When Horror fails: Cadaver, Bliss (2019), and The Rental

I guess you can’t win all of the time. Sometimes you’ll buy a ticket to see a movie that comes with loads of recommendations from film festivals and cinephiles who can usually be counted on for providing fair and good reviews of films. Maybe it’s a matter of taste and the movie you saw — which came to you showered in praise — turned out to be a cold, sickening mess no one should ever have to endure. Or maybe it’s just me and I wasn’t in the best of moods, and even when the movie came, delivering, I just didn’t get it, and mentally struck it with a slew of rotten tomatoes.

Fresh out of the viewing oven is the Norwegian movie Cadaver, which made its bow on Netflix last October. I’m truly baffled with this one because usually, Norway sends some pretty good films our way. This one… I don’t know where to begin with this one. I’m going to say (in defense of ) director Jarand Herdal that he seems to have a sharp cinematic eye for storytelling, and his debut picture comes with some rather on-the-nose allegory on the evils of consumerism.

However, that is as far as I can go with his movie. Cadaver starts rather well, giving us the family at the center of its dark plot. Former actress Leonora (Gitte Witt), Jacob (Thomas Gullestad), and their little daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are trying to survive some global catastrophe that has essentially destroyed mankind (or mankind as we know it, the movie never delves deeper). They stumble onto an offer to stay at a hotel (conspicuously similar to the one in The Grand Budapest Hotel), in which its MC, Matthias (Thorbjøn Harr), reigns supreme and offers flights of theatrical fancy in exchange for a meal.

The problem starts rather immediately when we get a scenario not too far removed from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in which everyone must wear a gold mask, and we, under the eyes of Leonora, become privy to scenes varying from deSadean debauchery to domestic dramas of the Ingmar Bergman variety (performed by Judith Andersen doppelgänger Trine Wiggen). Soon enough, everyone starts to get spooked out by either a painting of a lamb (they are everywhere) that seems to be looking at someone or sudden disappearances that make no sense. It’s not long before it becomes rather clear that there is some fuckery afoot, and guess who may be the next to be a lamb to the slaughter. Geddit? Lamb> Yeah.

Sometimes new directors have to create tripe like this in order to show more style than substance to make their mark and this is the case to a T here. Herbal oversaturated his film with blinding crimson colors to achieve his idea of dread in a way that nods to Giallo. A few other shots seemed to come with a hint of artistic tones (such as ominous handkerchiefs ballooning gracefully to the lobby). Other than that the drama that he delivered is dead on arrival. We were given next to nothing to relate to his nuclear family and the people they encounter at this sinister hotel. After a while everything started to feel irritating and shrill and even at 86 minutes, Cadaver seemed to have been stretched out to fulfill a quota. I kept squirming in my seat watching actors play characters too stupid to live and barreling ahead as if they were forced to, or else. I heard an actress utter the line, “Never!” after being asked to “Join us,” which I haven’t heard since the Silent Era, and yeah, sorry for the slight spoiler. Even a weird coda attached to the end didn’t do much but make me wonder what on Earth was anyone thinking with this film.

I’m going to give Cadaver a D for dreadful.

Even as bad as Cadaver is, nothing can really place a candle next to The Rental. Yet another movie that came with mostly glowing reviews, I’m sitting here slightly fuming because of how terrible it is. There’s just no justifying this type of movie, which is derivative of others and offers nothing new nothing stylistic, not even a slight sense of ambiance.

Again, I’m all for new directors and new cinema, but sometimes, when actors who have barely made it in the acting department start almost immediately taking the plunge and sitting behind the director’s wheel I cringe a little. That is not to say actors with limited creds can’t make it as directors: Emerald Fennell, with barely 10 years in, has made quite an entrance for herself with Promising Young Woman. Greta Gerwig clearly has been studying camera work to add to her repertoire as a movie maker and it shows in both Ladybird and Little Women, movies she penned herself (she is quite the screenwriter).

