Beyond the bounds: identity, adolescence and ethics in the BFI London Film Festival Cult strand, 2018 first published (under a different title) by Sight & Sound. It includes capsules of: The Cannibal Club, Lords Of Chaos, May The Devil Take You, Cam, The Nightshifter, Knife+Heart, School’s Out, All The Gods In The Sky, Assassination Nation. [Elsewhere I have reviews of the other cult titles from LFF 2018: S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete, Bill Oliver’s Duplicate, Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad Tumbbad and Panos Cosmatos’ mind-blowing cosmic revenger Mandy,]
This year’s LFF Cult strand is, as always, an expertly curated potpourri of the outré, the odd and the extreme. Variety is the rule, with the only unifying theme being the transgression of ‘normative’ borders. Here are nine Cult titles trafficking their goods across the blurred boundaries between youth and adulthood, between the living and the dead, between right and wrong, between reality and delusion, and between the different classes, genders and ideologies that make up our collective identity.
The Cannibal Club (O Clube dos Canibais)
“Everyone has the right to go over the top once in a while,” declares Congressman Borges (Pedro Domingues). He is part of the Cannibal Club, a secret society of Brazil’s patriarchal élite that likes to fuck – and then to murder, butcher and eat – the hired help, in a ritual of carnal entitlement.
Yet as Club member Otavio (Tavinho Teixeira) and his pampered wife Gilda (Ana Luiza Rios) will learn, hypocrisy – specifically Borges’ – is maintained at a very high price, and the less privileged – like new caretaker Jonas (Zé Maria) – can often prove more capable than their monied masters. Accordingly Guto Parente’s darkly funny class satire offsets oppression with revolution, and keeps showing the blood, vomit and cum that bespatter and sully these characters’ immaculate-seeming lifestyles.
‘Inspired by’ Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderland’s non-fiction book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground (1998), Jonas Åkerlund’s coming-of-ager is a tale of toxic masculinity writ large. In conservative Norway, young disaffected guitarist Øystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin), aka ‘Euronymous’, defines himself by ‘true Norwegian black metal’ – a movement that he invents and runs like a cult, with its entry-level music store, its exclusive ‘black circle’ and its confused mix of authoritarian codes and rebellious posturing.
In an environment where ‘poser’ is the greatest insult (and where everyone is posing), Øystein becomes trapped in a power struggle with Christian (Emory Cohen), aka ‘Varg’, as either one tries to establish their Satantist authenticity in a game of chicken which soon escalates to church burnings and bloody murder, “All this evil and dark crap was supposed to be fun,” observes Øystein ruefully – but as ‘fucked-up reality’ intrudes and victims die hard, this is a painful, often devilishly funny look at male adolescent insecurity and idiocy.
May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput)
It is often claimed that, stripped of its meaning or context, the phrase ‘cellar door’ constitutes one of the most aesthetically pleasing sounds in the English language. A cellar door certainly features prominently in this (Indonesian-language) feature from genre maximalist Timo Tjahjanto (Headshot; Killers; Macabre), but what it conceals is just as important as its appearance.
For beneath a villa in the jungle, Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) once entered a Faustian pact with a Priestess (Ruth Marini) to enrich himself, and now, decades later, the Devil has come to collect, pursuing the souls of Lesmana’s oldest daughter Alfie (Chelsea Islan) and her step family. In the Evil Dead-style scenario that follows, Tjahjanto deftly flings all manner of witchcraft, voodoo and splatter just to see what will stick. In this fairly straightforward but busy horror, the subtext may be shallow, but the blood runs deep, ensuring the viewer one hell of a crazy night.
“That person is not me!”, Alice (Madeline Brewer) insists of Lola, her ‘cam girl’ persona. Alice is used to compartmentalising and code-switching, keeping her private, home life separate from her working status as a sexual plaything to online clients. Yet as Alice struggles to climb the cam girl charts, spending more and more time in her cyberspace chatroom and pushing every boundary, her virtual self assumes a life of its own.
In Daniel Goldhaber’s feature debut (co-written with former sex worker Isa Mazzei), Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, David Lynch’s psychogenic fugues and the Doppelgänger myth are all brought into the digital age, as a young woman finds that, once she has made her image available on the Internet, she no longer has control over it. What ensues is SF/horror evoking Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it is also a smart allegory of the commodification and appropriation of our online identities.
