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THE TRANSFIGURATION

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THE TRANSFIGURATION
USA
Director: Michael O’Shea
Runtime: 97 minutes
Language: English

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

The Transfiguration is an unusual horror movie in that it uses elements of the supernatural — the vampire genre — to transpose it to an urban setting in which a young motherless boy just starting, it seems, to go through puberty, experiences an intense attraction to blood and vampire lore and gives into his dark desires. This is a pretty clever approach to the whole vampire context because not only does it hark to the cases of Caius Vomitus Deivois and Roderick Ferrell, two men convicted of committing truly heinous acts of violence against innocent people for the sake of awakening dark forces and becoming all-powerful, it also could very well be a coming of age of a boy adrift in a society that has forgotten and failed him, with disastrous results.

There is a striking similarity in the actor who plays Milo (Eric Ruffin) to the one in Moonlight (Alex R Hibbert). Both are wide-eyed and extremely taciturn to the point of being mute, both are teased and seen as freaks, and both live in a fragmented home where no parent currently gives guidance. The crucial difference between Chiron from Moonlight and Milo from The Transfiguration is that at least Chiron, for all of his pent-up stoicism, does find substitute parents who take him into their home and give him a place to belong, to be himself. Milo has none of that; a home in complete disarray, a brother suffering from shell-shock after serving the war who sits zombie-like in front of the TV watching time go by, and the ghost of a dead mother.

Hope, or something close, comes in the form of his neighbor Sophie (Chloe Levine) with whom he strike a tentative yet growing friendship. She has issues all her own and the movie never delves into her private life except for a quick glance at a bloody arm in one scene which indicates she’s a cutter as a defense mechanism for coping with family abuse. While bonding, Milo brings up the topic of vampires. When Sophie raves about the Twilight series, Milo, just like the aforementioned Deivois, expresses that his favorites are Let the Right One In and NosferatuTwilight doesn’t seem realistic enough (and once he does see the video later on he confirms it to Sophie). Milo seems to want to share more of his secret attraction to blood but is equally tentative as he doesn’t want to chase her away.

In the interim, Milo begins to give in to his needs, and here is where the movie takes a dark, dark turn, showcasing scenes that are better left to the viewer to see than for me to describe them. However, discovery of his secret is imminent, and Milo, unable to control his desires any longer, has to face the fact that while he may not be a vampire per se, he is actually just an evil person who has lost all control of his impulses. Director Michael O’Shea leaves it unresolved if Milo actively orchestrates the events that transpire after he commits an act of almost unspeakable horror or is probably wanting to be caught — and stopped — but The Transfiguration is a quiet little urban horror movie that will creep you out with how mundane it looks, and how deadly precocious evil just may be.

THE NEON DEMON

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon, out now. Image from the Youtube UK teaser trailer.

And now, a movie that earned loud boos at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and has since divided audiences like separating tectonic plates. You can loudly blame director Nicholas Winding Refn for this, since his art cinema is so out on its own limb that it seems to exist if at all to shock for the heck of it. If you saw his earlier outing, Only God Forgives, you’ll know what I mean: the violence was almost unbearable. I was literally squirming in my seat and had to at one point somewhat disconnect to enjoy the story so I wouldn’t run for the exit. Most people hated that one; I didn’t, because so much of it is choreographed that you couldn’t but realize that this was just a exercise in plasticity, dressed in garish, Giallo colors, and not the stuff of reality. [If anything, 12 Years a Slave, which arrived in the fall of 2013, truly was unbearable, and that was based on actual events, However, leave it to the audience to jump out of their chairs, praise Steve McQueen’s movie, and grant it the Oscar for Best Picture. Strange world.]

The Neon Demon isn’t as violent as Only God Forgives. What it is, however, is a brightly colored nightmare fairy-tale closer to the sensibilities of Snow White. Much of the violence that transpires is off-stage in the shadows, filling the picture with an overpowering sense of portent as our heroine, which also could be our prime villainess, makes her first appearance and attempts a career out of modeling.

Image from Comingsoon.net.

Much will be made out of Refn’s choice of topic — already there are speculations that this is a criticism of the world of modeling, where young women not out of their teens are subject to ferocious levels of scrutiny in order to fit a package. The more they fit into a ‘look’, the less human they are, and by the time they reach 21, they’re spat out onto the street, deemed ‘retired’ and ‘too old’ and are thrown into the gutter where they face a life of slow aging. I’ll state that this is the tip of the iceberg. It’s telegraphed much too loudly to be the true reason the story exists; if it were only that (and it’s been done before in TV movies, serials, and films about the brevity of youth in performing, the best being 1950’s All About Eve), this would be a  much more basic, cut and dry tale.