Franco and I don’t mean to say this disparagingly, may need to focus on what kind of picture he wants to make. His brand of horror — especially one that comes mixed with mumblecore sensibilities courtesy from Joe Swanberg, who wrote the film — falls flat on its face and never recovers. Had The Rental depicted a foursome closer to the characters in Drinking Buddies or The Overnight I probably would have enjoyed it. I would have seen four people, each with their own agendas and secrets, and a crisis transpiring somewhere halfway which would make or break filial bonds.

Instead, I get a stilted drama that arises when Mina (Sheila Vand) confronts the caretaker of the Air BnB home that she, her boyfriend, his brother, and his wife are renting for the weekend. Accusations of racism come out of the blue and feel forced, but so does the menace of the said caretaker (played by Toby Huss).

Huss’ character, as a matter of fact, doesn’t just linger on with huge shades of threat but keeps getting mentioned over and over again and in circumstances where there would be no way he would factor so much in the shenanigans that begin to happen in this rental. It’s almost as though through cardboard expository dialogue, we’re supposed to focus a bit too much on this character, and that defused any tension that would have taken place had the writer and director trusted their story more.

Instead we get entitled young people panicking over ill-earned paranoia and then acting upon their fears in ways that seem to lack logic. This decision plunges the story and its characters into a third act so rushed and haphazard that it seemed to come out of a necessity to finish the movies and hope that it worked. I didn’t buy it, and felt cheated upon throwing my hands up and screaming at the TV, but by then, my patience had gone out the window, and that says all I have to say about this film.

The Rental also gets a D from me.

Lastly, there is the worst of the lot. Bliss, directed by Joe Begos, is an incomprehensible mess of a film that explores the downward spiral of one Dezzy (Dora Madison). She is labeled a “brilliant visual artist who finds herself experiencing a creative block.” That’s cute. We never get to see anything of her art, no mention of her in art galleries, no interviews, nothing that can sustain this type of description. [Which begs the petition: screenwriters and directors should probably stop using the word “brilliant” to describe their characters. It went out about 30 years ago and hasn’t returned since.]

But not to digress: Dezzy is in a rut and boy does everyone around her feel it. From the second she gets introduced we see a Tasmanian devil of an obnoxious, petty character, so self absorbed in her own world she makes self-absorbed Angelenos seem positively delightful to be around in. She storms around the entire frame of the movie screaming insults at anyone and everyone she can, but that’s not the worst of it. When she gets her hand on some truly weird drug, boy do the sparks fly and not in a good way.

Bliss is a vanity project, plain and simple. “Look at me — I can direct a movie!” Fine with me, just make it interesting. Eighty minutes can’t happen like that, with so much nonsensical talking, screaming, swearing, and Madison in the middle, acting as if though this will enable her up the ladder into better performances. Sometimes I wonder if the Tribeca Film Festival even cares. Their Midnight section, where this played, has been littered with movies that don’t belong anywhere but in the trash. And that is what this movie is to me.

It’s safe to say I’m giving this one an F.

Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover

If there is a director whose work can’t be called repetitive, that would be Olivier Assayas. He’s been making movies since the mid-Eighties, but only become a cinematic force since the 2000s (purists will also include Irma Vep from 1996, but I haven’t yet seen it, and can’t opine). All of his more well-known films tend to dance a fine line between pop and art, intellect and trash, technology and the bucolic. Dropped in the midst of these narratives (well, many of them) are slices of East Asian glamor which can render an already murky plot even murkier or simply exist for auteur purposes.

Demonlover is, to date, Assayas’ only incursion into New French Intensity and it is a shame because his cinema, always a contrast between the cold and the warm, would be perfectly suited for the genre. You can see it splashed all over the 2002 film, restored to its former glamor and pristine, menacing visuals. He tells a rather Darwinian story of power-hungry execs with no moral compass and a taste for sadism with a coolness bordering on Cronenberg terrain that is fascinating as it is frustrating. There are moments when I knew (or thought I knew) where the plot of Demonlover was headed, and others where I just threw my hands in the air and went “Welp–here goes another one. Just watch the images, dude. Don’t start overthinking.”

