The reverberations of sexual assault have figured in many films of late, from documentaries about well-publicized scandals to big-screen fictions like Promising Young Woman. Two lower-profile dramas just newly released in the US, coincidentally both from Ireland, each utilize that theme to interesting if not entirely successful ends.
Writer-directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s Rose Plays Julie is available Fri/19 on VOD, digital and virtual cinema platforms from Film Movement. It strongly echoes PYW in many ways, despite having premiered at a festival four months earlier in late 2019. It’s also a much more sober exercise, without that other film’s humor or toying with genre conventions. Ann Skelly plays Rose, a Irish veterinary student who’s a bit possessed by a mission it takes us a while to figure out, not unlike Carey Mulligan’s character in Woman.
Turns out Rose, who apparently had loving adoptive parents but still feels the loss of an alternative “real me,” has somehow discovered the identity of the birth mother who gave her up as a baby. It happens to be a now-well-known actress, Ellen (Orla Brady). She’s freaked out to hear from this long-lost child via phone, even more so when Rose shows up on a TV shoot, then at Ellen’s (and her teenage daughter’s) home.
There’s a chill edge of stalking to Rose’s pursuit, particularly as the directors imbue their film with an arresting, somewhat mannered formalism accentuated by Stephen McKeon’s symphonic score (which is much more like concert hall than typical soundtrack fare). But after she gets over initial shock, Ellen is open to a belated relationship between them. She feels, however, that she must first explain why she surrendered infant Rose (then called Julie). This requires digging up a traumatic incident involving the biological father that is still painful to discuss. That intel soon puts Rose back in stalker mode, now disguised in look and identity, to insinuate herself into the world of author and archaeologist Peter (Aidan Gillen). Now, it is not restoration of a family dynamic that she seeks, but revenge.
Rose Plays Julie’s originality of tone can border on pretentiousness. But it also has an intensity that makes the not-quite-so-original story grip us, even without building much of the suspense you’d expect from the “psychological thriller” it’s billed as. This is the kind of flawed but compelling film that suggests the makers may be one project away from a real breakout effort.
Veering more into conventional melodrama is director Phil Sheerin’s feature debut The Winter Lake, which hit VOD platforms last week and will be released to DVD next Tue/23 by Epic Pictures. Nonetheless, it has its virtues. Anson Boom plays Tom, a sullen, withdrawn teen whose “playing with knives” has now resulted in he and his fed-up mother Elaine (Charlie Murphy) having to move to her grandparents’ empty farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Tom is an ill-socialized misfit with anger issues, though one suspects any prior trouble he’s been in was triggered by bullies. He’s certainly not at fault for the new hot water he gets into, after finding a baby’s skeleton in a canvas bag found floating atop a pond on the property.
Being a bit of a weirdo, he doesn’t report it to the police but secrets the item in his new room. There it attracts the attention of Holly (Emma Mackey), beautiful wild-child daughter of creepily overprotective neighbor Ward (Michael McElhatton), a single parent like old acquaintance Elaine. The salvaged corpse is of urgent, personal concern to Holly, whose real domestic circumstances Tom becomes upsettingly aware of once she makes him her confidante.
The Winter Lake was written by David Turpin, whose prior screenplay The Lodgers was a richly atmospheric supernatural tale a bit low on narrative complications. By contrast, this latest feels a little over-plotted, without summoning up sufficient modern Gothic mood in which to cloak its excess of contrived crises and revelations. Still, it’s well-acted, and if the execution doesn’t fully lift the material above pulp, it still conveys enough seriousness of purpose to avoid trivializing the abuse issues at narrative core.
If on the other hand it’s precisely pulp thrills and chills that you’re after, a trio of variably offbeat genre flicks may scratch that itch. The most stylish and best-reviewed of them is Come True, a Canadian “sci-fi sleep paralysis nightmare” directed, written, shot and scored by Anthony Scott Burns. Julia Sarah Stone plays Sarah, an high schooler in insomniac extremis who seeks help by enrolling in a university medical science department’s “sleep clinic” research study. She soon realizes the “Slenderman”-type visions that terrorize her dreams are exactly what they’re looking for, and are in fact being experienced by many others.
What does it all mean? Come True weaves a fairly arresting spell teasing that question out, only to arrive at a somewhat disappointing (and familiar) endpoint. I found it ultimately underwhelming, but the excitement it’s generated from many sci-fi/horror fans suggests that may be a minority opinion. IFC Midnight released it last week to limited theaters and VOD/digital platforms.
As deliberately silly as Come True is portentously somber, another Canadian film adds to the canon of movies that subject particularly ridiculous objects to “demonic possession.” In Elsa Kephart’s Slaxx, they are designer jeans set to be launched in an uber-trendy, Forever 21-style Toronto clothing store, whose staff are on all-night lockdown getting the ready for the big day. Unfortunately, these “SuperShapers” weren’t just created by overseas sweatshop labor, they bear the vengeful spirit of someone who died for First World materialism in the Indian cotton fields.
So, what we’ve got here is basically a slasher movie in which people are offed by animated pants. If that sounds absurd, well, it’s meant to be, as the shrill caricatures of shallowness in over-the-top performances underline. Yet obviously tongue-in-cheek as its overall intent is, the simultaneous mockery of “ethical” consumerist culture (every store section is called an “ecosystem,” for starters) and finally dead-serious amplification of its issues makes for a queasy mix. At barely past 75 minutes, however, you can’t say Slaxx overstays its welcome. It’s now on genre streaming platform Shudder.
A dirty deed done cheap, sans excess obfuscation or irony, is Jamison M. LoCascio’s Know Fear, now available on digital platforms from Terror Films. This pocket-sized Amityville Horror has a couple (David Alan Basche, Amy Carlson) moving into a new house with a dark history. There, the wife finds a creepy old Evil Dead-style occult book she foolishly bleeds onto, summoning a demon that their niece (Mallory Bechtel) then empowers further for the sake of her ghost-hunting podcast. Once another two prospective victims show up, the house traps them all on the premises for a lot of screaming, possession interludes and grievous bodily harm.
As basic as it gets in terms of plot originality (let alone complexity), with obviously limited production resources, Know Fever isn’t terribly scary. But it has energy, a certain blunt conviction, and the kind of enterprising feel that makes a micro-budget horror movie fun rather than just a waste of time. Horror non-fans can keep moving along, but genre aficionados will rate it a small guilty pleasure.
If you’re looking for a broader swath of new independent filmmaking to binge on, there’s the 2021 edition of the South Bay’s premiere annual film event Cinequest, Sat/20-Tues/30. Though mostly online this year, it remains a sprawling affair, with over 150 world and U.S. premieres in a program whose full details you can find at www.cinequest.org.
A smaller-scale cinematic smorgasbord is being offered this weekend only, Fri/19-Sun/21, with Coven Film Festival’s winter programming at Roxie Virtual Cinema. Their focus on work “by women and non-binary filmmakers from the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world” is embodied this time by Chithra Jeyaram’s documentary Foreign Puzzle: A Film About Love, Dance and Breast Cancer, plus a separate bill of eights shorts, including the world premiere of Khorshid Alami and Negar Najafzadeh’s Blackness. Details available here.