I’ve probably said this before, but one of the best things about getting to opportunity to partake in film festivals is not just about getting to watch a bunch of dope films before other people, it’s getting to see films that would probably not get advertised or promoted here in the states. That’s what is great about film as a whole, getting to watch and experience nightmares from people all around the earth. The first four films I was able to experience through the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival were something else entirely. An Austrian film centers around a nurse trying to find the secrets of her past, two American films follow different extremes of interpretations of “love,” and a film from the Czech Republic tells a non-linear story about loss and the human condition.
Mother Superior written and directed by Marie Alice Wolfszahn
I have not seen too many Austrian films, though I have definitely seen heavy hitters like Angst, Hagazussa, and Goodnight Mommy to name a few. It’s interesting to note that Austrian horror, from what I have seen, seems to be quite lore heavy and follows a path of ambiguity with little explanation; and I am here for it. There was a singular issue I had with Mother Superior, which we will get to later and it falls under the ambiguity umbrella.
I find it difficult to describe this film, but I think it could best be described as set in ’75 Nurse Sigrun (Isabella Händler) takes a position caring for Baroness Heidenreich (Inge Maux), who is described as an odd patient with Parkinson’s, in her absolutely stunning mansion Rosenkreuz Manor. Sigrun knows that the key to finding out about her past, as she was given up for adoption and doesn’t know much about her lineage, is with the Baroness. It just so happens that the key to the Baroness’ life is directly in the hands of Sigrun. The Baroness also has ties with the Nazi community and has worked with them in a medical relation.
The best way to jump into this film is to look at the historical backdrop. The two big things that are important to understand are Lebensborn and the Völkisch movement. American history classes in our broken education system failed to teach me about either of these two things, but I do have a surface-level understanding of Lebensborn. Lebensborn was an association during Nazi-occupied Germany. Unmarried women were kept in maternity houses and forced to carry children to term, only for the children who appeared racially pure to be given up for adoption to other racially pure families. The goal was to create the exact type of society the Nazis were fighting for. This is one of the atrocities the Baroness participated in. On top of that, we have the Völkisch movement, which, again basically, was the idea of creating an ethnically exclusive nation. This would also go on to grow roots of antisemitism as the idea of an ethnic exclusivity will most obviously find one specific religion they want and Judaism was not that religion.
Okay, so where am I going with this? Mother Superior, whose title now seems even more poignant, takes these horrific Nazi ideals and puts an occult spin on them. The Baroness can’t continue her reign of terror in her current state so her idea is to plant seeds of her identity in Sigrun’s life in an all roads lead to this scenario. As stated my only real gripe here was the ambiguity, the ambiguity of the occult happenings. In the grand scheme of things the occult aspect makes sense, but the ambiguity of the lore behind it just really seems deus ex machina-esque for the story. I don’t think the occult aspect needs to really be explained, there’s just so much of the story that relies on it and I think the script failed to properly give context clues to make assumptions about what is really going on here.
With all that said, the film itself is gorgeous. The manor where it was filmed provides an intense level of atmosphere. Sections of the manor are beautiful and sprawling while the sections Sigrun is not allowed in are decaying and decrepit. This is most likely a metaphor for both Sigrun and the Baroness as on the surface they are both seemingly well kept together and confident with their appearances, while once you dig deeper there is sadness (Sigrun) and anger (the Baroness) that is digging away at their psyches.
Mother Superior lacks intense adrenaline-fueled horror, rather focusing on the character’s own personal horrors. It is a very slow film where the visuals are more important to tell the story than the actual dialogue. The film succeeds visually and thematically but fails in its overall story. Though there is a wonderful fourth wall break that made me audibly ‘ooh.’
Old Flame written and directed by Christopher Denham
I love when actors find time to create the projects they truly want to make. Christopher Denham is no stranger to being in front of the camera, ranging from films like Argo and Oppenheimer to shows like Utopia and Billions, Denham has made himself a presence in some very well-known projects. On the other hand, Denham is also quite the accomplished writer/director with the quite intriguing Home Movie, the fairly enjoyable Preservation, and even penned Area 51 with Oren Peli, with Peli at the helm. Finding out Denham had a new project coming out got me pretty excited, and after viewing it I’m stuck.
The premise is simple Calvin Green (Andy Gershenzon) attends his college reunion when he runs into his ex-girlfriend Rachel Lerner (Rebeca Robles). Whether he knows it or not Calvin is soon to be confronted with his actions from the past that will result in some pretty wild consequences. As a story, Old Flame is solid, now its execution? That’s more iffy. In an attempt to not mislead Old Flame is definitely more of a psychological thriller rather than a horror film. While it doesn’t really provide any scares it succeeded in keeping me engaged and nervous through the whole runtime.
Old Flame is an exorcise in patience, the question is will audiences have the patience for the payoff? And will audiences appreciate the payoff? The film is set in three locations: the reunion hall, the hotel bar, and Cal’s hotel room. On top of that, there are two characters, and only two (granted you see Cal’s two daughters briefly on a FaceTime for about 20 seconds). It is dialogue driven and relies very little on excess props. The concept here is brilliant two ex-partners sitting, talking, and uncovering secrets, but I don’t think it went far enough. Denham is a competent director but I don’t think a specific choice he made was the right call.
It was made clear that Rachel was very big into theatre and performance art, so hear me out. If this film was shot like Dogville as a play set on a stage, this film would have been brutally better. Old Flame could easily be a stage play, and I would kill to see this on stage, it’s just the setting used feels very out of place. Denham makes some really solid choices in his direction, like starting with far shots and slowly moving the camera closer and closer. Or how the majority of the film is set camera and switches to handheld once the reveal happens. The backdrop of the hotel is just so…ugly. If he would have done a simple setting change to a single stage, I think this film would have sat better with me.
A #MeToo film that takes a look at both sides of the aisle, Old Flame is bound to piss a lot of people off. Is this a ‘good for her’ movie? I’m not too sure. There is doubt cast upon Rachel’s character as she constantly says she is a pathological liar only part of me wants to believe this is just a coping mechanism she has used. With that being said, the final moment of this kind of had me fist-pumping.
Mother, May I? written and directed by Laurence Vannicelli
I have been seeing tons of hype about this one, but I just don’t see it. Emmet (Kyle Gallner) and his partner Anya (Holland Roden) go to his estranged and recently-deceased mother’s house to clean it up to get ready for its sale. Things soon go south when it seems Anya is possessed by Emmet’s mother, only for things to get…weird? This film is very sloppily paced and I don’t think it knows what it wants to be. Part of it wants to be a dark family drama and part of it wants to be a supernatural story, it’s just that neither story really meshes well together with neither idea really letting itself flourish.
Holland Roden is a very talented actor. The character distinctions between herself and Emmet’s mom are very clear and you can feel the complete and separate character work. Emmet on the other hand is kind of a nonentity. Being a brooding pretty boy who can pout on command does not make you a good actor, those are not choices, they are mannerisms. It’s the Lip Gallagher effect.
This film asks a lot from the audience on this ride, and I felt constantly betrayed. Rather than letting the characters have interactions and expand upon these ideas, more often than not one of them just walks away during an altercation. I get that that is part of the character, it’s just frustrating. I want to see this story unfold in a meaningful way, rather than these characters attempting to interact only to complete the story out of pure circumstance. Visually this film is competent, but for me being visually compelling was not enough.
Repulse written and directed by Emil Krizka
Okay, I’m just going to state this upfront, this gets a five out of five with a heart on Letterboxd for me. I’ve never seen a Czech Republic horror film before and with further research, it looks like there aren’t that many, which is a shame! It’s easy for people to pick apart every aspect of genre films, it seems like a lot of people really want to find that one thing that is wrong with a film. I can’t find that wrong thing in Repulse.
Repulse follows two stories running concurrently, one story follows Katerina (Pavla Gajdosíková) and her failing marriage with Robert (Petr Panzenberger), while the other story follows Viktor (Stepán Kozub) and his torturous mom (Alena Sasínová-Polarczyk). After Robert crashes his car causing Viktor’s mom to lose her life, Viktor vows revenge and Katerina is in his sights. Part psychological horror, part extreme horror, Repulse could definitely be described as New Czech Extremism; move over France!
My favorite direction this film takes is the non-linear storytelling. I think that could possibly turn a lot of people off especially due to the near lack of dialogue through the majority of the film. What Krizka does right is provide us with the perfect context clues throughout where if you’re paying even the slightest bit of attention you will be able to fully comprehend the series of events. Every question that I had was answered by the finale. Even though I am calling this film extreme, there is not much actual violence throughout, between Krizka’s script and directing this film feels much more visceral than it actually is. Each character feels like they just might turn to the person next to them and absolutely destroy them. There was a bit of a torture scene with drugged pickle juice I have NEVER seen done before and it was absolutely brilliant.
If this is what Czheck horror can be then I think we are in for a real treat for whatever is to come from that region. Gajdosíková and Panzenberger are fantastic together, the way they play off each other really makes me feel like they despise each other in real life. I think the best way I could describe how they play off each other is: unsafe. Repulse does not feel safe in any way, which really adds to the anxiety I felt throughout the runtime. I have a distinct feeling fans are going to eat this movie up.