HATCHING (2022)

One of my favorite activities to attend when the world first re-opened in the summer of 2021 was Joe Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at Chicago’s Davis Theater. If you aren’t familiar with Swanberg, he’s perhaps best known for being a mumblecore pioneer — the low-rent indie film genre that emphasized language and small-scale human drama — but he’s also a prolific actor and producer and he loves Chicago, specifically his neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where the Davis is housed.

His secret screenings are exactly what they sound like: you buy a ticket solely knowing you’ll get to watch a film wouldn’t be possible to see otherwise. (I’ve previously written about a few of his prior screenings, including DETENTION). If you can attend, he has one more secret screening at the Davis on April 9th, and the writer/director will be present for a post-film Q&A. (Swanberg knows how to moderate these things, so it’ll be a quality Q&A!)

His first secret screening of 2022 was of Sundance darling HATCHING, a Finnish coming-of-age horror film from director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rautsi about Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a gymnast teen with a monstrous social media-obsessed mother (a wicked Sophia Heikkilä), one who would rather break the neck of a raven that literally shatters the trappings of the family home as opposed to letting it free. Tinja later finds the crippled creature, puts it out of its misery, then sees a sole egg from the raven’s nest and decides to tend to it. Matters escalate in a brilliant way that explores puberty and terrible mothers.

Trust me, the less you know about the rest is best, but it’s a thrilling, wild, disgusting, intense ride. It’s a film that would make a great late-night double-feature with GINGER SNAPS.

I’d like to digress a bit from the film though, solely to discuss horror and bodies, as HATCHING — more than any other film I’ve seen in some time — scrutinizes physicality. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre than action, relies on people’s bodies being thrown around, either self-imposed or done by others. As someone who was infatuated with tumbling, bar work, and gymnastics in general as a youth, you’re repeatedly told to trust yourself, to get over your fears, to think of your appendages as tools; you specifically toss yourself around like an object for the amusement — or bemusement — of others. I look back and am shocked at the acts I put my body through, for no goddamn good reason apart from the fact that it felt good and it was expected.

I was not a gifted gymnast and, similarly, HATCHING’s Tinja is not a gifted gymnast, but unlike her, I was never pressured by a desperate mother to pursue it. It was just an extracurricular I latched onto.

I can’t imagine putting myself through those routines now as I’m too old and creaky, but I do miss it. That feeling is much what horror films capture and encapsulate: the thrill of youthfully putting yourself in perilous situations, of exploiting the belief of immortality of the young which is, at least in most horror films, often then cut short; victims of hubris, of launching themselves too high towards the sky and failing to stick the landing.

(As usual, including a trailer, but probably best to stay away if you have any interest in the film.)

SUPERIOR (2021)

(Cinemas/VOD) Sorry, yet another ‘very difficult to track down’ film. For the past month or so, Joe Swanberg has been programming Mystery Monday screenings at the Davis Theater in Chicago, showcasing films whose releases were delayed or quietly rolled out to VOD due to COVID. One of the most recent was SUPERIOR, and he managed to bring in director Erin Vassilopoulos for an enlightening post-film Q&A. If you are in Chicago, I highly suggest attending these screening — Swanberg has excellent taste, he’s a very gracious interviewer, and he’s doing good work trying to boost films that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

SUPERIOR is the debut feature film from Erin Vassilopoulos (and co-written by one of the two primary protagonists, Alessandra Mesa), but follows directly after Vassilopoulos’ short film of the same name. It’s a character drama/thriller centered around two identical twins, one a misfit musician on the run from her abusive husband, the other living a very domestic life, trying to have a kid with her milquetoast husband.

It’s a remarkably handled film that, while it definitely has shades of Brian de Palma’s SISTERS (1972) and David Lynch (take your pick: LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, even FIRE WALK WITH ME), it is its own creature, with quite a bit to say about how sisters push and pull each other, as well as how they deal with individual and intertwined identity.

Just the script and the performances from the two twins (the previously mentioned Alessandra Mesa, and Ani Mesa) would be enough to make this a notable film, but it’s also staged in the 1980s, and Vassilopoulos shot on 16mm to give it a delicious visual texture and familiarity that serves the work well. Additionally, the production design and locations are perfectly handled — attractive, distinct, but they never overshadow any particular scene or moment.

