Review: On the Rocks (2017)

“He’s a blue chip prospect!”

Do you have it in you to watch a man’s life fall apart, bit by painful bit? Do you have it in you to laugh?

Most known to me for their incredible web-series Kill The Baby, Alex Kavutskiy & Ariel Gardner’s micro-budget feature debut On the Rocks is a bravura exercise in sustained discomfort, hilarious and tragic in equal measure.

Chase Fein plays Dallas – a hangdog palooka with a kind heart and a recently deceased father. We follow him as he attempts to find stability and peace following this confrontation with mortality. Unfortunately, his girlfriend Karen (Nichole Bagby) is an insecure wreck, her older sister (Kate Freund) is an angrily supportive echo chamber, and her younger sister needs a place to live. Plus, his boss is an asshole, his AA meetings have given him a lonely crush, he doesn’t have a bed, his car won’t start, and his new house smells like his dead dad.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Kavutskiy and Gardner’s film systematically breaks down Dallas, pushing him from the only sane one in a room of lunatics to a self-destructive alcoholic just as worthy of his friends and family as they are of him. Shot in escalating long takes to the tunes of chaotic jazz, the writers/directors take the overlapping cacophonies that defined Altman’s work and twists them to new, hilariously bitter heights. Fein is delightful in the lead, his broken-down charisma grounding the film around him, but its his co-stars that get most of the laughs. Freund, in particular, has a blast playing the step-sister from hell, and Bagby maintains a ridiculous petulance that eventually gives way to something powerfully sad. While this descent into hell is consistently mean-spirited (in the funniest way possible), it’s the poignancy around the edges that give On the Rocks its staying power. By the end, when Dallas has been definitively broken by an actively shitty world, the only thing he has left are the people around him. Now, those people may have burned him, destroyed him in some respects – but they also care for him, they always come back to him somehow. The people are what matters. Of course that’s simple, but that simplicity feels like a blessing compared to the swirling hell that surrounds the message. When life is so unbearably confusing, something cliche can take you a long way.

“I don’t know what to say. It’s tough. Good luck to both of you.”

Review: Casting JonBenet (2017)

Similar in structure and purpose to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet presents the audience a pile of speculation regarding a mystery (in this case the murder of the titular child-pageant queen) to explore the nature of curiosity and psychological projection. Ascher’s approach abstracted his participants into conceptual objects, making them somewhat beyond judgement. Green, on the other hand, chooses to show her interview subjects, often speaking directly to the camera, and that lack of distance makes the condescension inherent in both projects unfortunately visible. It’s tough to watch Casting JonBenet and not feel like Green is begging us to laugh at these actors and their wild theories regarding the murder. In the early going, she edits the film for maximum comic impact and irony, which gives the eery impression that Green is exploiting her well-intentioned participants, rather than the murder itself, for our entertainment.

Fortunately, Green’s film gradually finds empathy for these people, ditching the sense of mockery for one of community. As the theories and personal projections pile up, the emotion takes centre stage. Perhaps this is part of Green’s point; that the human need for understanding is greater than any one foolish attempt. The last 10 minutes almost make up for the missteps, a startlingly powerful culmination of the film’s process, heartbreaking and intellectually satisfying in equal measure. Nevertheless, it’s a bumpy road to get to that rather humanistic finale, and one I don’t feel entirely comfortable condoning.

Review: The Entity (1982)

Scorsese called this one of the scariest films ever made, which makes sense, because this is maybe the most Catholic horror film ever made. The sexually violent ghosts attacking Barbara Hershey (who really is amazing in this movie, absolutely stunning work) externalise classic notions of Catholic guilt into their most extreme form. While these scenes of sexual-assault are quite scary, The Entity finds the most power in its (sadly still relevant) depictions of systemic patriarchal abuse. Ron Silver’s dismissal of Hershey’s experiences as “hysteria” is more bone-chilling than any of the lightning fingers or green-glowing monsters.

Unfortunately, The Entity gradually seems to lose interest in the misogyny at the heart of its story and turns into a goofy ghost-hunting procedural, complete with para-psychology students and a lot of pseudo-scientific technobabble. There’s a braver, more uncomfortable movie here than what it turns into, and in brief moments – like when Hershey’s boyfriend calls her “tainted” by the rapes – it holds onto that potential, even as it morphs into nonsense, but it’s all too little too late.

Review: Vampir-Cuadecuc (1971)

Shot behind the scenes in high-contrast black and white film stock on the set of Jesus Franco’s Dracula film, Cuadecuc edits the filmmaking process – the funny faces, the tired Franco, the lights and the crew – into its own loose adaptation of the Stoker tale to haunting, provoking results. Director Pere Portabella mimics the look of a lost German silent film, making what could be an entirely humorous exercise – check out the crew spraying cobwebs onto Christopher Lee’s reclining body – into a disconcerting blurring of fiction and reality. Portabella reminds us of the power of storytelling by turning the process into the product, the performance into the truth.

When we are finally allowed sound for a brief moment at the end, it’s not someone calling “cut”, it’s Lee talking about what it means to become Dracula, his striking visage suddenly frightening in the low light – it’s almost as if he’s lying to us, a real vampire trying to convince us he’s an actor, not the other way around.

