Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, May 12, 2017

Burnt Persona Jessica Drives Again (to Death, Sister): SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016)

Rolling through the ghostly corridors of a lonely girl's small town 70s American mind, via director A.D. Calvo, rides a retro-homage to the young girl-sunk-to-madness horror films of auld. SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016) exudes such a confidently lyrical, intertextual, and retro-pastorale poetry over its nicely brief running time (78 minutes) that one can forgive it not really having anything new or even coherent to say. It builds up and works and delivers its scares and moments of quiet beauty, with cinematography that masterfully evokes the 70s work of early Vilmos Zsigmond and captivating performances by its two leads, Erin Wilhelmi and Quinn Shepherd. SWEET is a 'Shudder Exclusive' and worth the $4.99 a month if that's what it takes, as Shudder is like a benchmark of cool horror -- it's curated, not just a single company's catalogue, and you can tell its lovingly curated by fans in the know by their selection. Not to be pluggy, but it's relevant to the casket hand - by which I mean the easy death of 'currency,' that is to say any movie made today can choose to look older, like a tween at Forever 21. No one from 20 years ago would want to deliberately evoke bygone eras of filmmaking, but I'm glad they finally do now. The past is perhaps the one place we can still escape the washed out look of HD video, even if the past is shot on it. For old 35mm film stock now makes even yesterday's crap look better than today's zillion dollar opuses. Everything is topsy. If it will ever turvy again, well.... there's always the movies.

Sent by her weary mother to work as a helper for a secretive (and wealthy) shut-in aunt in her big, eerie Victorian house (above), bookworm Adele (Wilhelmi) tries to reconnect but the bitchy aunt insists on merely leaving demanding notes slid under her door. Is she even her aunt or some creepy monster hiding itself in there? If you've seen any movie made in the 70s, you'll naturally be suspicious. The house is big and very still and lonesome and the Gothic gloom of Adele's situation begins to get to us almost immediately. But Adele, Bronte-esque as she is, bops along listening to lit FM pop songs on her possibly slightly anachronistic walkman. And... wait, who's that chick?

It's Beth (Quinn Shepherd), rocking a delectable 70s midriff at the local grocery store and holding an apple and the gaze of a shop clerk; later, in a gloomy bar, the two girls strike up a friendship and soon Beth is dropping by the Victorian  mansion and bad influencing Adele into all sorts of things, until it's too late to extract her persona from the vortex. Not that we want her to, but what's the deal? Don't think about it, just enjoy the eerie vibe Calvo generates using little more than deep shadow--such as the dark, empty nearly Edward Hopper-esque chasm space of the local watering hole.

The 'two opposite female personas melting into one another' artsy subgenre of the 60s-70s, the 'wild free spirit helps alienated young wallflower open' lesbian after-school 70s special episode; and the horror 'is this all a dream of Jane Eyre's crazy attic dweller post-Lewton Victorian Gothic' and the REPULSION-ish "distortedly loud ambient sound" genre--they're all here. Fans of 60s-70s feminine psyche horror mind-fuckery like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and BURNT OFFERINGS will love, as I did, mostly, the dallying through the graveyard with their brass rubbing materials, having long sapphic gazes, trying on Victorian attic clothes, and trying to get a peek at the agoraphobic invalid behind the door at the top of the stairs, or the child's corpse in the graveyard. Just because loving these films you'll also spot foreshadowing and predict future scares doesn't make them less enjoyable when they come, especially as Calvo makes no attempt to hide them or reference their sources. The erotic story of a beach tryst Beth tells Adele during their getaway is lifted wholesale from PERSONA (1966), which is then seen, briefly, very very briefly, on TV, and further checked via some 'was their lesbian tryst / psychic merge a dream or real?' facial merging. Things start to get really real when... well, I've said too much.

Beth in bed at the cabin (Note Pazuzu on night table at left)

All in all SWEET isn't necessarily a game-changer but it's beautifully filmed and does strike the kind of deep mythic chord even quoting directly--from split-female psyche films like Bergman's PERSONA (1966), GO ASK ALICE, Lynch's TWIN PEAKS and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001), cracker factory girl bombs like REPULSION (1965)CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1968), LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1972), BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), the "A Drop of Water" segment from Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963), and of course the 1970-72 lesbian vampire 'Carmilla-wave.' Just seeing any movie that uses JESSICA as a blueprint for itself (right down to the brass rubbings in the graveyard, the attic antique dress-up/down and the weird ghostly whispers of her name) has to be doing something right. While these references are really all it has under its sleeve, SWEET fits nicely next to recent work discussed elsewhere in this site, like AMER, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and IT FOLLOWSKISS OF THE DAMNED, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, and Ann Biller's THE LOVE WITCH. The emerging retro-modernists (pastiche-ists?) operate on the principle you've already seen the movies they love, and rather than remaking them or working around them, they incorporate their direct thematic tropes like colors on a palette or burglar tools to spring through the vents along the smaller, horror fronts that uses retro-analog stylistics to intensify the melancholy of half-remembered small town isolation and approach things from a more dreamy mixture of after-school special and women's lib horror with sapphic awakening pastorales.

