When I Consume You had its UK première at Celluloid Screams 2021
Perry Blackshear‘s feature debut They Look Like People (2015) featured two friends, played by Evan Dumouchel and MacLeod Andrews, working together through the demons and delusions of mental illness. So when, some way into Blackshear’s third film When I Consume You, David Castille (MacLeod Andrews) tells his new friend Wilson Shaw (Evan Dumouchel), “We all have ghosts, we all have demons, we all have all these strange things when we can’t accept the world around us,” it is almost as if we are witnessing a sort of reprise. For in a film from the same writer/director/cinematographer/editor, the same two actors are once again accommodating the fanciful and the supernatural as a way to negotiate real problems. In fact what follows will veer wildly from the narrative trajectory taken by They Look Like People, upending our expectations along the way. Yet the truth remains that these films – and Blackshear’s middle feature The Siren (aka The Rusalka, 2019) as well – all use the trappings of genre (monsters, demons, spectres, etc.) to expose the all-too-human psychologies of characters who are lost souls. For all their specific differences, what unifies these three horror films is an underlying psychological subtext, coupled with a real emotional intelligence.
The lost souls in When I Consume You are Wilson and his younger sister Daphne (Libby Ewing), both long out of touch with their parents, and both damaged by a childhood trauma running so deep that it still stunts them in their adulthood. Daphne longs for a family of her own, but a decade lost to alcoholism and drug addiction precludes the possibility of adoption, even if she appears to have been straight for the last five years. A college dropout turned janitor, Wilson in many ways remains a “lost little boy” into his thirties, is still prone to panic attacks, and lacks the basic qualifications to get even a look-in at his dream job as a teacher. They are each still haunted by their own demons, but what they do have is one another, and though living in separate New York apartments, they spend a lot of time in each other’s company being genuinely loving and supportive. Whenever either faces a crisis or challenge, the other is always there to provide encouragement and comfort.
So when one day Wilson finds his sister dead in her own apartment surrounded by occult paraphernalia and empty pill jars, his world falls apart. Refusing to accept the police verdict that she succumbed to an overdose, he instead pursues the shadowy figure who was looking in her window when Wilson arrived on the scene, and who then impossibly evaded Wilson’s pursuit. Wilson’s deranged search for this mystery man coincides with his own obvious mental decline and drift into alcoholism. Soon he is being visited by the late Daphne who guides him towards her killer, and readies him – from beyond the grave – to do battle with a demon that has in fact been plaguing the Shaw siblings since they were frightened children. Along the way, angry, hopeless Wilson must learn to let go – of his childhood, and of his sister – and to stand up for himself. It is a path to self-improvement that will see him doing workouts in Rocky-style montage, and embracing a Buddhist attitude towards the pain, suffering and affliction that life can bring. Yet the all-consuming foe that he must face comes from within as much as from without, and may never be entirely dispelled.
Like all of Blackshear’s films, When I Consume You operates at a level of ambiguity. On the one hand, it concerns a demonic soul-eating trickster who plagues the survivors of a broken family, luring them into acts of self-destruction. On the other, it reveals deep scars of dysfunction and despair which, seen from the inside, take on monstrous form and must be fought in kind – and in kindness. In other words, this is a film whose genre tropes are reducible to psychology, and/or vice versa – but either way, it is a profoundly sympathetic portrait of a man in free fall, who, dogged by a past from which he is always struggling to emerge, must constantly call upon his sister’s love, whether as internalised memory or as actual ghostly presence.
“I dreamed that I died and became the wind,” Daphne had written in a journal that Wilson finds. Aside from Mitch Bain’s excellent electro-industrial score which occasionally, insidiously enters the soundtrack as a marker of intruding entities (or at least of intrusive thoughts), the pervasive, recurring sound in When I Consume You is precisely that of wind in trees, as a signifier of transience and loss, but also as a consolation of sorts. Perhaps that is all that remains after we die – that final exhalation of spirit, set free into the atmosphere. Perhaps there is no heaven or hell, no angels or demons, but just a transfer of energy, a susurration in a tree’s leaves that we might imagine, however fancifully, is a lingering soul. Perhaps Wilson alone enshrines Daphne’s afterlife, in memories triggered by that sound of wind. Yet in building a narrative frame for his irrational inner feelings, and in learning finally to say goodbye, even disturbed, distressed Wilson can find a way to go on living, himself moving onwards and upwards. Here, Wilson’s angry, unfocused mission of revenge ends up being a slow path to healing, in a film that generously sees beyond its hero’s seemingly terminal mental anguish and very real physical pain to a delicate promise for the future – even if personal demons will still occasionally come a-knocking.
strap: Perry Blackshear’s latest feature is an affecting mix of siblings and psychodrama, as a grieving brother faces his demons.
© Anton Bitel