Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Brain and the Body

I've seen two horror films in the last week or so. As I like to describe them, one is of the brain and the other is of the body. One traces the gradual decline of a single individual as he gets deeper and deeper into a situation he can't escape, while the other revels in more traditional horror tropes like gore and the undead. Both are impeccable crafted endeavours that never once feel like anything on screen was unintentioned. Of course, whether they differ is a gulf so wide that chalk and cheese would baulk.

Simon Killer comes from the production house that brought us the stunning directorial debut of Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011. Director and co-writer Antonio Campos' unnerving, is dramatically too cool for school in many ways, Simon Killer is certainly not the film that I had expected given the rather dark title and creepy (and excellent) poster. Much more than a backpacker Parisian Psycho, it follows a young American tourist in Paris as he digs holes so deep he can't get out. First by pretending to be the recipient of a beating in order to stay at the home of an affectionate prostitute, and then by struggling to keep the darkness within him covered up.

The film's co-writer (I presume there was quite a bit of improvisation in that regard) is star Brady Corbet, one of the most interesting actors working today alone based on the list of directors he's worked with. His filmography isn't extensive, but considering he's worked with Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin), Michael Haneke (Funny Games US), and Lars Von Trier (Melancholia) as well as the aforementioned Sean Durkin on Martha Marcy. He obviously fostered a good working relationship with the team and is now a creative force behind Simon Killer.

Make no mistake, this is purely a horror film in broad psychological terms. There's no blood and not even any thrills despite working within a thriller template. The horror of the piece is in Corbet's performance. He is so good in the role as Simon, mentally unstable and unable to contain it. With him working at such a great level, it's a shame the film didn't pick up to meet him. It's not that the film's first half doesn't work, it's just that characters routinely do things that show such poor judgement. It's hard to be reeled in. Towards the end, however, Campos appears to elevate the material thanks to more abrasive editing and a more hurried pace. Gold stars also for the use of Spectral Display's "It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love" to such unique and unsettling effect. B-

What the psycho-chills of Simon Killer lacks in the blood and gore department are more than made up for with Xan Cassavetes' Kiss of the Damned. A film that's as super lush and stylish as it is super ridiculous and, at times, over-the-top. One could almost call it a campire tale given its propensity to be flashy and abundantly into its own colourful aesthetic. The film, Cassavetes' debut feature after her 2004 documentary Z Channel:A Magnificent Obsession, frequently looks like Sofia Coppola directing a Florence + The Machine video (and, surely not coincidentally, Coppola's name appears in the end credit thank yous) with some impeccably rich costume and production design. Shame the actors drown in them, which can make for a slower second act.

I think Jason at My New Plaid Pants put it best: "there's a lot of talk in Kiss of the Damned about the magnetic force of Milo [Ventimiglia]'s presence, and you kinda wanna laugh every time it's spoken of." Vampires are, after all, meant to be compelling creatures and lure with lust, but while Milo - as well as the parade of women that surround him all throughout the film - is a very good looking man (that beard is working all sorts of wonders for him) he doesn't exactly command the screen. The women, too, are mostly airy beings that float about through scenes, although if that was Cassavetes' intentions then at least she cast well and got actors that have some truly captivating voices.

Where the film really succeeds is is the sound work. May sound like a strange observation, but it's true. The sound work in Kiss of the Damned is phenomenal and seeing it in the theatre certainly packed a punch that home entertainment would otherwise lack. The abrupt switches in music styles mixed with copious screams, canny dialogue dubbing, and high-pitched sound effects, not to mention the deep bass that appears to be a constant within the sound mix. The work here is a genuine wonder and was one of the reasons that I remained so focused and alert during the somewhat less exciting (if more gruesome) second half. I found Kiss of the Damned to be a much more intoxicating experiment than, say, Amer, which I think some may compare it to thanks to their pastiche patterns. B

Both Simon Killer and Kiss of the Damned are available on demand in America. Simon is also in limited release now, Damned will be in cinemas from May.

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