformation. We may make a more defiant change and leave that job we hate or break out from a negative relationship. Arguably though, personality, attitude and mental changes in one’s life are the most difficult. After all, it is incredibly difficult to change the very fabric of one’s personality or character.

We can find an alternative source of transformation in a vicarious sense through storytelling mediums such as literature, television and cinema. The horror genre especially is replete with monstrous visions of identity switches, psychotic breakdowns and physical transmogrification. I personally take great pleasure in seeing altered identities occur on the screen and am especially drawn to characters who experience mental and corporeal metamorphosis. That simply isn’t because I cannot change who I am or what I do on a daily basis, but it’s quite scary to attempt to reshape one’s existence and identity. It’s bloody hard work without much guarantee of success. Horror films, while also frightening when done well, are far more satisfying and give a more immediate hit than the grind of reality.

Two films I have seen recently both relate to mid-life crises and exhibit themes that illustrate two characters changing their appearance to bring about a shift in identity, behaviour and personality. They also show characters spiralling out of control in incredibly violent, bizarre and entertaining ways. Those films are Deerskin (2019) and Possessor (2020) and here are my reviews.

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



DEERSKIN (2019)

Directed and written by Quentin Dupieux

Main Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adele Haenel

Have you ever seen the film Rubber (2010)? It is a gonzo horror-comedy about a murderous-tyre called Robert killing birds and people with telekinetic powers. Beneath the insanity of the pitch there is in fact a subtextual satire on the nature of Hollywood filmmaking and an audience starved of originality; I think! It came from the mind of Quentin Dupieux, so I was intrigued that he had nabbed for a subsequent production the grand talents of Jean Dujardin and Adele Haenel for the obsidian killer comedy, Deerskin (2019).

Dujardin is Georges, a middle-aged loner, recently dumped by his wife whose only aim now it appears is to purchase a deerskin jacket. Buoyed by the confidence the jacket has given him, and armed with a video camera thrown in with the deal, George plots up at a rural hotel and befriends Adele Haenel’s bar server and enthusiastic film editor. Their budding friendship threatens to turn this into a relatively conventional love story, however, a series of twisted turns tip the story into a hilarious series of murderous set-pieces, with Georges determined to get money to make a movie, but most importantly buy deerskin trousers, hat and gloves.

The story of a middle-aged man altering his outer look in order to transform his life and fortune is a staple of Hollywood comedies and romance films. Deerskin (2019) is that kind of film on the surface. Yet when filtered through Dupieux’s iconoclastic imagination the premise is an altogether different kind of demented animal. Ultimately, it is a low-budget gem of a black comedy with some fantastic ideas and fascinating character study of a man attempting to shift skin, but falling deeper and deeper into psychopathy. It’s a wacky journey with committed performances, yet, it felt like the ending was just too sudden, as if the filmmaker either ran our of money or just wanted to screw with audience expectations right up until the final sudden frame.

MARK: 7.5 out of 11


POSSESSOR (2020)

Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg

Main Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton etc.

Whereas Deerskin (2019) finds a literal and figurative metamorphosis when a character buys a jacket, Brandon Cronenberg’s vicious horror film, Possessor (2020), is an altogether more cerebral, violent and psychologically stunning journey. Andrea Riseborough is as intense as ever portraying an assassin named, Tasya Vox, who through some incredible technology is able to inhabit the mind and body of another individual and use them as a human puppet to commit murder. It’s a perfect set-up for the assassination agency led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s handler, Girder. Yet such murder by scientific proxy comes at a cost to Vox’s family life and mental stability.

After a glorious opening scene featuring an astoundingly brutal stabbing, Vox attempts to reconnect with her partner and son, but finds herself becoming ever more disconnected. The pressure of taking over another individual’s identity is causing Vox to discombobulate as her mind begins to fracture. Despite this she takes the next job, a contract to kill John Parse (Sean Bean), using Christopher Abbott’s Colin Tate as a conduit. As Vox struggles with her splitting psyche, Tate himself is having personal issues also and this leads to some mind-bending and psychedelic montage scenes as the two battle within Tate’s brain. If this all sounds a bit weird, it is and it isn’t because the filmmaking is of such a high quality one believes the process. Further, the director never loses his grip on the narrative and Cronenberg gets a compelling performance from Abbott as his character confronts the invasion into his soul.

