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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The scream queen has evolved—and she's got...

Screen Grabs: The scream queen has evolved—and she’s got real problems

A Tunisian cop gets burned, a relationship spirals catastrophically, and 'The Shining' but lesbian. New movies!

You don’t hear the term “scream queen”—i.e. actresses perpetually imperiled in horror movies, a term that evolved somewhere around Jamie Lee Curtis’ early career—much anymore, save in reference to past-tense movies and performers. That is largely because genre films have evolved, and while there’s an occasional flaming example of old-school misogyny, more often now care is taken to level the playing field a bit. Or a lot, as in the increasing number of thrillers made by women, and/or with lead female roles that are not your traditional damsels in distress, forever requiring rescue or unwisely taking showers amidst serial killer sprees.

At least at film festivals these days, the “midnight”-type programming that the blanket term “feminist” can be applied to has grown more plentiful than the stuff that can’t. And that shift has encroached on the commercial mainstream as well, from wide releases to B-movies that go direct to streaming. Three quite different new features show that trend in action, in disparate ways.

The most outwardly conventional of them is Stewart Thorndike’s Bad Things, now streaming on Shudder and AMC+. Her second feature somewhat follows the imprint of the first—if 2014’s Lyle was a sort of lesbian Rosemary’s Baby, this one is a kind of lesbian The Shining. Only the shuttered off-season resort hotel in this case is not some splendid quasi-castle in a spectacular setting, but a chain-style block of interchangeable mid-level accommodations, like a Ramada Inn. Decked out in the vaguely queasy but “tasteful” pastels of a hospital or a dentist’s office, this generic joint is located in what looks like the drabbest suburban outskirt, with industrial parks and parking lots as neighbors.

It seems a strange destination for a getaway weekend. But Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) has inherited the property from her late grandmother, and while she is inclined to sell, her girlfriend Cal (Hari Nef) thinks it might cement their relationship to run the business together. Ergo they’ve invited friends to lounge around the place for a few days. It was maybe not a good idea to choose Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) and Maddie (Rad Pereira) as those guests, however, given that the latter seems hellbent on seducing Ruthie—whose unfaithfulness is already a problem—while the latter is Cal’s ex, and vehemently wants her back.

Needless to say, all this emotional baggage soon has them at each other’s throats. Then there’s the matter of the hotel’s sinister history, which involves past violence, suicides, and disappearances. Fran is the first to catch glimpses of people who… aren’t really there. But is whatever’s going on here supernatural, or just a manifestation of mental instability amongst this admittedly pretty high-strung group of friends and lovers?

If you’re waiting for the script to clarify, don’t: Ultimately seeming less ingeniously tricky than just kinda random, it chooses not to pick any particular explanation, instead offering a shrug towards “all or none of the above.” Lyle, too, was a somewhat unsatisfying narrative. But Thorndike’s indecisive writing is at least partly redeemed by her intriguing direction, which keeps coming up with interestingly skewed tonal and performance moments, even if they never quite unite into a cogent whole.

One appreciates her casting for character rather than genre cannon fodder—there’s nary a stereotypical babe-victim here, despite some slasher-style content. The heterosexuality flag is entertainingly flown by Jared Abrahamson as a pesky hotel employee, and Molly Ringwald as a spokesperson (mostly glimpsed on instructional videos) who may or may not be Ruthie’s mother.

While the same-sex relationships in Bad Things are nothing if not dysfunctional, one wonders if the day will arrive (at least in Florida) when such movies are selectively banned for not promoting “traditional marriage.” Also falling down on that particular score is writer-director Dane Elcar’s Brightwood, whose only characters are a man and a woman duly bound by holy (or at least City Hall) matrimony. But hoo man, they are not exactly an advertisement for that institution.

Jen (Dana Berger) and Dan (Max Woertendyke) are introduced going for a morning run in their suburban-looking neighborhood, though he’s not quite up for the exercise and she wishes he hadn’t come. Indeed, she is fuming: It seems the night before they hosted a shindig to celebrate Jen’s work promotion, only Dan drank a bit much (as usual) and according to her was “trying to fuck every woman” in attendance. Now he is sheepish, and she is furious—a dynamic one suspects has become a permanent state between them. They are edging ever so close to splitting up, with Dan weakly arguing against it. But is there much left worth saving? Anyone would want to flee a room in which they were acting like thirtysomething versions of “The Lockhorns.”

As if their argumentative astringency has torn something in the time/space continuum, however, the duo gradually become aware that the park they’ve been running through has become a limbo—not unlike the one in Sartre’s No Exit, only with sun-dappled trees and a lake. They cannot escape, let alone get back home, instead lapping the same landmarks over and over. Worse, figures they come across eventually turn out to be themselves, albeit at different junctures in an apparent time loop. These encounters are not friendly ones, and the going gets gory after a while.

One twistedly elaborate metaphor for the self-consuming stasis of a failed relationship neither party is strong enough to leave, Elcar’s debut feature doesn’t seem at first like it will be able to sustain feature length. Then it gets a lot more interesting, even if it’s still arguably a tad overextended. Jen is acutely Alpha, Dan a manboy wuss; the longer we’re with them, the surer we are that maybe they aren’t made for each other. Yet this imaginative concept has other ideas. Well-crafted and acted, Brightwood might prove a very handy movie if you’re ever jonesing to auto-suggest a relationship should end: It makes coupledom seem like Hell. It arrives on VOD platforms and DVD Tues/22 from Cinephobia Releasing.

If Jen is the alpha in that dysfunctional domestic duo, the heroine in Youssef Chebbi’s Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation struggles to likewise assert herself in an institution and societal setting where her status as a female professional seems inherently second-class. Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) is a police detective partnered with Batal (Mohamed Grayaa) when an old bachelor watchman is found burnt to death on an unfinished building site—part of a large Tunis housing development abandoned mid-construction during the country’s revolution in 2010. Then a young housemaid is found in similar condition nearby.

Fatma obsessively pursues the mystery, albeit to no one’s praise. She pokes holes in the attempted cover-ups and framings of hapless vagrants by superiors who seem to loathe her, while Batal tries to mediate. But as the bodies keep piling up, the doubts only grow more confounding. Is what’s being covered up here not official corruption or conventional murder, but something fantastical?

The references to religious fanaticism (self-immolation is a thing), widespread corruption, brutal “interrogations,” and the spark of the country’s recent revolutionary movement itself do not surface in any way catering to foreign viewers—for all I know, Ashkal is a fairly obvious sociopolitical metaphor if seen with Tunisian eyes. To anyone else, however, it’s likely to play as pure enigma, a “supernatural noir” (as it’s billed) whose aesthetics are as exacting as the narrative is cryptic.

The opaque narrative and somber, desolated mood make it all feel like “slow cinema,” even though it actually moves at a fair clip. Cinematographer Hazem Berrabah’s cold, precise compositions and Thomas Kuratli’s dissonant avant-garde score are key elements in this procedural abstraction’s arresting impact. It’s another film that may frustrate in its refusal to provide answers, but the murky depths it suggests do cast a spell. Yellow Veil Pictures is releasing it to US. On Demand platforms Tues/22.

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