Jesse (Elle Fanning, restrained, somewhat a deer in the headlights, but radiant) has arrived to LA’s plastic modeling scene with big dreams. Already a natural beauty, she’s perked up the eyes of Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who warms up to her and Dean (Karl Glusman), a young photographer whose ‘amateurish’ shoots have landed jesse at the offices of Roberta (Christina Hendricks). Roberta would normally send someone like Jesse home without as much as batting an eye . . . but Jesse’s pictures are different. In fact, Jesse herself is different. Only 16, she instructs Jesse to state she’s 19 as 18 is a little too close to barely legal, and before you know it, she’s modeling for professionals like Jack (Desmond Harrington) who in one scene paints her body in gold and does so in a way that suggests she’s merely a dead calf about to be prepped for the slaughter.

ellefanning

And in many ways, it does seem that Jesse, a pure innocent girl if there ever was one, is surrounded by danger. Early in the movie Jesse, who lives in a seedy motel run by a truly creepy guy (Keanu Reeves, who oozes sleaze here), sees her room invaded by a cougar. Scenes of predatory females grouped around her in the guise of two rival models, Sarah (Abbey Lee, previously in Mad Max: Fury Road) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Jane in Pride and Prejudices and Zombies) casually scrutinizing her natural looks while envying them, are presented with a sense of impending dread. Neither really care for Jesse — and why would they? She’s competition, although Gigi believes she’s a passing fancy and won’t cut it). However, a scene where Sarah and Jesse are competing for a show, where Sarah gets the boot (after displaying her rail thin body to an unnamed fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) turns vicious in a way no one could see coming. And just as Jesse herself begins to assert her own, she comes face to face with the titular demon itself . . . who looks identical to her.

It’s safe to say that in many ways this could be an allegory of what happens when someone who has a magnetic presence that demands acknowledgment. Sarah compares her to the Sun shining in the middle of a cold winter. Ruby is clearly besotted with her. Sarah continues to diss her until she lands an important job. Even Keanu Reeves’ hotel manager has a scene with Jesse involving a knife that is probably one that is most disturbing because of the bloodless assault on a young woman, and that his character goes next door to commit an act of rape and possibly murder against another unseen woman indicates the twisted desires that Jesse herself inspires upon herself.

jena-malone-and-elle-fanning-in-the-neon-demon-(2016)-large-picture

Nothing however, can prepare the viewer for Jesse’s own sudden turn of character, where she seems to embrace the darker form of love — narcissism. Even when she had said, earlier, “I’m not as helpless as people think I am,” one couldn’t but look at her and think, “Aww. Sure you are.” Her rejection of Dean comes as a surprise, but more so when she accepts Ruby’s help at the moment the hotel manager goes batshit off-screen. Ruby, who placed against the three blond girls comes off rather masculine — a younger version of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall — takes advantage of Jesse’s helplessness to fulfill her own needs, which backfires. Jesse’s rejection, followed by the affirmation of her own beauty and existence sparks a chain of events that is revolting. What happens next is the eye of desire’s Gorgon face revealing itself to the viewer, merciless and hungry. All the portents of dread come alive, and Refn doesn’t content himself by just showing how depraved people can and will act against something they can’t have, but its consequences.

The Neon Demon is the reason cinema pur exists: bold, screaming colors that reek of Stanley Kubrick and any spread of Vogue magazine, the expressive use of faces that recall Ingmar Bergman, a plot that only involves the minimal, and powerful auric visuals make this picture a direct classic coming out of the kind of cinema Dario Argento created with Suspiria. My only quib? It wasn’t depraved enough. It still could have gone one step farther, right into the heart of darkness. Yes, indeed.

HOUSE OF HORRORS: Under the Shadow and The Invitation

undertheshadow

 

Whoever said horror was a genre gone South clearly hasn’t been paying attention. I mean let’s face it, for every Annabelle or Paranormal/Last Exorcism rehash that (allegedly) attempts to scare the living daylights out of you and succeeds only in either a) putting you to sleep, b) screaming a the television to characters too stupid to live or c) actually contemplating throwing your smart TV out the window in a fit of rage and rushing out into the night to commit some act of mayhem (inside your head, never in the flesh, we are all Walter Mittys at heart, heh-heh), there often comes one or two smaller ventures either straight out of Sundance, SXSW or other film festivals and sneaks into select art-house theaters. There these movies, dripping atmospheric dread to spare and leaving any CGI or green screen effect to a bare minimum (a throwback to Lewton and even J-Horror), singlehandedly manage to creep right under the skin and stay with you as if they were a cinematic version of Morgellen’s disease.