It’s an impactful initial work, one that is tautly paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome. While it’s played a few places in 2021, they’re looking at a proper rollout around March 2022, so keep your eyes peeled for it.

https://vimeo.com/505267853

HOMEWRECKER (2019)

(AMC+/Shudder/tubi/VOD/Vudu) An intriguingly economical Canadian thriller from Zach Gayne. For once, I’m going to use the official description (with a few tweaks) because too many details might spoil some of the fun: “Middle-aged Linda (Precious Chong) befriends youthful Michelle (Alex Essoe), but one becomes obsessed with the other.”

The script was penned by Gayne, as well as the two leads (Chong and Essoe). It has a charismatic verve to it that I can’t help but appreciate, and while you may suss out the ending before the film expects you, it’s still a wild ride.

DREAM GIRL (2021)

Reading Laura Lippman’s DREAM GIRL after NIGHTSHADE was a real treat. Both novels are about two successful creatives who believe they’ve lived their lives in justifiable ways, but are often lying to themselves.

Whereas NIGHTSHADE was a suspenseful character drama about an acclaimed artist, DREAM GIRL is a psychological thriller about an acclaimed writer. Gerry Anderson is a successful novelist whose breadwinning accomplishment was that wrote an evocative LOLITA-esque story which, despite pre-dating 9/11, also managed to convey the cultural feelings of a post-9/11 world. It was enormously successful, but he’s constantly hounded about exactly who the titular ‘Dream Girl’, Aubrey, is based on. Gerry consistently replies that she is a complete work of fiction, not based on anyone.

Gerry’s moved from New York City to Baltimore to be with his dying mother but, a few days after he closes on a high-rise apartment, she dies. He takes a tumble down his newly acquired floating staircase which leaves him bedridden and at the mercy of his new assistant Victoria, and his night nurse Aileen. Shortly after, he starts receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be Aubrey, and he starts to wonder if he’s losing touch with reality.

Lippman’s probably best known for her Tess Monaghan detective fiction series, about an ex-Baltimore newspaper journalist turned private detective, but she’s become increasingly known for her one-off novels, such as WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and LADY IN THE LAKE, which are far darker and more self-indulgent. DREAM GIRL definitely fits that mold, as it’s peppered with all sorts of references to old-school noirs and detective fiction, novels like THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, references to her friend and author Megan Abbott (who penned my favorite neo-noir novel QUEENPIN), so many riffs on classic Hollywood and horror films, and even a quick moment with Tess Monaghan herself. In other words, it was tailor-made for me, but there’s also a lot to appreciate about the novel from a structural standpoint. Lippman’s exceptional at setting everything up so that, right before the reveals come, the curtains fall from your eyes, and you can’t help but appreciate the breadcrumbs she’s strewn through the prior pages.

It’s a gripping work, slightly bogged down by the fact that, if you know the works she namedrops, she telegraphs how this will play out. That said, the book has a few more surprises once you get to that point, so you can forgive her for that, and Gerry is an intriguing enough character study to set aside the suspense story itself.

http://www.lauralippman.net/dream-girl

NIGHTSHADE (2020)

I initially picked up Annalena McAfee’s NIGHTSHADE because of the cover, but the front-cover puff quote from THE OBSERVER really grabbed me: “A glorious novel. … Full of twisted sexuality, art and power. … Brutal and unforgettable.” It’s a rather generic remark, yes, but I bought it because I wanted a ticket for that ride.

It did not disappoint, and the puff quote is entirely accurate. I’ll note in advance that, due to how the book is paced, this is a very difficult novel to summarize and I’d hate to give anything away.

Protagonist Eve Laing is a prickly, spiteful painter in her sixties who has had some success with her realistic portrayals of flowers in her works, notably in substituting flowers for the London Underground tube map. She’s brainstormed a new work, one focused on poisonous flowers, which is meant to be her magnum opus.

At first, NIGHTSHADE feels in the vein of Margaret Atwood’s CAT’S EYE (a personal favorite) in that it’s an older creative substantially reflecting on their artistic and personal life while navigating a city.

Then it takes a turn. Then another. And another.