The Nightshifter (Morto não fala)
Having discovered that his wife Odete (Fabiula Nascimento) is sleeping around while he works the night shift at a hospital morgue, Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) manipulates a gangster into murdering Odete’s lover. Unexpected consequences leave Stênio looking after his two young children, with help from Odete’s lover’s daughter Lara (Bianca Comparato). Quickly the household is torn apart by anger, guilt and recrimination.
Except that, in Dennison Ramalho’s debut feature, Stênio is also blessed/cursed with the ability to talk to the recently dead – which is how he found out about his wife’s affair in the first place. Accordingly, The Nightshifter is part Biutiful (2010), part Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), with an implacably vindictive ghost returning to reify the dysfunction that has taken possession of Stênio’s unhappy home. It’s a gory, unpredictable melodrama, where morality survives mortality.
Knife+Heart (Un couteau dans le cœur)
“You have killed me,” director Anne (Vanessa Paradis) meticulously etches into the frames of a gay porno for her ex-lover – and editor – Lois (Kate Moran) to see as she cuts the film. It is not the only kind of cutting to take place in Yann Gonzalez’s follow-up to You and the Night, as a masked figure murders Anne’s young male cast with a switchblade dildo – and Ann incorporates elements of this real crime into her latest skinflick Anal Fury, now retitled Homocidal.
Set in 1979, lit in stylised reds, blues and yellows and featuring convoluted whodunnit work, this might at first seem like a classic giallo queered via Cruising (1980) and Stranger by the Lake (2013) – but through allusions to the haunted porn theatre of An American Werewolf In London (1981) and the burn-scarred dream slasher of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Gonzalez locates desire and loss in the oneiric transgressions of cinema itself.
School’s Out (L’heure de la sortie)
It opens with a taboo image: a prolonged gaze into the blazing sun that would blind the viewer in real life. In the seemingly safe corridors of private school St Joseph’s, amid regular drills against terrorist intruders, a more generalised mood of menacing unease lurks. After a teacher leaps, mid-lesson and without warning, from a top-storey classroom, his replacement Pierre Hoffman (Laurent Lafitte) becomes at first intrigued, and increasingly obsessed and alarmed, by an adolescent sextet of arrogant, affectless overachievers whose conspiratorial conduct and destructive games point to a future catastrophe which he cannot quite grasp.
This sense of impending doom pervades the latest film from writer/director Sébstien Marnier (Irréprochable, 2016), a Ballardian mystery which deftly shifts gears from Village of the Damned-style ‘creepy kid’ mechanics to a much grander apocalyptic vision, with the school a mere microcosm of the explosive tensions beyond its walls. This is an unnerving parable of a world that will not acknowledge or understand the warning signs constantly before its very eyes. Think Take Shelter (2011), for a smart new generation that refuses to look away from approaching catastrophe.
All the Gods In the Sky (Tous les dieux du ciel)
Simon Dormel (Jean-Luc Couchard) has people – his factory supervisor, his assigned psychologist, social services – worried about his state of mind and fitness to care for his younger sister Estelle (Melanie Gaydos), left severely disabled by a game gone wrong two decades earlier. Simon himself, though, is not worried – for he awaits the arrival of a higher power that will sweep him and Estelle away together forever.
Exquisitely designed like something from Jeunet and Caro, yet darker even than their Delicatessen (1991), All the Gods In The Sky shows siblings locked into a ménage à trois with one celestial authority or another, and tests viewer sympathies with its challenging narrative symmetry. For as writer/director Quarxx tells a story of horrific trauma and the lasting scars of guilt, recrimination and madness, the familiar narrative trajectories of escape and revenge transform themselves into a difficult, deluded modern fairytale, deforming the conventions and expectations of the New French Extremity.
When a malicious hacker exposes a community’s shameful secrets, rapidly transforming the sprawling suburbia of Salem into a lynch mob of aggressive jocks, killer cops and puritanical throwbacks, four sex-positive high-school girls (one trans) are subjected to a witch hunt, and must call upon their sisterhood to fuck the patriarchy. From the ashes emerges a whipsmart, confronting bloodbath set in a deeply divided America, as the forces of feminism, LGBTQA rights and progressive identity politics combine to smash retrograde Trumpian chauvinism in the face with a shovel.
Writer/director Sam Levinson’s postmodern satire first updates the poison-pen paranoia of Le Corbeau (1943) to the social media age, before descending into the licensed anarchy of The Purge (2013). It is a vibrant – and increasingly violent – coming-of-age story unfolding along the perilous fault lines of America’s culture wars, where, with borders closing, new lines must be drawn.
© Anton Bitel