And that’s a good thing. No one wants to see a movie, no matter how good it is, and barely even recall it days later. If and when you see a horror movie that vanishes into thin air moments after the credits roll, call it a night and watch some creepy pastas on YouTube.

From Iran and currently showing at the Montclair Film Festival after having debuted at Sundance, SXSW and New Directors/New Films in March comes is Babak Anvari’s debut feature film Under the Shadow, a truly eerie story of an oppressed woman dealing with a mysterious force from outside in wartime Tehran. Shideh is an unconventional Iranian woman: she won’t use the chador in the house, she exercises to Jane Fonda VCRs (the story takes place in the late 80s), and she’s given support to a liberal cause. It’s the cause that has landed her in hot water when reapplying for medical school. Because of this, the doors to a higher education close on her. Her husband fares better, being called off to war to work as a doctor and leaves Shideh alone with her daughter Dorsa.

Once alone, whatever was out of kilter starts to manifest itself: Dorsa’s doll goes missing. Outside, missiles fall upon the city, leaving terrorized residents to seek protection from fallout in basement shelters. A missile actually manages to fall into Shideh’s apartment building, landing on the floor above, but ominously does not go off. It does, however, leave a crack in her ceiling . . . and with it, something invisible and ominous starts to manifest inside Shideh’s apartment, with unknown intent.

When it becomes clear that the must leave the apartment, Dorsa’s doll goes missing and Dorsa herself starts talking to an unseen person. It’s here when Babak Anvari ratches up the tension with some truly frightening jump-scares along the way, all the while keeping the story’s location grounded in Iranian reality (for example, an attempt by Shideh to leave the house with Dorsa from the unexplained presence which seems to be getting stronger within the minute lands her in the wrong hands of the law because she did not have her chador on. In many ways, Under the Shadow could very well, like The Babadook, be a horror allegory encompassing female oppression at the hands of forces outside her control. While the heroine in Babadook was fighting a metaphysical manifestation of her own grief, Shideh seems to be fighting against her country and it’s anti-woman laws itself. under the guise of a disembodied thing seeking to come in and wreck havoc.

Under the Shadow is a strong debut and a well-composed visual piece. Even at its brief run — a mere 80 minutes not counting end credits — and treading over familiar horror tropes, it doesn’t feel stale or go for cheap shocks, and takes its own time to get the wheels rolling. It’s amazing what lighting can do to a place: Anvari slowly turns Shideh’s apartment from a relatively safe haven into dark corridors, pools of shadows, and I on more than one occasion kept myself at the edge of  my seat waiting for something. I didn’t know what — I just knew something could appear, anywhere. That to me makes a horror movie memorable, and this picture is dread in the flesh.

[Under the Shadow as of this writing doesn’t have a release date.]

invitation

Imagine you’re invited to go to a gathering with friends. Once you get there, you get a sense that despite how nice, pleasant, and polite everyone seems, something is not right. Imagine that your hostess also seems to be playing up the “everything is perfect” role — almost to a shrill fault — even when you can clearly see that it’s an act from a mile away.

Will and Kira (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) are en route to the Hollywood Hills to meet up for a dinner party thrown by his former wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). We get some backstory that Eden and Will lost their son and Will hasn’t seen Eden since, and even before he and Kira arrive he seems on edge. Almost as if summoned, they strike a coyote with their vehicle and Will has no choice but to beat it to death with a blunt object.

Once at the party, things proceed smoothly, but Will continues to be something of an odd-man out. It is understandable since this was his former home and memories linger rather vividly, but there’s an odd giddiness to it all that seems off kilter. A party guest unwittingly becomes the receiver of Eden’s out of nowhere violence early on, but she continues to behave almost in a state of a high. And then, David brings out a video that seems to be selling a concept of a cult and suicide. What’s going on here? Some are intrigued, and one guest who leaves early, upon seeing how intent David and Eden are into presenting this alternative belief to their guests, expresses her discomfort into what seems to be a cult belief. And there is a guest no one knows from, a man who charmingly tells everyone about his wife’s death.  And a girl who continuously tries to throw herself onto Will and looks . . . a little loopy.

Director Karyn Kusama keeps everything very much under control for a long stretch of her story but the sense of dread reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby permeates the entire mise-en-scene. As the party changes gears ever so subtly from simple to sinister and even we question if Will is all there or perhaps about to suffer some mental breakdown, Kusama suddenly yanks the rug from under you and the gloves are off. The Invitation’s slow escalation takes a hard turn left and as all the pieces fall into place, the real reason for them all being there explodes in everyone’s faces. This is a very good horror film that points the finger at the dangers of drinking the Kool Aid; it’s tense, moody, and equal parts terrifying because it presents a situation that could and has happened before.