Overall, Possessor (2020) has a stunning concept at its heart but I just kept wondering how a genre filmmaker like Leigh Whannell may have handled the idea. He certainly would have made the characters more empathetic because it is so tough to warm to either Vox or Tate. Indeed, Tate’s character should have been developed more at the beginning in my view as he would have made an ideal “innocent/wrong man” type character so often used by Hitchcock. Nonetheless, Brandon Cronenberg has crafted one of the most visually impressive and shocking psychological horror films I have seen in a long time. Like Whannell’s Upgrade (2018), it contains some memorable gore and violence. It is also very intelligent as the fantastic ideas explore what it means to not only inhabit another person’s skin, but rip through their very soul.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11


CINEMA REVIEW – SAINT MAUD (2019)

CINEMA REVIEW – SAINT MAUD (2019)

Directed by: Rose Glass

Produced by: Andrea Cornwell, Oliver Kassman

Written by: Rose Glass

Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Marcus Hutton  

Music by: Adam Janota Bzowski

Cinematography: Ben Fordesman

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. . .” – Matthew 7:15


Also, beware of false praise from film reviewers! Because over the years I’ve often seen hyperbolic notices about films that after seeing them I wonder if I’ve been watching the same thing. Of course, any kind of review is subjective, and we cannot all like the same thing, but sometimes so-called critics rave about a cinema release for reasons I just don’t get. It could be that they genuinely like the film or are attempting to promote it on a personal or corporate level for some incestuous allegiance to the filmmaker or studio. They could even have been paid for the positive words. The latter is unlikely, but possible. Anyhow, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

So, when I saw the glowing notices for Rose Glass’ psychological character study, Saint Maud (2019), I was initially sceptical. Thankfully after watching it at the Curzon cinema at the weekend, I concur with many of the raving critics. The film is a thoroughly absorbing and compelling exploration of religious mania, alienation, and mental breakdown. Moreover, Rose Glass, on her directorial feature debut deserves much praise for crafting a stunningly disturbing journey of one individual’s search for the Lord Almighty and rapturous redemption. Only to reveal, in Maud, a troubled outsider and lost soul, completely at odds with the people around her and society as a whole.


Saint Maud (2019) – directed by Rose Glass

Morfydd Clark is absolutely spellbinding as the lead character. In fact, she inhabits both elements of protagonist and antagonist in this jagged narrative. Sadly, Maud becomes her own worst enemy as the film progresses. Her job as a nurse has connotations of angels and heroines, but eventually travels an alternative path. The film opens with flashes of a tragedy which has occurred at the hospital where Maud works. These events will haunt Maud like a psychological millstone; dragging her toward darkness while she seeks enlightenment. Rapidly quickening forward we then find Maud in private medical employment caring for former famed choreographer portrayed by Jennifer Ehle.

Ehle, as Amanda, gives an impressive rendition of a dying bitter woman; full of spite, bravado and fear as she nears the end of her life. Not that that stops Amanda from smoking, drinking and partying, much to the pious Maud’s displeasure. The two divergent personalities clash constantly as Maud takes it upon herself to be Amanda’s saviour. This ultimately becomes an obsessive crusade by Maud, no doubt in an attempt to find peace and redemption following the tragedy in her prior job. Such is the power of Maud and Amanda’s complex relationship of warring opposites, Saint Maud (2019) suffers minor dramatic inertia when Maud goes off the rails toward the end of the second act. Nonetheless, Glass is cleverly building Maud’s turmoil before bringing Ehle’s character back in the shocking and memorable final scenes.

Saint Maud (2019), overall, is an exceptionally well-crafted low budget work of British cinema. It is more than just a calling card for the extremely talented director, Rose Glass. Her grasp of the material is superb and the cinematography and shot composition support her dark vision brilliantly. The film may disappoint those who prefer conventional supernatural films, as it is more arthouse than classic horror. Moreover, it has much in common with searing character studies by Paul Schrader, such as Taxi Driver (1976), and the more recent, First Reformed (2017). Indeed, Maud’s voiceover permeates like a prayer to an empty sky bleeding into the powerful imagery to compelling effect. The true horror of Saint Maud (2019) is not in jump scares or one-dimensional monsters, but rather the slow descent into hell by a character who strives to be a saviour. Tragically though, Maud is a self-appointed Angel, whose mental fragility disintegrates under the weight of holy desire and biblical fervour.

Mark: 9 out of 11


FILMS THAT GOT AWAY #11 – HOUNDS OF LOVE (2016)

FILMS THAT GOT AWAY #11 – HOUNDS OF LOVE (2016)

Written and Directed by: Ben Young

Produced by: Melissa Kelly

Cast: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Harris Gilbertson, Susie Porter, Damian De Montemas, etc.

Music by: Dan Luscombe

Cinematography: Michael McDermott

Edited by: Merlin Eden

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



Where narratives relating to rape, abduction, and serial killers are concerned, a filmmaker can tread a fine line between lurid exploitation and absorbing suspense and drama. Low budget B-movies are replete with stories of death, sexual assault and crazed murderers. Some overstep the mark becoming notorious beacons of bad taste. Many horror fans love the exploitational nature of “video nasties”, seeking out films like: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), A Serbian Film (2010), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Driller Killer (1979), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972), to name but a few. The latter two films directed by horror maestros Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven are arguably exceptional visions of terror which transcend their horror genre subject matter. Similarly, Ben Young’s The Hounds of Love (2016), in my view, represents the evil of human beings without exploiting the actors or audience.