The trying on old clothes in the Victorian attic with a possibly ageless vampire lesbian bit was, I thought, basically over in indie film since all that great Victorian stuff finally fell apart (it lasted much longer than our modern pre-fab shit, which is why there was so much of it still around in the 70s when it would surface in films like Let's Scare Jessica to Dea
If there's not a lot else going on other than the trope-checking and excellent cinematography by Ryan Parker, who cares? You'd think was a cinematographer branching out into film, a kind of Terence Malick of horror, rather than vice versa due to the continued emphasis on gorgeous composition and fading light indoors lit by a single multi-colored lamp, or a rotting pomegranate on a table at night in a thunderstorm, all twisty and alive like a rotting old Dutch master's still-life.

Those who recognize all the quotes should have no problem respecting all this as homage as, for the most part, Calvo quotes his sources like a man, a man who's not afraid of dipping his unmoored eye down into the split-feminine psyche (even the tale of the beach tryst lifted wholesale from PERSONA has an echo--in Godard's lifting Batailles' Story of the Eye for a similar part of WEEKEND). People can argue about men doing split-subject female movies but I think it's natural, and too bad more women don't do the same with men, as Kathryn Bigelow, whose HURT LOCKER is still probably the most profound movie about the masculine psyche since RED RIVER. From a Jungian archetypal perspective, our creative soul in dreams very seldom appears to us in the same guise twice; the subconscious ego/anima of every sane man is an insane woman; all demons are haunted by their inner angel or vice versa. The nature of the universe is in gravitational pulls spinning everything madly around on both sub-atomic and macro-galaxial reality level, everything interlocked and reflected so that every Rochester has a madwoman in the attic. As the enigmatic Beth, Shepherd is both alive/seductive and zombie-like her motives stay shadowy, she's a composite; she not only lifts that sexy beach narrative in PERSONA but notes the Jane Eyre reference herself. Don't ask questions or you become guilty of listening, but to whom? If you get your anima to even talk to you at all, you must be either crazy or lucky. Lock her away behind thick Victorian wood and she still passes you notes and whispers. The gay or lesbian pair-bond confounds traditional Jungian dialectics, of course, and the result is like electric guitar feedback, the creative inner voice looping on itself and drowning out the male ego altogether. It's a kind of death-drive freedom to imagine our complete lack of our own presence.

But it's the truly unnerving work by Wilhelmi that lingers in the mind--with a face that seems at times very old and others like a child, she has a homeschool Heather Graham-ish vulnerable good cheer in the face of utter ambivalence from both mom and aunt. We wonder how quickly we'd lapse into morose depression in similar circumstances (or maybe already have) so her ability to keep trying wins us over and then--when she gets slightly bonkers--we realize we're already in too deep to escape. We thought we were escaping via this movie, escaping maybe from other less captivating retro-genre pastiches, like THE VOID.

The only drawbacks to my mind are 1) yet another in the decade's apparently inexhaustible joyless HBO-brand rutting smash-cuts to signify a kind of depressed ambivalence (you know the kind, a girl and guy meet for the first time and we smash cut to the girl's expressionless face as the dude mechanically ruts at her from behind like some spastic dog). and 2) the Lite FM 70s hits by the likes of Classic IV, Bread (cover), Lobo, and the unfortunately-named Starbuck ("Moonlight Feels Right") which feels kind of like a missed opportunity. Music is so integral to doing these retro films right, and one dreads to imagine similar music choices burdening the amazing analog synth scores of Disasterpiece (IT FOLLOWS), Tom Raybould (THE MACHINE), Dixon and Stein (STRANGER THINGS), Sinoa Caves (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW), The Gifted (SOUTHBOUND) and so forth, and I get all weak in the knees. Joe Carrano' relies instead high overly familiar eerie string sustains and scales, bongos and rattles making one wonder if they weren't secretly culled from some 70s PD cue library. Sound mixing is sometimes totally psychedelic, but the tinkling bell outside the aunt's room should have been a big shock (since she's dead) is buried under a cascade of piano mashes and stuttering drums and Beth whispering her name close into the mike, "Adele..."

But I'll forgive it a lack of point or logic or analog synthesizer with the same generosity as I appreciate the lack of torture porn, imprisonment, MISERY-style sadism, progressive isolation (i.e abuse) or moping, and I do love it's short and the photography and the way the theme of doubling and splitting of the feminine psyche fits the pastiche nature. Linear 'sense' is a linear phallic male construct and it ain't artsy. It's not like we learn at the end of VERTIGO if Jimmy Stewart has been dead all this time from a great fall-it's the difference between a 'twist' like in THE SIXTH SENSE and 'art' like in POINT-BLANK --if you need an answer as to whether Walker is alive or dead then man you're a square! Who complains is not artsy - and he who is artsy, um... man, listen, man. I don't mind, man, that even unto the last frame we're never quite sure--anymore--what is real, and at the very end, one more final reference, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944, below) brings the Val Lewton savvy full fore.

Shudder being worth getting at $4.99 a month is thus affirmed. One wonders just where GIRL might have wound up without it. So often these films get either ignored at the festivals (by distributors who aren't quite sure how to market them), or bought up and then relegated to the shelves for years or changed by studios who demand it make sense or have a point before sinking advertising into it. Shudder is there to do a rare and important job in unearthing the near-gems from the vast fields of shiite, not to say there ain't a shair fare of that at Shudder too. But I take odd comfort in them, for in our loneliness and despair, the devil sent classic horror fans a friend. Whether or not this Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is real or just a homicidal amalgam of past images, reflections and hazy memories, riffs on photos both still and in motion, we'll take her.

1. for my curated list of cool retro-analog synth scores from 2015-16, have Spotify and go here.

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