So, let’s see. We have an opening sequence of Diana de Monx (frosty Danish actress Connie Nielsen, perfect for her part) coolly performing a company takeover right from under her own boss’ nose in a sequence of legerdemain that has to be seen to be believed. Soon after, once the lady-boss is dispatched and no longer a threat, Diana takes control of her software company, and soon is overseas in the Far East in a bidding war over a 3-D hentai company with another company run by Elaine Si Gibril (Gina Gershon). Floating in the middle is an internal power struggle between a male colleague (Charles Herling) and an assistant (Chloe Sevigny), both of who are not who they seem to be.

Midway through the movie, we realize that it is changing into something else entirely, and this is where Demonlover progresses from a thriller involving cyber-espionage into something even more perverse in which allegiances change at the drop of a hat, or let’s say convenience. Some of it is deserved — we get it — but others are perplexing. However, to disclose what it becomes would be a crime to a movie that is transgressive as it is bold and even repellent at times (and I can’t say that any other Assayas film has affected me this way). Suffice it be to say that power dynamics flip on a switch, and the movie that we were watching is no longer there. A neat hat trick is borne, performed partly to shock, and also to simply fuck up the viewer’s own mind as the viewer looks into an abyss of perversity.

Demonlover is still playing on virtual platforms. If you can, give it a look. Just be warned — the story is murky but ultra-sleek, and completely amoral.

Grade: B+

On Netflix: Pieces of a Woman

I’m sitting here, having finished viewing Kornél Mundruzcó’s ensemble movie Pieces of a Woman, numb as though I’d been splattered with ice-cold water and left outside to marinate in the unforgiving winter temperatures. That was my reaction to having viewed this movie, a picture that I kept putting off precisely because of the topic of a marriage imploding under the black light of a horrific tragedy and no one around to truly save them.

Nothing can prepare an expecting woman and her husband for the loss of a child. There may be therapists at the ready, and well-meaning people, but it’s simply too much pain to process correctly. And is there a “correct” way to even go by this? Vanessa Kirby’s Martha doesn’t know and doesn’t want anyone’s pity. After giving birth to a baby girl who dies soon after going into cardiac arrest, she moves from being what at first seemed to be a rather “in the moment” person to a hard, cold individual who lashes out and never bothers to care where the whip lands.

However, Martha’s family is all around, tip-toeing around her, trying to “be there” for her. Most insidious, for lack of a better world, is Elizabeth (a commanding, imperial Ellen Burstyn) who is aggressively pushing for a lawsuit against the midwife. You see, Martha and her husband Sean (Shia LeBeouf, for once acting and not posturing) were going for home-induced labor. They had their midwife at the ready. When the midwife called out, she sent her replacement Eva (Molly Parker), who arrived with all the bells and whistles of someone who knows her trade. Complications arose during the delivery, and it was never clear if Eva was to blame. Either/or, the result is a dead infant, and a marriage reeling in unimaginable pain.

Mundruzcó’s movie barrels ahead, giving us chapters in which we get to see a couple coming apart at the seams because they can’t move forward (though they do make an attempt of sorts). Every time Sean reaches out, Martha remains aloof and cold. It’s not a shock to see where the movie will go with this divide between husband and wife, but what is a revelation is Kirby’s performance. A walking wound, open and bleeding, she moves about, sometimes cagey, sometimes afraid of her own self, and increasingly angry at the way the cards were delivered to her. Sean has moments of anguish, but instead of letting the camera capture them he prefers to hide them. This may not be the actor’s fault, however. In not letting us completely into his own emotional state and then letting him behave in a less than loyal manner to Martha, we understand that perhaps this is too much for him to handle and whatever he may have had with Martha is over.

