Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lace Crater (2016) - A Review

Some one night stands last forever.

As human beings, we have all felt the painful sting of isolation and loneliness. Whether you like it or not, we're social creatures and we crave the love and attention of our peers. It's hard-wired into our being, and for many of us, the thought of spending the rest of our lives alone is one of the most terrifying prospects out there.

Harrison Atkins tackles this exact subject in his first full length feature film, Lace Crater, starring Lindsay Burdge, Peter Vack, Jennifer Kim and genre favorite, Joe Swanberg (VHS, You're Next). In what is presented as a dark comedy, the film follows the life of Ruth (Burdge) following a late night tryst with a ghost that causes her body to undergo strange and unidentifiable changes. Atkins take a long look at loneliness as a human condition, and what it can drive us to do in order to feel some level of love, acceptance and affection.

As the film opens, we are introduced to our core group of players: a group of friends traveling to a vacation house in the Hamptons for a night of drug fueled, drunken debauchery, or in their case: to do ecstasy and cuddle all night long. From the get go we are shown that these people are all expressing their desire and need for companionship in different ways. Andrew (played by Andrew Ryder) describes the details of a painful breakup that he is embroiled in, while still expressing the idea that he would like to maintain a friendship with her (whoever she may be). The entire group takes a drug that is specifically designed to enhance human interactions, and we see the characters start reaching out to each other for varying degrees of affection. In an audio-visual montage, we see each of them discussing the painful areas of their lives in what appears to be an attempt to simply be heard, regardless of whether or not anyone is actually listening. We also see that Ruth is interested in Andrew, while she battles her own past-relationship demons, fearing the idea of a long existence much in the same way that Andrew is fearing his.

All of this exposition takes place within the first 25 minutes of the film. By the time our ghost shows up, Atkins has managed to pain Ruth's emotional state on a multi-colored canvas for us to observe and to make this meeting between Ruth and this sad, little spirit that much more special. Through prolonged silences and lingering shots, he captures the awkwardness of their meeting in a meaningful and touching way; he brings to life a feeling that we have all felt with the use of little to no exposition - butterflies in your stomach. You can feel how excited they are to be with each other. To feel something with each other, and in this regard Atkins wastes little time on subtlety. While I won't dwell on our ghost too much (half the fun of this film is meeting him and getting to know him yourself), we see two people who are profoundly lonely, who have managed to find each other at the right time, and who find solace in their shared feelings. It says a lot about our need for companionship, in that Ruth is so starved for affection that she literally sleeps with a dead person to feel alive. 

While I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of this film, I have to say that I got a little lost
somewhere between the second and third act. While Atkins seemed to work so hard at injecting symbolism and imagery into the first half, the second half seemed disjointed and poorly executed. While the first half had some touching and genuinely funny moments, the second lacked all of that and went a very dark route that I normally would not protest, but that just felt out of place in a film like this. I understand that Atkins was attempting to give our ghost some depth; however, he ended up taking the film in a direction that was a little disconcerting and confusing. Dynamics between certain characters made little sense and I had trouble understanding why certain events took place when the first act seemed so well thought out. Maybe I'm overthinking the film as a whole, but I don't think I am, I just think that the film lost a few screws as the run-time wore on. It's hard to get into specifics without spoiling anything, but I would love to have a deeper conversation with someone regarding this film and the events throughout the final act.

That being said, I did find Lace Crater to be a very entertaining look at the effects that loneliness can have on our psyche, and the things that it can drive one to do. Although, I stand by my statement that things got a little wonky at the end there, I do believe that Atkins kept the heart of his story throughout, and while I had questions, they were not enough to turn me off to the film as a whole. While 

Lace Crater was far from a comedy (as it was described on the internet), it was still a very interesting look at a fear that so many of us are all too familiar with and I love that aspect of it. If you are interested in catching a viewing yourself, Lace Crater premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September but will be receiving a limited theatrical roll-out in the US, or you can catch it on a VOD platform in a living room near you, this Friday, July 29th.

Until next time, keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Blackout Experiments (2016) - A Documentary Review

I am ready to accept my failures.

Haunted houses sure have come a long way. What you may remember as dimly lit hallways of an elementary school, complete with bowls of skinless grape eyeballs and spaghetti noodle brains have transformed into full on nightmare farms where your deepest psychological fears slap you across the face and call you their bitch. BLACKOUT, in specific, is at the forefront of this movement.  