While it may not be as gory on-screen as the films mentioned above, The Hounds of Love (2016), does offer a shattering and sickening set of images and sounds within these savage set of events. Set in Perth, Australia during 1987, this is a disturbing and all too realistic horror story. It opens with a majestic set of slow-motion shots from the point-of-view of suburban couple, Evelyn White (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry). They sit in their vehicle as the sun hazes and watch teenage girls playing netball in the school yard. They are stalking their next victim; patiently waiting to lure another unsuspecting soul into their nefariously sadistic crimes. Stylistically impressive, but at the same time incredibly unnerving, Ben Young skilfully establishes the canvas on which he will paint further horrors.



Having fed their violent and sexual lust with the opening victim, we are then introduced to their next. Vicki Moloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rebellious teenager who is smarting from her parents recent split. Acting with both charisma and defiance, Vicki is slightly annoying, yet empathetic. Obviously, she does not deserve the ordeal she is about to experience at the hands of the Whites. The sequence which finds them cajoling her into their clutches is so tense and had me screaming at the screen, “No!!!! Get out!!!” What follows then, as Vicki becomes a prisoner, is a series of heart-pounding and distressing scenes which raise the stakes to unbearable tension. Ashleigh Cummings performance is absolutely compelling as “final girl”, Vicki. She takes a potentially one-dimensional casualty and imbues her with fight, guile, pain, distress, intelligence and determination. No surprise therefore that she won a Best acting debut award at the Venice Film Festival.

Cummings performance is not the only one which impacts the story greatly. Emma Booth’s complex portrayal of Evelyn is quite startling. This is a character who is permanently on-the-edge and desperate to please her evil partner, John. Systematically controlled and bullied, there is no excuse for Evelyn’s part in the kidnappings and torture of these young girls. But, it is clear to see that toxic masculinity has, over the years contributed to her mental and emotional collapse. Booth’s persistently fraught acting is all bag-of-bones and shredded nerves. It is via Evelyn’s imploding emotional state that Vicki is able to attempt to turn her against John’s venal influence.

Ultimately, one could say this is an exploitation film in terms of theme and story. However, it feels different than the many B-movie serial killer films I have seen. I felt like I was in the hands of a filmmaker who was determined to explore the nature of sadistic relationships in a risky, but intelligent manner. The acting, cinematography, direction and haunting soundtrack all contribute to make this a highly effective psychological thriller. Of course, there are many which may feel differently and that the film has its cake and eats it in term of violence and sexual perversion. Yet, we never actually see much of the cake. Unlike many of the films I mention in the opening paragraph, the audience only see the build-up and aftermath of the crimes. Indeed, what we don’t see on screen is more frightening than what we do. That, overall, is what sets The Hounds of Love (2016) apart from many other films dealing with these unpalatable themes and subjects.

Mark: 9 out of 11



CLASSIC FILM SCENES #10 – THE SHINING – “HERE’S JOHNNY!”

CLASSIC FILM SCENES #10 – THE SHINING (1980) – “HERE’S JOHNNY!”

Directed and Produced by: Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay by: Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson – based on The Shining by Stephen King

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers.

Music by: Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind

Cinematography: John Alcott

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**



With Stephen King’s latest adaptation Doctor Sleep (2019), hitting the cinemas, I thought it interesting to remind myself of the original classic horror film of which it is a sequel, The Shining (1980).

Uber-writer Stephen King was not a fan of Kubrick’s adaptation. Indeed, he was alleged to have been asked to cease complaining, in exchange for the book rights reverting back to him. Nonetheless, The Shining (1980) is quite rightly lauded as a horror classic. It slowly shows a writer’s descent into madness; something which is exacerbated by the ghosts living in the creepy Overlook Hotel.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance with a brooding menace throughout, exploding into full insanity after several encounters with the phantom hotel’s grim residents. In the famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene, Jack pursues his poor wife, Wendy, (Shelley Duvall) and gifted son, Danny, with an axe in hand. Wendy is trapped in the bathroom and Duvall’s petrified performance is chilling.

Beautifully framed, edited and acted, the scene is scary and nerve-wracking. The mania of Jack also casts a dark humour at the end. It took, according to Shelley Duvall, three days and sixty doors to shoot. Moreover, it has been widely reported the, “Heeerree’s Johnny!” line was famously improvised on set by Jack Nicholson. The rest they say is history.