The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Oz Perkins, 2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter—formerly known as February, a title with just as little relevance the film as the new one—unfolds in mostly quiet, atmospheric scenes (only broken by poor mixing on Elvis Perkins’ effective score that looks to drown out every other sound on screen. Every movement feels very obviously choreographed and the performances are restrained while the pointed dialogue bounces between haunting and ridiculous. In a strange way, it could work as a companion piece to The Neon Demon, another work about young women and the ways they deal with the frustrating things that surround them. But this is ultimately a very different work.
Replacing the model-eat-model world of TND is the nearly-empty boarding school of TBD, a supernaturally-charged world in which only Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) inhabit when everyone heads out on winter break. As their story unfolds, that of seemingly escaped mental patient Joan (Emma Roberts) unfolds as well, and they all blend together in a nonlinear manner that at first seems frustrating but soon settles into a comfortable stride. Revealing more of the narrative would be a crime, as writer-director Oz Perkins does his best to muddle things up prior to an early “twist” reveal (if it can even be referred to as such) before letting the audience comfortably enjoy the rest.
The rest is a nice little mixture of slasher and possessions flicks, as well as the aftermath of demonic possession. The last of these doesn’t make up a whole lot of the film, but it punctures the cold world of The Blackcoat’s Daughter by offering Roberts some particularly emotional work that’s quite the opposite of her usual Scream Queens style horror-comedy shtick and gives the audience a hell of a pay-off for their patience.
[JB; Seen at Popcorn Frights Film Festival in Miami. Release date 2017]
Nowhere to Run (Robert Harmon, 1993)
In 1993, people were still trying to figure out what to do with Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Belgian ass-kicker with an accent as thick as a tree trunk. The generic action-star tropes of tough-guy badassery and one-liners always felt like a strange fit for him. But about a decade before people figured out that he could do boredom, disaffection, and fear to great effect, Hitcher-head Robert Harmon and king sleazeball Joe Eszterhas figured out that JCVD was uniquely well-equipped to play what is essentially the male lead of a Harlequin novel. Well, they mostly figured it out; there are still plenty of not-great one-liners here, and the material practically begs for an extra dose of soap or sleaze. The story of Nowhere to Run is prime romance-novel stuff: a hunky French-Canadian convict on the lam (Van Damme) hides out in a chunk of woods owned by Clydie (Rosanna Arquette), a widowed mother of two/farmer who is being strong-armed into selling her lend to an evil property developer (Joss fucking Ackland, for some reason). Her children bond with the man on the run, and if only to lean more into that whole surrogate father/husband figure role even more, he protects the family from the developers’ goons. And could there be a hint of a romance blossoming between the criminal with a heart of gold and the scrappy down-on-her-luck widow? The answer, naturally, is yes. This movie doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.
But even though lot of Nowhere to Run is rote, there is plenty to like. Rosanna Arquette is effortlessly charming as a widowed farmer, and Kieran Culkin does that smart-alecky-kid-who-says-“penis” thing that was de rigeur in the 90s. Ted Levine makes for a fun heavy as Ackland;s head goon, channeling an evil alternate-universe version of (and I can’t believe I’m making this reference) guitarist Leo Kottke. And though Harmon isn’t much of an action director, he puts in a lot more effort into shooting this than many people would, adding weird touches here and there, swinging for the fences with some giant vistas and some good ol’ fashioned power shots. Even tries his hand at a gauzy, fit-for-the-material love scene. Your mileage may vary wildly (this particular Venn diagram’s overlapping area must be fractional), but after seeing this movie, it stands to reason that we fucked up as a culture, and short-changed Van Damme as an actor in the 1990s, by not making more of these.
[DG; Nowhere to Run is available for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray]
Antibirth (Danny Perez, 2016)
“I’m not exactly cultivating a warm, welcome nest down there,” Natasha Lyonne’s Lou says bluntly when discussing her uterus, and it’s easy to imagine filmmaker Danny Perez saying exactly the same about his feature Antibirth. Everything about it feels crafted to keep potential viewers as far away from enjoyment as possible; it’s aggressive, grimy, aimless, and entirely focused on the kind of people who don’t want your sympathy even when they might deserve it.
David Cronenberg makes for the easiest comparison and it’s a reasonable one, as every bit of body horror that the film indulges in feels just like it’s right out of The Fly, but Perez feels like he’s pulling from every which aesthetic he pleases, from William Friedkin to Gregg Araki. This amounts to an ultimately messy movie that feels as aimless as the people who inhabit it, prone to slipping into hazes of drug-induced surrealism that’s less experimental than Oddsac, but close enough to make the folks who loved his visual album with Animal Collective the only people bound to love this first feature.
Antibirth doesn’t care to do much explaining either; characters like Lou, who finds herself with a “growth” on her body that looks a lot like pregnancy, move from moment to moment trying to avoid the realities of life. There’s a plot, yes, but it’s practically unnecessary, serving more as a loose structure to keep Lou on the right track to a deliriously enjoyable climactic sequence. If this is supposed to be a calling card film, he’s done it just right.
And the only reason that works is because Lou is an interesting protagonist, even when she’s taking bong hit after bong hit and watching weird public television commercials. She’s a fuck-up through and through, but to some she’ll be endearing, in great part because of Lyonne’s compelling performance and being helped along by supporting cast members Chloë Sevigny and Meg Tilly (the latter of whom dives into the gruesomeness of the genre with total ease).
[JB; Antibirth is currently available on demand and opens in Miami on September 9th at O Cinema after premiering at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival]