Tag Archives: fantasy

Smells Fishy

The Lure

by Hope Madden

Who’s up for Polish vampire mermaids?

You do not have to ask me twice!

Gold (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) are not your typical movie mermaids, and director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut The Lure is not your typical – well, anything.

The musical fable offers a vivid mix of fairy tale, socio-political commentary, whimsy and throat tearing. But it’s not as bizarre a combination as you might think.

The Little Mermaid is actually a heartbreaking story. Not Disney’s crustacean song-stravaganza, but Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak meditation on the catastrophic consequences of sacrificing who you are for someone undeserving. It’s a cautionary tale for young girls, really, and Lure writer Robert Bolesto remains true to that theme.

The biggest differences between Bolesto’s story and Andersen’s: 80s synth pop, striptease and teeth. At its heart, The Lure is a story about Poland – its self-determination and identity in the Eighties. That’s where Andersen’s work is so poignantly fitting.

Not that you’ll spend too much time in the history books. The context serves the purpose of grounding the wildly imaginative mix of seediness, hope and danger on display.

The film opens with a trio of musicians enjoying themselves on a Warsaw waterfront before hearing a siren song. Cut to screaming, and then to a deeply bizarre nightclub where a kind of Eastern European burlesque show welcomes its two newest performers – mermaids.

From there we explore a changing Warsaw from the perspective of a very fringe family. Mystical creatures play nice – and sometimes not-so-nice – among the city’s thrill seekers and the finned sisters need to decide whether they want to belong or whether they are who they are.

But that’s really too tidy a description for a film that wriggles in disorienting directions every few minutes. There are slyly feminist observations made about objectification, but that’s never the point. Expect other lurid side turns, fetishistic explorations, dissonant musical numbers and a host of other vaguely defined sea creatures to color the fable.

In fact, Olszanska’s film is strongest when it veers away from its fairy tale roots and indulges in its own weirdness.

Whatever its faults, The Lure will hook you immediately and change the way you think of mermaids.

Jessie’s Boys

Jessica Forever

by Hope Madden

Shudder’s latest premiere, the French film Jessica Forever, offers a scifi antidote to war films. This is a quietly absorbing genre piece concerned with the lives left to those who know nothing more than fighting for survival, those who must endure not only what battle has done to them, but what battle has encouraged them to do.

In an unnamed future, Jessica (Aomi Muyock, Love), collects and rehabilitates “orphans” — feral young men with nothing and no one. Left entirely on their own, they wreak bloody havoc on society and are hunted by government-controlled drones.

We open on one such young man, Kevin (Eddy Suiveng). He’s thrown himself through a pane of glass in what looks to be a recently abandoned home. As a heavily armed tactical unit descends on the premises, only to softly embrace the combatant, writers/directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel introduce the visual and tonal fluidity the film will emphasize throughout its running time.

The dystopian cinematic landscape is highly populated, but Jessica Forever manages to carve out a unique space.

Muyock’s enigmatic central figure, so quietly effecting, provides the film its compelling center of gravity. Around her orbits a loose family of young men, and as Poggi and Vinel weave in and out of their day-to-day, we’re tuned into the filmmakers’ primary interest.

Unlike so very many movies out there, it is not the glamour or danger of war that attracts these filmmakers. Instead, Jessica Forever focuses on the mental and emotional wreckage these young men carry around with them as they cling to each other and their varying ideas of family, home and normalcy.

Everything about the design of this low budget scifi poem is astonishing. Working with cinematographer Marine Atlan, who shot the pair’s short After School Knife Fight, Poggi and Vinel create and sustain a hypnotic mood.

An absurd beauty to some of the shots helps the filmmakers offset its deliberate pacing. The entire crew, sound design in particular, pulls their weight as well, and the cumulative effect moves this lightly plotted ensemble piece in daring directions.

Outlandos D’Amour


by Hope Madden

Sometimes knowing yourself means embracing the beast within. Sometimes it means making peace with the beast without. For Tina—well, let’s just say Tina’s got a lot going on right now.

Eva Melander is Tina, a woman resigned to the solitary existence of an outsider. Her “chromosomal malady” has left her unbecoming to most of the people in her Danish border town, but it’s also gifted her with senses that allow her to notice criminals by the way they smell.

Those senses are thrown, though, by a stranger (Eero Milonoff) who makes her feel, for the first time in her life, that she’s not alone.

