It was not easy selecting five ‘top picks’ for Sight & Sound from the Cult programme of the 2016 London Film Festival, not least because the strand is so very good this year. Here are capsule reviews of some of the other Cult titles (excluding The Void and Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children, which I have not yet seen).
Lake Bodom (Bodom)
In 1960, three teenagers camping on the shore of Finland’s Lake Bodom were murdered. Suspects over the years have included the incident’s sole survivor, but no-one has ever been convicted. So Taneli Mustonen’s Lake Bodom, in which a quartet of present-day boys and girls head out to reconstruct those events, might initially seem a Friday the 13th-style lakeside slasher, but in fact it is born from a very real crime that remains one of Finland’s great unsolved mysteries – making it the nation’s cinematic equivalent of Charles B. Pierce’s true-crime exploitationer The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), or even more like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s postmodern 2014 revisit to the same crime scene.
Lake Bodom is also, in its twisted confusion of tall tales and true, rather like Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005). A devious collision between adolescent crimes of passion and adult rites of repetition, it blurs genres and genders to create its own unsolvable crime, while also evoking that parallel proto-slasher from 1960, Psycho.
Into the Forest (Dans la forêt)
Set mostly in nearby Sweden’s lakeside woodlands, Into the Forest follows prepubescent Tom (Timothé Vom Dorp), who, with his slightly older brother Benjamin (Théo Van de Voorde), travels for the holidays from France to their estranged, eerily intense father François (Jérémie Elkeim) in Sweden. Already undergoing psychotherapy for his anxieties, Tom feels that something bad is going to happen before they even leave Paris – but as François takes the boys further and further from civilisation’s realities into a fairytale retreat, Tom must choose whether to surrender to the Devil in his mind or to embrace a barely comprehensible truth.
Directed by Gilles Marchand (Who Killed Bambi?) and co-written by Dominik Moll (Lemming), Into the Forest offers an imaginative child’s view of a very adult tragedy. Think a timbered The Shining, only with the mother effaced from the picture, and with much greater sensitivity towards the toppling father.
“Everything’s bigger in the US”, former police detective Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) tells his students, as he describes an American murderer who flew his victims to the remote mountains before releasing, hunting and killing them. Koichi is also delineating the differences, dictated by culture as much as geography, between serial killers from the US and his own country.
Returning, after his recent forays into arthouse sensibilities (Tokyo Sonata, Journey to the Shore), to the blank-eyed genre neighbourhoods of Cure (1997) and Bright Future (2003), Kiyoshi Kurosawa shows us in Creepy a special, hidden kind of murderer whose hunting ground is the fragile structure of the Japanese family itself, and who could live right next door. In Koichi’s neighbour Mr Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), Kurosawa finds the perfect embodiment of creepiness. He also vacuum-packs into his film a series of vulnerabilities, peculiar to the Japanese psyche, that, however small and domesticated their scale, are easily manipulated and directed by a master.
The Noonday Witch (Polednice)
Jiri Seder’s feature debut The Noonday Witch is equally rare for being a Czech take on genre and a daylit horror. Eliska (Anna Geislerová) returns in the middle of a summer drought to her late husband Tomáš’ childhood home in the country, but as her young daughter Anetka (Karolina Lipowská) begins to grasp that her father is not, as Eliska claims, away on business, tensions mount, and the fairytale of the child-snatching ‘noonday witch‘ (immortalised in Dvořák’s symphonic poem of 1896) risks being tragically realised, not for the first time, in this rural community.
A focus on maternity and madness make comparisons with The Babadook (2014) inevitable, but Geislerová’s close physical resemblance to Jessica Chastain also evokes both 2011’s The Tree Of Life (the Malickian wheat fields help) and 2013’s Mama – while the eternally returning mother-daughter dynamic (and intimations of rape) also point to the fertility myth of Demeter and Persephone. Both mythic and modern, and beautifully shot too, The Noonday Witch eclipses expectations.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Set in a family-run morgue, André Øvredal’s follow-up to 2013’s Trollhunter (Tolljegeren, 2010) has father-and-son coroners (Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch) working one night on the corpse of a Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) found at a domestic scene of multiple homicide. Presented with the paradox of a body that shows no sign of external injury, but that conceals a complex chart of ritualised pain within, the pair find themselves unearthing a long, horrific American history of patriarchal violence against women – violence which they unwittingly reenact, and for which they, and others, must pay a heavy price.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe carefully balances charm, mystery and frights, without ever forgetting a feminist subtext wherein it is better that past wrongs against women, however traumatic, be faced than merely buried, ignored or passed on.
Blue Velvet Revisited
In 1985, David Lynch allowed young German filmmaker Peter Braatz to document the production of Blue Velvet. Three decades later, Braatz has remixed his behind-the-scenes Super-8 footage, black-and-white stills and interviews (several audio only), and added a score by Cult With No Name, Tuxedomoon and John Foxx.
In a subtitle, Braatz wisely styles this collation “a meditation on a movie” – wisely, because these abstractly arranged archival materials barely qualify as a film in their own right, or even as a particularly coherent DVD extra. Their interest rests entirely in their parasitic relationship to the film-in-the-making that they revisit, conjured in the moment, with admirably little hint of hindsight, through often amateur-seeming secondary footage that has only now acquired its importance by association.
© Anton Bitel