Now, I first heard about BLACKOUT when it was brought to Los Angeles back in 2012 (I believe it was, details on BLACKOUT are insanely hard to come by) when a friend suggested it to me. All that you could really find out about it was a set of very specific rules: you had to be 18 or older to enter, you had to walk through alone and you had to sign a waiver releasing BLACKOUT from any liability should you be hurt, killed, maimed or worse. Oh yes, you're also given a safety word, should you not be able to handle the visceral onslaught you're about to be thrust into. Now, of course I was immediately drawn to it, I had to do it. But I didn't, because I was poor and I couldn't afford the ticket. C'est la vie. Lucky for me though, I was able to catch a screening of the brand new documentary which chronicles the experiences of four people who are BLACKOUT junkies, The Blackout Experiments, so I was able to see first hand what it truly entails for those willing to submit themselves entirely to the experience.

The documentary was directed by Rich Fox who works primarily as an editor and has a scant two directing credits to his name, one of which being The Blackout Experiments and the other a documentary released in 2001 based on tribute bands, aptly titled: TRIBUTE. While I initially expected this documentary to focus on the technical aspects of BLACKOUT, it went another route and focused entirely on the experiences of a group of people who have turned to the haunt in search of something more. These are not people who are fear junkies, they genuinely find BLACKOUT to be something of a spiritual experience. The way that they speak about it is not completely dissimilar to the way I've heard people speak about psychedelic use in that they believe that the experience is there teach them about themselves and to help them grow to be stronger and more able individuals. In that regard, I loved this documentary. To hear of something that is regarded as mindless shock value described as an enlightening and life changing experience was endlessly interesting. I was drawn to these people's stories with a morbid fascination; in many ways, I felt like I was getting an inside glimpse of a cult. The interviews are shot in pitch black rooms, intermingled with a cerebral editing style, not too dissimilar to what the haunt appears to present to its participants, and this intermixed with the chilling soundtrack help place the audience in the headspace necessary to dive into what BLACKOUT is all about.

At one point we are introduced to an elite core group of enthusiasts who are hand chosen by the creators of BLACKOUT called "Survivors". These are people who have walked the haunt numerous times and who have all gleamed positive experiences that they've integrated into their daily lives. They have regular meetings together, they eat and drink together, and if they are lucky enough they can receive special invitations to off-season events that are tailor made specifically for each of them; amplifying their own deepest fears that the team behind BLACKOUT has kept a detailed account of over the course of their relationship with the haunt. This shit is insane, and it's all thanks to creators: Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor. As the documentary goes on to show, they wanted to build an experience that would challenge people's fears, their minds and their psyche. They discuss how they want these participants to tackle their fears head on, and to ultimately come out of it viewing it as a positive experience. Obviously most people would think the idea of BLACKOUT being a positive experience to be an insane one, but this is what make this documentary so interesting.

Over the 80 minute run-time, we see our core group endure an onslaught of emotional trials that causes them to reassess their feelings about BLACKOUT, for better or worse. While one young man reaches a point of anger, claiming that the experience is merely a form of abuse that only a masochist would willingly submit themselves to, the others seem to reach a point of religious fanaticism in which they cannot find happiness in any other place. The limits of their fears are tested in various ways, be it the fear of failure and lack of acceptance, or for another it's lack of control (OCD). We, as the audience, get to see their journey through BLACKOUT as they go from their first experience to their very last, in which they are offered an ultimatum that is life changing. In this, lies the true genius of what Randall and Thor are attempting to accomplish with this endeavor. You see them in a state of dismay as they attempt to understand what they are supposed to learn from this startling revelation. Through this we see how they have grown as people through something that so many others view as simple shock value and that is damn impressive in today's day and age.

As I mentioned earlier, there is virtually no information on the internet about BLACKOUT. A quick Google search will not deliver much, it will bring up a few videos and a slew of reviews which tell of negative experiences dwelling on the disgusting and vile things that one is subjected to within the haunt's black, tarped walls. Aside from the few videos on the official website and various reviews from people who have experienced it themselves, we know nothing about it's background, why, where or when it was started, there aren't even prices listed. This documentary does so much more than just attempt to explore the inner workings of BLACKOUT because in doing so, it would essentially taint what makes it so special in the first place. The fear and appeal of this is that so little is known about it, because it is not about presenting you with new things to fear, it's about fearing what's already inside of you when you walk through those doors. What The Blackout Experiments really show is how a group of people were given what was needed to fight some of the biggest demons in their lives and come out the other side as better people. I think that this makes what Randall and Thor are doing one of the greatest contributions to the horror world that we've seen in years and years, and I applaud it.

It's almost difficult to refer to this as a "haunt" as it is just so much more than that. To call it a haunt almost seems demeaning to what they've so painstakingly created. This is more than a simple haunt, it is quite literally an experience. So, in closing (as I know I've been rambling), I'll say this to Rich Fox himself: your documentary has opened a new door to me and I've spent more time contemplating the things that you've presented in your documentary than I have with any other film in recent years. You've taken me from the role of a passive observer, too cheap to buy a ticket myself, to someone who is unsure if they are willing to look into that darkness and see what might be peeking back. As a lifelong fan of the horror genre, thanks for giving me something to fear again.

Keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins