Piggy (Carlota Pereda, Spain)
Piggy (AKA Cerdita) is impressive from start to finish: really. I’m not going to say too much here, because Jeremy already reviewed Piggy when it played at FrightFest, but I can’t possibly watch it and give no comment at all. The Grimmfest listing for this film described it as “a complex exploration of female body image and self-loathing, moral complicity, retribution, and redemption” and although that sounds rather heavy and worthy, they’re not wrong…yet it’s utterly gripping.
Sara (Laura Galán) is body-shamed and tormented by the cool girls in her small town and feels all kinds of isolation from her family as well as her peers and teen life in general. Carlota Pereda’s 2018 short film presents Sara as a witness to the violent abduction of her persecutors after their bullying reaches an apparent peak; this film (with the same writer-director, and the same lead actor) extrapolates the story to show many possible implications; for Sara’s angst and victimhood, the effect of the abductions on the girls’ families, the mood of the town in general…and of course Sara’s dilemma towards the man who (one could say) stood up for her. It’s unusual for a film about a crime to put the spotlight on a witness, rather than the victim or perpetrator, but that perspective works extremely well, showing real insight on Pereda’s part.
I’m not exaggerating about the spotlight, either: Galán carries the film with talent and plenty of nuance across the complex arc she travels. The first thirty minutes or so, exploring her dreary life, her environment, and her loneliness, were painful to watch: Galán’s every reaction felt real, and I had nothing but sympathy for her. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to watch all the way through. Instead, from the moment she arrives home in shock, tension takes over; tension about what is going to happen to the kidnapped young women, what Sara might (or might not) say, not to mention…no, I can’t give anything away.
Three images have stayed with me from Piggy: the final, powerful image of Sara herself; something one of the kidnap victims will never recover from; and the sunshine in the woods, presented as if in happy contrast with the nearby crime. The sense of place is remarkable with the small rural town, its shops, pool, nearby river, woods, and backwoods. All the individual characters really belong in their settings; comfortable, and perhaps naively content until something goes wrong. And the one person who doesn’t sit well with everyone else becomes part of that story.
Difficult to watch or not (perhaps depending on your experiences as a teenager), this film is highly recommended. Watch out for it when it reaches wide release.
House Of Darkness (Neil LaBute, USA)
I liked this one a lot. It’s a simple and fairly familiar tale, but it kept my attention with snappy (almost West Wing-worthy) dialogue and awkward tension. House of Darkness is about a couple who have just hit it off in a bar: a business consultant (Justin Long) who really can’t believe his luck, and the beautiful woman (Kate Bosworth) he’s driving home. We have a short prologue in the car, when the man is invited in (though he dares not hope where it will lead) and then the vast majority of the film is a conversation—over drinks and kisses—inside the house.
I say “house,” but words like “mansion” and “estate” are freely used. This property belongs in the world of Hammer Horror, if not the more well-aged gothic horror. Perhaps the likes of you and I would recognise what Hap, the leading man is walking into, but he is either ignorant or in denial; whichever it is, Long is perfect for the role. He admires, he sweet-talks, and he is comfortable with his blinkers, relishing every moment of this unbelievable encounter as though it might never be repeated. In contrast, Bosworth plays her character with poise and delicate wit, and it is almost like watching an expert interrogator with a suspect, gently leading them along while the suspect believes he is still safe.
I might have made you expect some Final Girl or Hard Candy revenge, but House of Darkness is no “me too” fantasy. There is some inherently misogynistic swagger in some of Hap’s haphazard charm, but this is a backdrop to the film’s themes as I see them, not a theme in its own right. To me, the substance of the dialogue between the pair is all about what we can or should believe—specifically honesty in language and truth hidden in stories. She leaves out information, but doesn’t say anything untrue; he dances around the truth with fibs and flattery. The setting is seemingly plucked right out of a fairy tale, so how can he be expected to see any real risk there? Neil LaBute, writer as well as director, has crafted some beautiful repartee here with subtle facts hidden in plain sight. Indeed apart from one scene, House of Darkness could work very well as a stage play.
I’ve already mentioned this is a simple and familiar tale; in House of Darkness, LaBute is plainly presenting his homage to a classic story…and I’m not going to tell you which one: it’s apparent as soon as the lady’s name is spoken, if not before, and it’s spelled out blatantly in the trailer. I would avoid the trailer for a different reason though. It leads the viewer to expect something exciting in an action-packed way, but this is a slow-burn study of a dynamic between two people, dialogue- rather than action-focused. I don’t mean to suggest this isn’t a horror film; it certainly is, but just not the type you might be led to expect from the promo. This one requires a little patience, but at less than 90 minutes long, it won’t require much.