It takes a while to unfurl but, if you have the patience for it, you will be rewarded.

http://www.annalenamcafee.com/nightshade.html

THE SINNER: Season One (2017)

(Netflix/VOD) I watch more horror films than the average filmgoer, and I read a fair number of thrillers and murder mysteries, but I’m rarely disturbed by them. Call it desensitization or practiced separation, but all too often I see it as an academic matter.

THE SINNER S1 fucked me up. It’s a nasty, heartbreaking story but, more than anything else, it’s an extraordinarily cruel tale of abuse, one that I can rarely verbally discuss without finding a bit of a hitch into my breath.

THE SINNER S1 is about a woman, Cora (Jessica Biel), who goes to the beach with her husband and toddler, who then kills a man kissing a woman in broad daylight, amongst a number of witnesses. Cora is arrested, confesses to the killing, and Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) gets assigned to the case and he becomes obsessed with deducing exactly why she killed this man.

The first season of the show is based on the 1999 novel of the same name, written by Petra Hammesfahr, widely considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith. (I disagree with that comparison because, for better or for worse, there will never be another Patricia Highsmith.) While the show hews relatively closely to the book, it does drop some of the darker and stranger elements* while also modernizing the material, tweaking the locale, and changing one noteworthy song.

I won’t go into the hows or whys, but it cuts to the quick of trauma in a way that made me very uncomfortable, but can’t help but extoll. Once I finished the final episode, I immediately started rewatching it, not to see how the pieces added up, but to examine how they pieced Cora’s character together. It’s a surprisingly controlled effort from first-time show runner Derek Simonds, one to be applauded.

If you’d like to read more about it, I highly suggest Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece regarding the first season.

The following second and third seasons are completely separate cases and allegedly, apart from Detective Ambrose and his private life, have nothing to do with the first season or the novel. (I have not seen them, so I can’t say for sure.) A fourth season is in the works.

  • Yes, the book is quite a bit darker than the series. I read the novel a good year or so after watching it, so I’d forgotten what quite what the show excised, but it was probably for the best. For a list of differences, check out the following spoiler-filled article: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/the-sinner-book-differences-incest-murder-nazi-abortion-orgy-usa-network-1201878805/

** Also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zg8-AbXqv4M

MATINEE (1993)

(DirecTV/Starz/VOD) Of Joe Dante’s amazing run of movies though the 80s and 90s, MATINEE is often forgotten, which is a shame because — while all Dante films are paeans to cinema — MATINEE is his magnum opus to filmmakers like Bert I. Gordon and William Castle and the theatergoing experience.

A brief synopsis: It’s 1962. Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is a Navy teen whose parents just moved to Key West. Due to the constant life interruptions, Gene finds comfort in horror films, and more often than not spends his free time haunting movie theaters with his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer). It just so happens that schlocky director Lawrence Woolsey (an utterly delightful John Goodman) is coming to town to show off his latest gimmicky film, MANT!, which is about a man who, due to radiation incurred while having his teeth x-rayed during a dental appointment, turns into a mutated ant. Woolsey’s visit also just happens to coincide with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which has the world on pins-and-needles, especially the Loomis family as their father has been sent out on a Navy submarine mission. MANT! becomes a huge town event, and — as typical of a Dante film — anarchy ensues.

MATINEE was co-written by Charles S. Haas, who also wrote GREMLINS 2, which is unsurprising as it has a lot of the same self-reflexive nods — although few as fourth-wall breaking as GREMLINS 2 — that never detract or take you out of the film.

If there’s one flaw to the film, there isn’t much of a reason why we’re following the Loomis brothers, apart from the fact that their father might be involved with a Cuban Missile Crisis operation, and the fact that Gene loves horror. They aren’t given much to do but, once the MANT! screening unfurls halfway through the film, it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of MANT!, one could argue that it’s -too good- of a horror film, with some overly clever dialogue (which killed when I rewatched it at a recent theater screening) and surprisingly detailed creature design. That said, I realize complaining that the film-within-the-film is too good is a severely stupid nitpick, and please don’t let my dumb quibbles deter you from enjoying both MATINEE and MANT!.