Pieces of a Woman is a very theatrical film that mostly takes place indoors, be it at Martha’s and Sean’s house or Elizabeth’s own residence. While family gatherings should be warm, here they get portrayed as battlegrounds for characters to continue to hurt one another. On one end there is Burstyn, who asserts her own self in a smothering manner as the movie progresses. On the other, and at the center, is Kirby, her hair never truly combed, obsessively grabbing apples and keeping the seeds, staring daggers, her at times growling voice choking on the rage she must feel. It is quite the performance that grounds a movie that is devastating to watch from the moment the title card appears until its final resolution.

Grade: A–

Netflix Discoveries: Saturday Church

Here we have a classic example of a movie made on a shoestring budget and featuring (then) mostly unknown players, a movie that made its debut at both the Tribeca and Montclair Film Festival. While I don’t doubt Saturday Church was well-received, movies like these tend to make next to no noise when officially premiering in an extremely tight, limited release, which if I am correct, was at the IFC Center sometime in 2018.

Damon Cardasis and producer Rebecca Miller have created a profound (albeit too brief) movie about a 14-year-old boy named Ulysses (Luka Kain) who is questioning his identity. When we meet him, it is through the death of his father. Luka’s father was considered to be a man of greatness, and his absence now lands Luka in the unwanted position of the man of the house.

His mother (Margot Bingham) works long hours and can’t manage the house, so she brings in Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor), an ultra-conservative woman who already seems to know Luka’s secret. She immediately begins to impose her rules in the house, rules that don’t sit well with Luka, who is merely trying to figure himself out as he transitions from boy to young adult.

Increased pressure at home finds Luka at Christopher Street through the subway, and it’s there that he (accidentally, while on the Piers) comes upon Saturday Church. Saturday Church is a non-profit outreach program for marginalized LHGBTQ+ children and young adults, run by Joan (trans activist Kate Bornstein). Ulysses meets a small group of trans-women and a young gay man (Marquis Rodriguez) who take him in openly as a new family member. Needless to say, Ulysses, who now knows there are more people like him, still can’t, for obvious reasons (Aunt Rose) express it at home.

Cardasis has constructed his movie like a musical, with snippets of what seem to be longer tunes taking center stage when characters begin to express thoughts and emotions that perhaps words just can’t. It might look a little jarring — and some numbers land gracefully, while others don’t — but they serve a purpose, which is to illustrate these people’s inner world, their loves, their losses, their pain, and their hopes for something better.

On the plus side, the casting of trans-women in trans parts is a major asset to Saturday Church. Far too often cis-women have been cast in these parts, so to use women like MJ Rodriguez, Alexia Garcia, Indya Moore, and Bornstein is a massive score for true diversity as opposed to diversity in intention, but not in execution.

Cardasis also navigates some rather queasy waters late in the movie when Ulysses finds himself at the mercy of a sexual predator. It is an uncomfortable scene to watch, but it is a sad reality that still exists for the homeless who need a meal and maybe some quick change to live. I almost didn’t want to see it but realized later, it had to be shown if at all partially and with enormous taste, to show the ugly reality trans-youth face.

Saturday Church is on Netflix and IMDB.tv for free. It is a must-watch.

Grade: B+

Rendezvous with French cinema: My Donkey, My Lover, and I

I’m not really sure why I chose to watch Caroline Vignal’s Anne dans les Cévennes, which received the pretty atrocious title of My Donkey, My Lover, and I for English-speaking audiences. As I mentioned in my writing about Little Girl, Unifrance and FSLC have been delivering some of the most unremarkable French movies I’ve seen in a while. It is truly rare when one of them sticks after making its debut in RWFC. Can anyone remember any movie that really stuck with them after the film festival? I’ve been going for almost 10 years and I can barely count to five without stretching it. François Ozon’s In the House comes to mind. While it delves into the many trappings of French cinema — a casual attitude towards sex and seduction comes to mind — this was a truly spellbinding mystery. Of course, when you see who penned it, you find that it was Juan Mayorga, and Spain is well-known for its twisty tales.