Holy Shit! (Lukas Rinker, Germany)
This was frankly brilliant: a film which now and then unexpectedly reminded me of other brilliant films and yet was also unlike any film I’d seen before, too. Holy Shit! AKA Ach du Scheisse! is essentially a macro-scale disaster movie: a lone man is in a tight spot and needs to escape before his world ends…or rather, Frank Lamm (Thomas Niehaus) is impaled in a porta-potty left behind on a building site which is due to be blown up in less than an hour.
Lamm starts the film coming round from unconsciousness and gradually pieces together a combination of memories and deductions that explain the predicament he is in. Here was the first reminder: the way flashbacks and thought processes suddenly took him (and the audience) out of that toilet reminded me of the way the burglar in The Woman with Leopard Shoes occasionally caught snippets of what was going on outside of his hiding place. This one has an utterly different tension, though, with lots of noise as Lamm screams in pain and tries to be found, unlike that burglar. Lamm is resourceful and resilient—this is not the type of horror-comedy in which you will roll your eyes at people making stupid decisions—and Niehaus is expressive and as believable as one could possibly be in such an unbelievable situation.
Of course, Holy Shit! Brought to mind Glorious as well, confined to a toilet as it was. This film apparently used real porta-potties, though, not a set made specially like Glorious did. Considering the way the camera made full use of every possible angle, I wondered at times how it was done. The cinematography was as creative as Lamm’s various approaches to freeing himself; at times, rapidly following his architectural sketches, later bathing everything in sunlight, zooming into Lamm’s eye or taking in the whole scene from above.
The plot was fairly simple on the surface, but it was remarkable just how many layers and strands it held; not just in Lamm’s “escape room” style attempts to get out before the blast, but in the various minor characters, the animals (don’t worry) and the smug business partner who steadily reveals himself to be quite the Greg Stillson. Yes, there’s politics and underhandedness here, as well as plenty of neat good-versus-bad stand-offs; not bad for a 90 minute film in one tiny location.
Holy Shit! is surprisingly (and increasingly) gory for a comedy/action/escape film, and it is because the wit and humour also increase as the film progresses that this proved tolerable. I don’t mean to say the contrast jarred (the poor sod was in a bloody mess right from the start), but rather the two aspects braided together to make the film keep me on my toes all the way through. I laughed out loud and groaned out loud at Lamm’s worsening injury, and couldn’t help remembering Why Don’t You Just Die! because of the similar feeling of disbelief at what on Earth could happen to the luckless protagonist next.
I’ve told you several ways in which Holy Shit! Impressed me and here’s one more: all that and it’s writer-director Lukas Rinker’s first feature film. Please, please make another.
The Price We Pay (Ryûhei Kitamura, USA)
I watched Ryûhei Kitamura’s No One Lives a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I’d been on the lookout for others with his name attached. The Price We Pay turned out to be Kitamura’s take on the From Dusk Till Dawn model, and why not? As in Dawn, this film follows a small gang of thieves who grab a hostage after a job goes an unexpected direction; and then about halfway through, when they are taking stock of their situation, they find they’re in the territory of way worse people than themselves. Sure, the story and the people are distinctly different, but the change of tone and perspective is so close that it’s almost a handshake to Rodriguez.
The first half is comfortably tense; that might sound odd, but I mean the people are all familiar and the tension comes from their personality clashes while doing their best to get through the night without being captured: we have Emile Hirsch as the arrogant and intelligent crook, Tanner Zagarino as his stupid brother and Stephen Dorff as the reluctant criminal. Strangely, they don’t seem to frighten their beautiful hostage (Gigi Zumbado) too much, but maybe that’s just a little light foreshadowing that these people aren’t as tough (in the scheme of things) as they think they are. The first half is also kind of slow, with a lot more emphasis on that unbalanced group dynamic (oh, and swearing) than action; so as I watched it, I couldn’t help thinking, “Something’s going to go wrong, something’s going to go wrong, something’s going to go wrong”…and then, “No, don’t go into that barn.”
Honestly, the inevitable disaster of that place screamed out like a basement in a more formulaic horror…so of course, I wanted them to go there too, to you know, seek out the rest of the plot; and they found it alright, in its full gory glory. Well, I say “plot” “but that’s not what The Price We Pay is all about. It’s about bad guys and worse guys, and how much torture, punishment and insult each can handle. It’s about how much the audience can handle too, in terms of injury, surgery, and gore effects: much of that is extremely creative and creatively extreme, especially in the film’s finale.
If you like a bit of torture porn, you’ll find plenty in the second half of The Price We Pay. Personally, I like torture porn when it comes with something else, usually intelligence or imagination. In this film, the intelligence spreads as far as two-dimensional characters, and the imagination is applied to just how far-fetched the violence can go; and in particular, how far-fetched it can go while the subjects are still walking and talking. Credibility is stretched even farther than in Saw (the original), though I must say there is entertainment (though not humour) to be found in just how ludicrous the whole thing becomes.