There’s a very specific kind of film that crops up like a fungus around genre festivals and midnight screenings: the retro homage. They are conscious pastiches or reference-heavy throwbacks, usually of the science fiction or horror variety, recycling the kitsch of yesteryear (usually the 80s, but not always) in the hopes of coasting on the charm and nostalgia of better movies. They’re usually fine themselves, goofy or gloppy or both, made with enough care and polish to smooth over the rougher aspects of the source production, which has the side effect of snuffing out some of the reasons why that original work was interesting in the first place. But mercifully, as dull as some of them get, they rarely clock in at more than an hour and a half. Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break, a lean emulation of gooey 80s technophobia by way of indie-film romance, is not one of these movies, though it does fall prey to some of its pitfalls.
Oz (Chase Williamson) works as an arcade machine repairman. He’s a skilled hand around the shop, restoring the cabinets to their former glory, but he’s not so skilled with the ladies, that is until he hits it off with Tess (Fabianne Therese), a fellow joystick jockey who takes a liking to him. The rapport between the two leads is a big part of what separates Sequence Break from other films of its ilk; Williamson and Therese have an easy, amiable chemistry that serves as a solid foundation for the glitch-horror theatrics, courtesy of a mysterious murdered-out arcade cabinet. A homeless man (John Dinan) is involved with the game somehow, providing the final piece of hardware to get it running. The game itself, half Galaga clone, half mandala colouring book, appears to be Skinner’s interpretation of the gameplay for Polybius, a hoax “abstract puzzle” game that, legend has it, gave those who played it headaches, nausea, insomnia, amnesia, hallucinations, and night terrors, all which afflict Oz once he dials in for the first time. Another Polybius-esque quality the game has is its trance-inducing addictiveness, its ability to lure potential players into its web of Cronenbergian grotesqueries, including a sequence where the protagonist gets freaky with a moaning box with a screen in it, and another where the shape of a hand comes from the inside of a screen. The new flesh, same as the old flesh.
So yes, it’s basically a pocket riff on Videodrome, with Sequence Break swapping out television for video games, and having James Woods and Debbie Harry meet cute in a bar over tomcats. But instead of Cronenberg’s more frigid essayistic tone, Skipper marries the phantasmagoria to the warm fuzzies that come with meeting someone simpatico. But with that comes self-doubt and contending with the uglier parts of you that don’t surface on a first date. The arcade terminal, as Dinan’s character says, “looks into you,” acting as a gateway to the shadow self, a conduit for your anxiety, misanthropy, and rage, a white elephant in the guise of a black cabinet. It’s telling that Oz tries to keep Tess away from the machine once he’s played it, his worst impulses closer to the surface. There’s a potent angle here about gender, video games, and the dark side of play, but it’s barely given lip service. Ditto the Ring-esque analog’s-last-stand angle, where the old guard finally collapses and lashes out on the last holdouts propping it up. It’s a shame neither of these veins was mined further, Skipper clearly preferring to draw from the Altered States cutting room floor. Indeed, a closer 80s relative would be Tron, a triumph of resources rather than imagery; don’t promise the void if you can only deliver darkness.
Despite this, Skinner and his FX team do a great job of crafting their Black Lodge on the cheap, using expressive lighting, bold colours as needed, and a handful of tricks from the low-budget horror playbook, like screen glitches, creepy stop motion, and copious amounts of slime. There’s also some great editing on display; Skinner and editor Zach Weigmann have a great feel for evocative match-cuts and recursive imagery. In true classic video game fashion, this is a movie of patterns and repetition: key images and are revisited, mirrored, layered, then warped and mangled to queasy effect. The practical effects are similarly simple and effective: pulsating circuit boards, orifice-like buttons, a joystick like a protruding alien nipple. Digital effects are used sparingly, complimenting the atmosphere without taking over it. So despite its cover-version feel, Sequence Break is scrappy and flashy and structurally sound. It’s a perfect calling card movie for Skipper, who may not have made his Videodrome just yet, but he has definitely made his Stereo, which can only point to great things to come.
Directed by Graham Skipper; written by Graham Skipper; starring Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, Lyle Kanouse, John Dinan, and Audrey Wasilewski; 80 minutes.