The ‘lobby card’ for this film reads,
Strange things are afoot in Bad City. The Iranian ghost town . . .
In fact the film was shot in the USA, with funding from Sundance, and the settings look as much like downtown Detroit as any urban area in Iran. The film has enjoyed good reviews from a number of quarters and has a catching trailer. However, ominously, it is also rather flashy. Which would be my single word summation for the film.
It runs for 101 minutes, though it seemed longer to me. The plusses are black and white cinematography, which, at time, is very good. And the pitch for the film is intriguing. Variety sums up as follows:
[This] debut feature spices its genre stew with elements of Lynchian neo-noir and even spaghetti Western.
This is true, though my sense of the film was that it relied heavily on borrowings from earlier films. Not just those suggested above but Jim Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and the animated Persepolis (2007).
The plotting struck me as undynamic. And the style, whilst at times eye-catching, does not add to the brew. The techniques in the film appear to have been used rather haphazardly. To give one example, the use of deep focus. This technique depends on lenses, focal distances and lighting, but when well done can be very effective. In this film early on there is a scene with deep staging, but it is in shallow focus: not very helpful. Yet later in the film we get deep focus when the characters are in the foreground and there is an impressive palace in the back ground. The latter relies on CGI, which affects the technique. But I sense that the filmmakers did not really notice this discrepancy.
The Guardian review awards the film four stars. It also mentions another film directed by an Iranian-US citizen, Appropriate Behaviour (2014): a far superior offering. The review ends with
It’s a film with bite.
I reckon you can say that about all vampire movies, but some have sharper fangs.
Apart from co-productions, I think I’ve only seen one other Venezuelan film and that was at a festival. All credit then to Matchbox films, the distributor of the UK DVD released today, 27th April. In some ways very familiar, this is actually quite a complex and unusual film. Ostensibly a distinctly Hispanic Gothic ‘haunted house’ story, the title reveals that there is also a ‘time’ dimension which adds a further element to the mix.
The central character is Dulce (played by Ruddy Rodriguez), a mother with two young boys living with a man who is the father of the younger child. The narrative begins in 1981 when Dulce is arrested for the murder of her partner in circumstances she doesn’t really understand. Thirty years later she is released from prison but held under house arrest in the same old house. Where are her two sons? By constantly moving between 1981 and 2011 the story is gradually revealed. This ‘reveal’ also requires an ‘investigator’, here a young priest. Added to the Catholic discourse is a visit from a medium and a spirit guide drawn from Venezuela’s African and indigenous cultural mix. The priest will discover that the house has a history and that previous families who lived there also had problems.
At the beginning of the film I felt that there was something odd about the aesthetics of the film and for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be Spain or Latin America (I hadn’t checked before sticking the DVD in the player). The haunted house and the female-centred family melodrama have been explored in several high profile Spanish films including El orfanato (2007) but I sensed rather than saw directly links to Mexican horror films like Kilómetro 31 (2006) or in the case of the spirit guide, aspects of Cuban cinema and Santería (a religious tradition found across Cuba and Venezuela). Another Cuban link and the first indication that confirmed Latin American cinema for me was the importance of baseball.
I can’t imagine that first time producer-writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo had much of a budget to play with but he handles the complex shifts in time and the repetition of sequences from different perspectives very well. The house itself is a great setting and although the pacing and use of music teeters on the edge of constant portentousness, he manages to keep control and deliver. Looking at the comments from various horror fansites the film has gone down well with its intended audiences. If I have a criticism it’s that I would like to have found out more about the early history of the house, but really the story is complex enough and the closing sequences spring some surprises and twists. I hope the film finds its audience in the UK.
Official trailer (US?):
Marie is a young woman living in a small fishing town on Denmark’s North Sea coast (it was filmed in Thyborøn). Although the houses look as if they were built in the 1950s or 1960s, the locale is presented in a subdued palette and accompanied by mists in CinemaScope compositions which suggest timeless images of desolate coasts and stormy seas. Marie’s father is the ever reliable Lars Mikkelsen and her mother is another Danish film and TV regular Sonja Richter. Marie and her father take turns acting as nurse for her disabled mother who needs a wheelchair and help with eating and personal care. Marie visits a doctor with minor symptoms of something she doesn’t understand and she is a little alarmed/disturbed by his detailed examination and promise of another appointment. She is about to start work at the fish-processing plant, the only significant employer in town. Inevitably there are young men who want to tease her and others who want to date her. Soon, however, it is apparent that the attention she receives is more than most new young employees might experience.
When Animals Dream is a genre film and it runs a modest 84 minutes. It doesn’t manage the complexity and rich layering of meanings achieved by Let the Right One In. Nor does it manage to harness another genre like the youth picture in the same way as the excellent Ginger Snaps, even though it does use adolescent desire as part of the narrative. I enjoyed the film, especially in its use of the location which is redolent of so much Gothic horror (as well as very different kinds of drama such as Babette’s Feast which shares a similar location). Partly, the problem is that werewolf stories conventionally require a number of ‘transformation’ scenes in which the central character has to metamorphose before us, putting pressure on budgets for make-up and special effects – which for me never do very much. I think this film would have been greatly improved by less effects work and more focus on the various narrative strands. One promising narrative begins to uncover what happened to Marie’s mother and how it came to be that her ‘disease’ was contained. There could also have been some development of Marie’s relationships with a couple of the young men.
On the positive side, the performances of the leads are excellent and Sonia Suhl who plays Marie is believable as Sonja Richter’s daughter. There were moments when I wasn’t quite sure if it was mother or daughter. The best scenes are those when Marie and her father have to confront the townspeople – all of whom seem to know the secrets of Marie’s family. Here the film moves into the territory of ‘small town classic drama’.
Not much has been written about the film yet but I noted another example of a trend which seems to be developing – beating up on your own film industry. One Danish poster on IMDB condemns foreign critics who gush over the film when from his Danish perspective this is just another example of a poor Danish film. The same poster in effect repeats the Swedish argument about horror films – i.e. Scandinavian audiences are so familiar with American and British horror that they see their own as inferior. I think they are wrong to do so but I’ve given my reading above. When Animals Dream is a debut directorial effort by Jonas Alexander Arnby from a script by Rasmus Birch. Birch has a track record but Arnby has nothing listed for the last 10 years before this film (when he worked as an Art Director and short film director). The budget for When Animals Dream is listed as €4 million which is much more than most UK horror films get. The money has been well-spent on the look of the film, but perhaps more of it should have gone on script development?
Despite my reservations, I think this is definitely worth seeing (the ending is quite gory if that is your interest) and it has been acquired for UK distribution by Altitude Films.
Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!
The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .
I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.
It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)
The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.
I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.