But I digress and realize I have to go back to the movie in question. Anne and les Cevennes is, no shock here, a very French sex comedy. It centers on Antoinette (Laure Calamy, seen earlier this year in the movie Sibyl), a teacher carrying on with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe). Vladimir is married, and she’s okay with it. Once she finds out that he’s not going to spend the weekend with her but with his wife and family at the Cevennes National Park, she impulsively decides that she’s going to be a part of it, too. Does she think this through? Of course not, or this wouldn’t be a comedy, would it?

She takes off after Vladimir, caution to the wind, and winds up shacking in a bed and breakfast and having to drag a donkey through the park. It is to note that she doesn’t get just a donkey but one that is described as a bitch to handle. Undeterred, she soldiers forward, hoping to catch a glimpse and perhaps steal a kiss from Vladimir. Easier said than done. Vignal uses Calamy’s comic talents to great advantage as she tries to keep up with her tour group (and Vladimir, who is still nowhere to be seen). From here on, Calamy’s Antoinette becomes more and more sympathetic if and only because we realize before she does the futility of what she’s getting into because she’s simply too clueless to realize it. It will take finally confronting not only Vladimir but the entire family for her to realize perhaps this isn’t what she wanted.

I’m actually going to say that while Antoinette has a few moments when she could find love, her sole companion, the mute donkey in question, slowly becomes her main focus. It’s quite funny, and charming, to see her slowly warming up to the animal who also seems to have a mind of its own. Her relationship, dysfunctional as it is, manages to slap Anne awake into finding a new reality for herself rather than pining away for an unattainable man. It’s quite a surprise, to see that all the time I was looking for one aspect in this unassuming sleeper comedy and found another, stronger aspect.

And with that, I have to say, this is a refreshing little comedy with some rather weird undertones — technically, Antoinette is stalking a family, which is bizarre, to say the least. Even so, the movie is screwball in tone and always keeps the viewer engaged in Antoinette’s mindset and emotions without delving too much into the dark. I don’t think there will be an audience for My Donkey, My Lover, and I, but there is always the chance it will get screened on virtual platforms sometime later this year or in early 2022.

Grade: B

Rendezvous with French Cinema 2021: Little Girl (Petite Fille)

The Lincoln Center returns with a virtual-only version of its Rendezvous with French Cinema film festival. Now in its 26th year, the film festival shows no sign of slowing down and manages to continually reinvent itself rather than present the same tired Catherine Deneuve/Isabelle Huppert movies that frankly, are just fillers and manage to say nothing new about the language of film. I’ve nothing against either one — I have always admired Huppert and know her to be the better actress — but Deneuve has mostly coasted off of her golden locks and vacuous stares that were the rage in the 60s at the height of her fame. Now she’s been whittled down to spewing out at least a film or three out for the sake of repetitive acting working. Sometimes they stick. Sometimes, it’s like chomping down on some fluff — it’s super-sugary but has no substance. The closest thing she has come to actually deliver a true performance was in last year’s The Truth, which was the film to open the 25th edition of RWFC, and which received a belated release thanks to the pandemic.

This year, if there is a movie to watch it is Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl (Petite Fille). If I’m not wrong, this is the first documentary to open at the French film festival. Lifshitz’s movie focuses on a special character. His subject, the mononymous Sasha, is seven years old, and while she may have been born a boy, she clearly — and openly — affirms herself as a girl. Scratch that — she is a girl, plain and simple. Her mother Karine, while in therapy early on, expresses support that is so open-hearted, so emotional and complete, that it threatens to overshadow Sasha’s own story. Karine partly blames herself for Sasha, a situation that any parent of a gay or transgender child might experience. Wanting a girl so badly, she wonders if perhaps her own intensity of desire may have caused Sasha to come into the world announcing her femininity to French society, which plays a large part of the doc, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Little Girl establishes that Sasha has nothing to fear at home. She is unequivocally supported by her father and two older siblings who practically stand up for her at any chance. [She has a younger brother but he is too young to truly understand the drama unfolding before his eyes and mostly gets relegated to being a toddler.]