Review: The Iron Rose (19730

I think I just found my new favourite movie.

In The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin takes a Bunuelian story of psychological entrapment and applies the rawest, most personal form of his aesthetic to create a heartbreaking masterpiece of youth and mortality.

Two unnamed young lovers – a sensitive tough guy and a winsome naïf – have a date in a cemetery. After making love in a crypt, they find themselves unable to leave the graveyard, and spend the night gradually coming apart.

Watching The Iron Rose feels voyeuristic. Something about this – the sincerity and the pain and the strangeness – feels so personal to Rollin, like he’s just placing his withering heart on the table for all to see. There’s no vampires here, no zombies, nothing overtly supernatural. It’s just two young idealists struggling to understand their place in a universe that existed long before them and will exist long after.

As they grow more and more frightened, the lovers begin to transform into their true selves. He exhibits cowardice, insecurity, a fear of death that shows itself in a flippant destruction of his surrounds. She becomes weary, accepting and welcoming of entrapment and darkness, wiser and scarier than her years should allow; her disappointment in him drives her to the dead. Is this what Rollin thinks of humanity? Is this what he thinks of life – simply a spiteful response to the inevitability of mortality?

In Rollin’s world, everyone is simply circling the grave, every action inextricably tied to their future sleep. Early on, we are shown a clown in full makeup attending to a grave. Rollin intercuts between a scene of sex and this clown, gradually showing his whole process. Beyond the initial confusion of his presence, the clown is never treated as a joke. He’s simply another force of ostensible joy being affected by the grave. The lovers may fuck in the cemetery in direct opposition to what lays below them, but they’re simply staving off time – no matter what, it’s all coming down.

Rollin’s contemplative approach reaches its peak here. Even at his most macabre – such as a make-out session on top of a pile of bones – he finds only regret and melancholy. When the male paramour reaches his nadir, Rollin shoots his pathetic destruction from afar, any sense of dread eclipsed by a gentle acceptance.

And yet, despite this fatalism, The Iron Rose is not a film without joy. Rollin’s obsession with the female form comes to a head in a fantasy, as the female lover walks naked upon a rocky stretch of beach (a stretch that Rollin seems to use often). She smiles, she laughs, she finds happiness in her peace. At the graveyard, too, there are times of surrealist comedy. Save for one, every other inhabitant we see is some kind of cartoonish creature – the clown, a caped man, a medieval hunchback – and the inherent strangeness of the lovers’ venue choice is played for dark comedy early on.

Jean Rollin seems obsessed with death, or at the very least, the mystery that comes right after. But he doesn’t seem scared. He just seems … done.

“They say that stars are the Gods sending us signals.”

Review: The Grapes of Death (1978)

The set-up is simple. A young woman wanders into a fog-shrouded country village, searching for her lost fiancé. Instead, she finds the the townsfolk rotting (the makeup unconvincing but nonetheless effective), the few remaining with any conscious thought having turned into murderers.

The set up is simple, but Director Jean Rollin’s approach is not. Where my last encounter with Rollin (Fascination) left me feeling a bit cold, his Grapes of Death snapped his style into place. Jean Rollin is not a horror director. Even at his most grotesque, like in the sequence in which a blind woman is crucified before getting decapitated, he invests his works with a dreamlike melancholy. You get the sense that he’s searching for something with his work, something the audience can never quite ascertain. Every long take wide shots held in washed out castles and crumbling hills suggests a certain regret, a certain inability to find a secret hidden in the past. As such, every one of villains is a vampire, draining the heroes sense of purpose and hindering their movements. But every hero is a vampire, too, stealing their loved one’s lives away to find some semblance of hope in their own.

The story here is slight, almost irrelevant. Superficially, it explores notions of class and regionalism, but only in the vaguest terms. But all of that nothing fades away when Rollin holds on a barren room for just a second too long, the silence more terrifying than the shambling, simple zombies.

Review: The Love Butcher (1975)

“No one loves a cripple!”

Erik Stern holds this together in the dual role of Caleb and Lester, the split personalities of a creepy gardener; the former a relatively harmless simpleton with a hunchback, the latter a suave misogynistic killer with a sweet toupee. Stern makes both personalities completely distinct without losing the connection between the two, and he manages to make conversations with himself resolutely compelling. He’s relentlessly threatening, but also the major source of levity in this greasy bastard.

The film surrounding his bravura performance is a mess of police procedural and stomach churning misogynistic mayhem. Unlike Donald Jones later Murderlust, The Love Butcher is gory and over the top, the hateful actions and words presented much harder to swallow because they are presented with such glee. In the world of The Love Butcher, hate is the closest thing any of these men have to affection, and every single one of them justifies their actions by a past sin of a woman. It’s really upsetting stuff, but, for a while, it’s also a really fun slasher, full of maniacal speeches and piles of bodies. The tone gradually shifts from semi-comedic to maliciously disturbing, and that shift isn’t completely successful.

But when you’ve got such delectably insane monologuing like “Your feminine pulchritude is detestable, and you were trying to drain the energy from me!”, it’s hard not to have a little uncomfortable fun.