Border director/co-writer Ali Abbasi has more in mind than your typical Ugly Duckling tale, though. He mines John Ajvide Lindqvist’s (Let the Right One In) short story of outsider love and Nordic folklore for ideas of radicalization, empowerment, gender fluidity and feminine rage.

The result is both a sincere crime thriller and a magical fantasy. A perfect meshing of Michael Pearce’s 2017 indie Beast and Alex van Warmerdam’s dark 2013 folk tale Borgman, Border still manages to be entirely its own creature.

Melander is a force of nature under impressive prosthetics. Her fearless performance, one that requires an arc that feels simultaneously backward and progressive, guarantees that no matter the bracing images or ugly narrative, you will not look away. You won’t be able to.

Milonoff also impresses, as does a cast of support players blessed with an unusual and fittingly untidy storyline.

There are moments in Border that should have felt silly while others could easily have tipped into lurid territory, but they never do. Abbasi’s respect for his characters keeps even the most outlandish scenes on track. He boasts an impressive aptitude for blending a fantastical fairy tale nature with the realism of a thriller without ever losing one thread for the other.

The result is a film quite unlike anything else, one offering layer upon provocative, messy layer and Abbasi feels no compulsion to tidy up. Instead, he leaves you with a lot to think through thanks to one unyieldingly original film.

Home Again, Home Again

The Endless

by Hope Madden

There is something very clever about the way Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s movies sneak up on you. Always creepy, still they defy genre expectations even as they play with them.

Camp Arcadia offers the rustic backdrop for their latest, The Endless. A clever bit of SciFi misdirection, the film follows two brothers as they return to the cult they’d escaped a decade earlier.

Just to visit.

Do you ever have those dreams where you find yourself back in your hometown and no matter how hard you try, you can’t leave? No? You must not be from Tiffin, Ohio.

Benson and Moorehead capture that particular panicked feeling, each slow-moving moment generating a louder and louder echo in your head, yelling: Why are you still here? Go already!

The other thing the directing pair creates with uneasy authenticity is that spotty forgiving and unforgiving bond between siblings.

The directors themselves play those siblings. Though Moorehead and Benson have had cameos in their previous films Spring and Resolution, as well as a handful of other horror flicks, The Endless, penned by Benson, is the first film they anchor.

Their acting chops are mainly solid, although perhaps not lead-worthy. Moorehead’s innocence and whining sometimes feel forced. Meanwhile, Benson’s character’s motivation is at times suspect, and he’s unconvincing as a sheltered, shell-shocked, co-dependent.

Though the lead performances sometimes undermine the agile storytelling, the turns the directors draw from their ensemble are strong across the board. Welcome familiar faces in a third-act surprise prove the filmmakers’ nimble skill with a fantasy storyline that could easily collapse on itself but never does.

It is this story and the pair’s storytelling skill that continues to impress. Their looping timelines provide fertile ground for clever turns that fans of the filmmakers will find delightful, but the uninitiated will appreciate as well.


Give the Devil His Due


by Christie Robb

Imagine a world in which Bergman’s Seventh Seal made it with Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and you kinda get a sense of Rainer Sarnet’s November.

Based on the Estonian novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk, the movie is set in a sort of fairy-tale-ish undefined time period. Estonian peasants scrape out a substance-level existence while German aristocracy exploits their labor and flaunts an unattainably extravagant lifestyle before them.

Not surprising, then, that some of them strike a deal with the devil.

You see, the peasants can manufacture a kratt to do manual labor for them and steal treasure. A kratt is a creature made out of bones, sticks, and bits of rusty household implements, brought to life by giving drops of blood to the devil. (And in this movie, kratts talk and are charmingly bananas and look an awful lot like they were designed by Vincent Price’s character in Edward Scissorhands.)

At the center of the film lies the unrequited love of two peasants. Liina (Rea Lest) is hopelessly in love with Hans (Jörgen Liik). Hans has the hots for the daughter of the local German baron. Lina and Hans each try to capture the attention of their beloved while communing with ghosts, employing the services of kratts and witches, managing lycanthropy, evading the plague, circumventing arranged marriages, and avoiding starvation during the impending long winter.

The movie is a mismatch of comedy, romance, fantasy, political theory, and philosophy all shot in exquisite black and white. Somehow it comes together, like the kratts, in a way that seems fresh, bizarre, and interesting.