The conflict of the documentary arises — or has been brewing, even before the tape has begun to roll — in the outside world. Karine has had to contend with a school system that is shockingly intolerant towards trans rights and who will not accept her as a girl. Yet, this is all Sasha wants, and her tiny face contorts into a frown that suddenly explodes with tears at a therapy session with renowned child psychologist Anne Bargiacchi. It is all that one needs to see to realize the conflicts that Sasha has been put through just because her identity doesn’t line up with her physical genitalia. Place that side-by-side to an earlier scene when Karine informs her therapist that the sheer happiness Sasha displayed when wearing her first dress was incomparable. As a viewer, as someone who is extremely sensitive to the delicate psyche of a child, I couldn’t but be furious with a system based on archaic beliefs. It seems to almost parallel the ones transgender people face here in the US — particularly in more conservative parts of the country.

Karine eventually starts to win her battle against the school, but scars and wounds remain. Sasha’s dance teacher forbids her to wear girl’s clothes simply because “in her country such a thing is illegal.” Karine fears, and is justified in feeling so, that Sasha will encounter hatred in this world and worries she may not be around to protect her when that time comes. In the middle of it, we get the more silent shots which are worth every second of their presence in the film. Sasha, simply existing, dancing to her own rhythm, running on the beach in a peach bathing suit, combing her hair which gets longer during the movie — the only indication of the passing of time. These are the snippets that matter, because they present a little girl completely at bliss in her own body and self. Little Girl, without a doubt, is one of the most delicate, sensitive documentaries to emerge in a long time and I hope that it gets the exposure it should here in the US once it hits theaters (and virtual platforms). We could all learn from Karine, but especially, from Sasha.

Little Girl will have its premiere as one of the seven movies included in the Seattle International Film Festival, Main Selection, on April 8. It will arrive later at theaters and virtual cinema. Date of release TBA.

Grade: A

Herself, a mostyindies review

The topic of abused women has lined the narratives of many films. Lifetime has built an entire empire around women in danger, either from a violent man or a predatory female. Very few, however, tackle the issue from a less sordid perspective such as Herself. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!) and written by Claire Dunne, who also stars, Herself is not just a harrowing tale of domestic abuse, but also the quiet, compassionate account of how a battered woman with next to nothing manages to stand on her own two feet rather than be just another number waiting for government assistance.

The concept of a house as a symbol of safety gets a double significance when, on the day of Sandra’s worst fight with her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Richardson, supremely repulsive and mercilessly violent), she has her daughter deliver a message hidden inside a doll house to a stranger. That message, to call the cops, saves Sandra from a violent fate, but rather than placing her in a safe environment, it also leaves her fairly destitute and humiliated. Finding a decent place becomes a nightmare in the one scene where she enters what is frankly, a shit-hole apartment. She then seeks government assistance to find public housing, which also lands in a thud when she gets reduced to a number and an indeterminate future which Sandra simply can’t hold on to.

Help does arrive from unexpected sources, and then the movie shifts from largely abandoning the terrible shadow of Gary and immersing Sandra in the comfort of good people. For Sandra, it’s a stroke of luck that may sound a bit too pat to believe, but this isn’t a movie about what can believably happen (although I have seen many a story in which people come together from all walks of life to help a person in need). Herself is a movie about a woman refusing to be a battered wife, an unfit mother, and the ultimate victim of a society that already treats women like her as undesirables. Sandra, as low as she has fallen, isn’t about to wait for anyone to resume her life. Thanks to the internet, she finds a tutorial on how to build her own home — her little piece of heaven — and goes after it with a vengeance,

In her first movie in almost ten years since [the aforementioned] The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd veers off into Ken Loach territory to tell a story about the forgotten tinted in hope. She’s not idealistic — images of Gary and a severely battered Sandra peek in through the narrative as a reminder of what the fallback could be, should she return to her past. Also, having Sandra dance a delicate line of diplomacy between the forces would tear her apart from her daughters and the man just waiting, off-screen, creates a sense of constant tension even in the movie’s sunniest sections.

