Incredible But True (Quentin Dupiex, Mexico)
This was a strange film. I know: what do you expect, right? This came from the same writer/director as Rubber, but although I loved that one, Incredible But True left me a little cold. Both were full of surprises, originality, and abstract ideas, but this one started out with deft, gentle humour and ended melancholy. Actually, that’s a pretty reasonable approach for a film about mortality from the point of view of a middle-aged couple.
Said couple, Alain (Alain Chabat) and Marie (Léa Drucker) are looking for a new home and they all seem nice enough; but when the estate agent tells them about an unusual feature of a particular house, they cannot resist. It’s a surreal portal of sorts; and after Alain and Marie get to know what it can offer, the remainder of the film (largely from Alain’s point of view) explores the question of how we use the time we have, along with a secondary plot strand about technology, and some entertaining supporting characters.
Incredible But True or Incroyable mais vrai has an easy-going pace; and it’s a contemplative film, “horror” only if you think about it a lot. Sean had good things to say about it when it screened at Arrow Video FrightFest a couple of months ago, but then I think Sean is distinctly younger than me.
Huesera (Michelle Garza Cervera, Mexico)
For a long time, I’ve recognised that the horror genre is perfectly suited to metaphor, and Huesera presents a very effective example. Valeria (Natalia Solián) is at long last pregnant with her doting husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal); but it’s only then that her eyes are opened to mistrust from her family, pressure from in-laws, and the longing for youth (and a former partner) that she has left behind. Alongside all that, she also experiences disturbing visions: a woman jumping to her death, badly broken; spiders in the food; an intruder in the nursery she’s been preparing. Many of these visions are accompanied by the sound of cracking bones, which Valeria—perhaps unwittingly—carries forward by cracking her knuckles during stressful moments. Are these experiences all in her mind, telling her she’s about to embark on something loathsome that she can’t escape from; or is there some force haunting her for real?
The acting, direction, and production in Huesera are virtually faultless, with the weight of tradition, class, and society, in general, being almost palpable. This is a very different kind of pregnancy-related horror than I’ve seen before, with the horror itself more in the atmosphere than in the unpleasant experiences, and with the focus more on Valeria’s turmoil than her body. Huesera presents the dawn of motherhood almost as a coming-of-age process, as it obliges one to reflect on one’s circumstances and the direction of life. Valeria turns to other women in the process, for love and healing; and although that process is painful (frankly too painful for me to recommend to other people who are planning to become pregnant), there is hope in its conclusion.
The only fault I can cite with the writing relates to the film’s title, which goes unexplained. I have looked into it a little since watching the film and find that, like La Llorona, La Huesera is a figure from Mexican folklore. The story has it that she gathers bones in the desert until there are enough for a skeleton to come to life as a wolf; it has been said that these bones “represent our indestructible life force,” which may be why the painful and agonising time Valeria goes through can be seen to lead to a fresh start. Who can say? As a viewer of the film, I think I would have gotten more value from it if the connection between the supernatural occurrences and Valeria’s physical condition was made clear; but perhaps if I were from the same culture this wouldn’t have been an issue. This is, as I say, the only fault I find with the film. I’d be very keen to see what Michelle Garza Cervera produces next.
Unicorn Wars (Alberto Vázquez, Spain/France)
Based on Vázquez’s short film Sangre De Unicornio, Unicorn Wars is a compelling but very mixed experience. It is the story of two brothers, Bluey and Tubby (according to the English subtitles): Bluey wants to be forever handsome and Tubby just wants to not be picked on anymore. They are both teddy bears caught up in the ongoing war against the unicorns; fighting for reasons of territory, religion, tradition, or maybe because both sides are just so different.
The best bits of the film are undoubtedly the animation and the world-building; with sublime colours and gory action to satisfy anyone missing Celebrity Death Match, and traditions that satirise both military and the church. Much of the film is visually stunning, from its forest opening to the skies and battles later on. The writing and voice acting combine to provide clearly distinct characters, including some who are easy to love and some easy to hate; this is, after all, a cartoon. Early on, Unicorn Wars declares nice and loudly that it’s not a kids’ film, though, and never lets the audience forget this: we’re presented with teddy bear genitals, drugs, cannibalism, and the horrors of war.
It does get very dark and serious, but that’s not what I had a problem with. If only the plot of Unicorn Wars hadn’t been so ambitious, and so complex; then it might have been clearer about any chosen theme. Instead, what could have been an Animal Farm-style fable about the futility of war is a mixture of messages about military leadership, blind faith, weakness in peace, nature, and family. Towards the end, it then becomes apparent that the two sides in this timeless war were so caught up in it that they have no way of recognising another power on the rise, but this final message is somehow both blunt and confusing. I can’t deny Unicorn Wars is worth a watch, but it may have been easier to digest given an extra half hour to lay out the story better.
Jethica (Pete Ohs, USA)
Horror comedy can be daft, it can be annoying, or it can be witty; this one was none of those things, but gentle instead. Jethica reminded me more than anything else of A Ghost Waits for its frankly adorable tone, though without the undercurrent of melancholy that A Ghost Waits had. Jethica is essentially about two friends and the trouble they have keeping men at a distance… and it could be a fable telling us that everyone (even complete pr**ks) deserves a good friend, or it could simply be a tall tale.
The film opens with Elena (Callie Hernandez) having sex in someone’s car, and then explaining to him why she never brings guys back home. The rest of Jethica is the story within that story, a cautionary tale about a stalker and about a plot of land under a spell that brings people back from the dead. The stalker is Kevin (Will Madden), who simply refuses to accept he should leave Elena’s long-time friend Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson) alone; regardless of whether it is to claim her or apologise to her.
The style of the film is almost like a short story in feature film form, with very sparse characterisation and minimal back story, though plenty of wide-open space to breathe (it’s perfectly set in the New Mexico desert). I loved its unhurried approach to the tale’s telling, but more than that, I loved the writing of the characters. The friendship between Elena and Jessica may not be close, but it is real, as relatable, and believable as any I’ve seen on screen. More remarkable is the character of Kevin, who talks almost non-stop, making his interest in Jessica feel even more oppressive; and yet he becomes strangely sympathetic, lost, and in need of comradeship. I shudder to think how the writers (who included Madden) came up with his rich and believable dialogue.
The Harbinger (Andy Mitton, Canada)
This one is going to be very difficult to describe without it sounding utterly miserable; but trust me, there is a lot more to it than this maudlin surface. Set during the strict early lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic, The Harbinger follows Mo, short for Monique (played by Gabby Beans), who has got a tight family bubble sorted… but then an old friend calls for help, which means traveling to the big city and its unknown risks. Her friend Mavis (Emily Davis) is suffering profound nightmares and attributing them to a malicious entity.
The Harbinger is an atmospheric and slow-burn (I’m starting to dislike that phrase) fable that combines multiple fears: the pandemic itself, with its isolation as well as sickness; nightmares; and the fear of being forgotten by others. At first, I wasn’t sure if this combination was going to feel too muddled, but it actually developed into a reflection of the oppressive mental state that the early stage of the pandemic brought about in many of us: life was a muddle, just figuring out how to deal with groceries, schools, work, symptoms, masks and of course other people. It will be interesting to view The Harbinger again when that period of “history” is behind us, though I have a feeling the dreamscapes and the spook will still be downright sinister, even if the world has moved on from the fears they represent.