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (2021)

(Netflix) I’m not going to say that THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is good, and I’m definitely going to ignore the author of the source material — I haven’t read the original novel and have no plans to do so, but if you need some backstory, here you go: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/a-suspense-novelists-trail-of-deceptions — and I can certainly see why Tracy Letts was drawn to it. If you’ve seen (previously recommended) BUG, you know how entranced he is by writing about Hitchcockian women, plus it allowed him to indulge his love for classic Hollywood films. (The film runs through the gamut of Hitchcock’s many suspense films and thrillers, but especially the previously recommended THE LODGER and, naturally, REAR WINDOW.)

Allegedly, it got away from him, but it does seem like the film started off with good intent. While the Brooklyn townhouse seems wildly unrealistic as an urban space, I can’t help but marvel at the use of color, space, and general production design. The cast is tremendous, and it’s well-paced, at least until the final act.

Again, I don’t want to oversell this film. Letts has gone on the record saying that adapting it was an extremely unpleasant experience due to the litany of studio notes, and then there were endless rewrites and then reshoots, and I can’t wait for the inevitable oral history of the production that’ll come about in five years or so. That said, if you can overlook the reveal, ending, and epilogue, it’s far more interesting than say, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.

ELECTRIC DREAMS (1984)

(DVD/BR/YT) ELECTRIC DREAMS is an odd high-concept romantic rivalry/surveillance thriller about architect Miles (Lenny von Dohlen, best known as the agoraphobic florist from TWIN PEAKS), his computer, cellist Madeline (Virginia Madsen), and the love triangle they inhabit, one with shades of CYRANO DE BERGERAC.

Given that I was both a computer nerd and practicing cellist as a youth, I’ve seen this film more than a few times over the years. Yes, its portrayal for what a mid-1980s computer was capable of doing was wildly overblown, but it had a fantastic soundtrack — as you would expect as it’s courtesy of Giorgio Moroder — and was extraordinarily shot. It has a number of lush scenes that highlight the difference between video and film, as well as a more than a few fantastically composed visual vignettes, and Madsen is absolutely charming as Madeline. It certainly was one of the first narrative films that ‘spoke’ to me, that made me feel seen, given that it was both about computers and a cellist.

The film features a musical number where Madeline warms up by playing Bach’s Minuet in G Major (what the ELECTRIC DREAMS soundtrack dubs as the ‘Mad Minuet’), which was one of my warm-ups when I was a young cellist so I can’t help but love it, but I also adore how long and -fun- the scene is. I was never a brilliant cellist — although I was good enough to be in a quartet to play for then-Vermont governor Howard Dean — but when I got on a roll, when I was in the zone, it felt just as exuberant and gleeful. You can view the number below:

ELECTRIC DREAMS has been unavailable in the U.S. for some time now, but there was a recent UK Blu-Ray release via Second Sight (https://secondsightfilms.co.uk/products/electric-dreams-blu-ray ). There’s also a copy floating around YouTube that I may have already ‘accidentally’ linked to. (Shh, don’t tell!)

“Hm. Very smart, but weird.”

P.S. There’s a great post-mortem about the film available on YouTube. And, for what it’s worth, there are two scenes I remember vividly from watching it as a youth: the motherboard being washed out, and Madeline’s cello being crushed in the elevator. Madsen’s method time was worth it.

THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927)

(Criterion/HBO MAX/YouTube/VOD)? Hitchcock is arguably the progenitor of modern genre film, which I suppose is why no one thinks of him as a silent filmmaker, but he directed handfuls of silent films before his first sound film, BLACKMAIL, and THE LODGER is one of his most remarkable early achievements.

While THE LODGER lacks the sophisticated visual scene construction Hitchcock would become known for, it does feature a number of his other signature attributes: an infatuation with blondes, startling visual motifs (his focus on the lodger’s right hand, for instance) and sexual tension buoyed by a sense of danger. It also plays with color tinting, has an astounding use of graphic design, and the interstitials are uniquely gorgeous with their use of fonts and background visual elements.

As a mystery, THE LODGER is a bit lackluster, but Hitchcock’s command of cinematic language far makes up for it, and showcases how ahead of his time he was.

As usual, I’ve included a trailer below, but please don’t let it fool you: the restored BFI print that Criterion and HBO MAX have is thrillingly vibrant. There’s also a link to a YouTube copy of the film below and, while it’s more pristine than the trailer, it lacks the tinting of the restored print.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJnoaTzJdLs

Full film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_grf3UHuak