A lesser movie would have gone for a more black and white confrontation between Sandra and Gary. The criminally under-viewed French movie Custody, available on Prime, also focused on an abused woman in a particularly brutal manner, and like that one, Herself deftly keeps the climactic scene off-screen in a way that reminded me a bit of Rebecca (1940). While frustrating, it is a dark turn that the movie must take in order to secure Sandra’s own freedom. In doing so, we don’t get overwhelmed by whatever violence would have taken place, but are horrified at what could have been, the rage that instigated it.

Herself is not a movie I can say I enjoyed — as I said, the off-screen menace remains for most of the movie, and we are privy to see Sandra suffering bouts of panic attacks — but as for a look into the life of an abused woman and how she fights back, it is a must-see.

Grade: B+

The Cinema of Nicholas Pesce: Piercing and the Eyes of my Mother

Almost 20 years ago, multiplex horror was declared unequivocally, irresolutely dead by many a moviegoer who, tired of seeing travesties coming in the form of packages stacked with a jump scare every approximate 10 minutes and denouement that made no sense simply stopped going to such movies and searched other means to get their horror on. J-horror (and its clones) were dead on arrival. How was a lover of all things dark to get one’s dread on?

The decade that just ended brought quite the relief, but I won’t get into a convoluted essay detailing the arrival of critically-acclaimed, artsy horror courtesy of indie cinema. Indie horror has been delivering since Night of the Living Dead, if not earlier — can we lump the producer Val Lewton in this group? — so before I get ripped to smithereens by what I said, I am referring to popcorn horror made to make a killing in the box office during its release week and then run.

Nicholas Pesce made quite a debut in late 2016 with a brief little black and white horror movie called The Eyes of my Mother. That movie told, with minimal special effects and a wall of atmospheric dread, the rather disturbing story of a young girl living in the country who sees a strange man do something unspeakable to her family. What happens after that is just as atrocious, in that it perpetuates the same act that brought down her family, and seeks, through repetition, permutate itself into the future, with horrific consequences.

Pesce’s follow-up, Piercing, veers closer to J-Horror in that it was written by the man who brought you 1999’s Audition so if you saw Audition you know what to expect with Piercing. Pesce’s sophomore movie tells the story of a businessman (Christopher Abbott) who has a penchant for murder. It’s safe to say that he keeps it well-hidden from his unsuspecting wife (Laia Costa) for obvious reasons (who would want to bring a wife into this situation? said no one ever). When he meets the woman he’s decided to perform some unspeakable stuff on, he’s in for quite a treat. Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) as she is called comes with some rather disturbing baggage herself, wrapped in a cocoon made of fur.

It is safe to say that from here on nothing goes as planned in Pesce’s movie, and thank God. It would have been an exercise in misogynistic porn to see Abbott stalking and tormenting Wasikowska’s damaged character for a prolonged sequence of time. That, in fact, is the least of what happens here, as both actors switch on the power button at ease and we, the viewer, just sit back and see the madness unfold.

I wish that Pesce had not caved in to pressure to make a studio film when he came out early in 2020 with his re-imagination of The Grudge. Pesce has a sharp, dense style of telling stories. His characters navigate dark, murky waters and ask for help while lashing out at the rescuer. We really don’t know how deep we will go with his leads, and I love that because it means that anything might happen at any specific moment in his films. Piercing is truly grotesque in ways that made me recall David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike without flat-out imitating them. No, Pesce has his own style, streamlined and defined, and while in The Eyes of My Mother he went for a Val Lewton look, here he goes for a more late 70s period, somewhere deep in Argento but also Fulci or Bava without the excess.

Abbott continues on a streak of unusual roles, following an exercise in Cronenberg horror via Possessor. He’s very good in his part here, showing next to no emotion where it matters the most and an almost unsettling amount of dread at what he may be capable of. Wasikowska, on the other hand, completely deceives as a woman who may be in for more than she bargained for. It’s safe to say that I think these two are a match made in heaven and should make another movie, albeit with a lot less gore, and see what comes out of it,

Grade B+