Abruptio (2023)

Abruptio screens at Panic Fest 2023

“Everyone hears voices, right, in your head?” asks Lester Hackel (James Marsters) near the beginning of writer/director/editor/cinematographer Evan Marlowe’s animated film Abruptio. “When you fall down the voices laugh at you. When you succeed they tell you what a hero you are, or more likely that you just got lucky this time. Next time, well… But always this running commentary, and that’s what’s so great about drinking. So alluring, I mean. It shuts up all the voices. Sometimes you just want, just want them all to-”

Les is speaking at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, even if he sounds as though he is describing the effects of schizophrenia as much as addiction. A balding, corpulent schlub who looks much older and acts much younger than his 35 years, Les works nine to five in an office stapling together copies of copies of copies, and still lives at home with his mother (Carole Ruggier), where by night, in a bedroom decorated with movie posters and lava lamps, he watches horror and porn, and practises guitar. 

Les’ life is dull and repetitive – but there are signs that it is unravelling. At work a picture of a bicycle wheel materialises on one of the pieces of paper he is processing. He suddenly stopped drinking two days ago. His ‘off-and-on’ girlfriend Allison (Kerry Finlayson) has just dumped him (“You’ve gotten kind of creepy with your video games and things,” she tells him). And driving home, he almost hits a little girl, dressed in a red raincoat right out of Don’t Look Now (1973), after a mysterious man had pushed her into the road. Then his best friend Danny (Jordan Peele) reveals that they both have had bombs implanted in their necks, and must carefully follow the instructions that are texted to them or their heads will explode – something vividly illustrated almost at once when Danny refuses to shoot Les as ordered. 

Now instead of hearing voices in his head, Les gets texts on his phone, ordering him to execute bizarre outrages, sometimes alone, sometimes with others who include the Borscht Belt comedian Sal (Sid Haig), the cleanfreak accountant Mr Salk (Robert Englund) and the thuggish Clive (Darren Darnborough), each similarly under threat of decapitation and following orders with varying degrees of enthusiasm. For all their id-like atrocity, these missions reward Les with the wish-fulfilment fantasies of quitting his job, moving into a home of his own, acquiring piles of cash, getting revenge on his ex, and winning his (underage) dream girl Chelsea (Hana Mae Lee). Yet the cost for this is bloodily high, and as the President is assassinated, as anarchy erupts in the streets, and as chaos, conspiracy and even Lovecraftian aliens take over, Les’ reluctant rampage leads him to some very strange places.

In fact voices were the starting point for Abruptio, a labour of love seven years in the making. For its cast, including several luminaries of horror, were recorded right at the beginning of the production, and then a team of puppeteers lip-synched life-like models to the voice tracks. Here form is content. For those puppets, in spite or perhaps because of the disarming realism of their warts-and-all appearance and their placement into real locations, hit an uncanny valley which Marlowe exploits to make everything in his film alarming, off-putting and alienating. 

Even before things get weird for Les, they already look that way, as nothing seems quite right and the ick factor hits from the very opening frame, way ahead of all the slaughter, gore and depravity to come. “I guess you get into a rhythm, sort of a comfort zone,” Les had told Danny of his monotonous life – but Marlowe here plays precisely upon his viewer’s discomfort, while offering up a world that is all at once familiar and thoroughly defamiliarised.

Meanwhile, not only is Les presented as a puppet, but increasingly he himself feels like one, as unseen parties pull his strings from the shadows and he struggles to comprehend the purpose of his every action, controlled and manipulated by outside forces. As such he becomes an existentialist (anti)hero in a nightmarish scenario, part Kafka-esque paranoia-scape, part Lynchian fugue, where the lead’s own oneiric escapades conceal a more difficult reality. 

“Confess,” the Police Chief Richter (Christopher McDonald) keeps insisting as he subjects Les to interrogation and torture – yet Richter is expressly not interested in hearing about Les’ recent spate of cold-blooded murders. Rather, he wants Les to dredge up a guilty secret, more deep-seated and more real, from all this illusion, evasion and artifice – and as Les drifts robotically through killing sprees and body disposals, and through increasingly implausible routines from the kind of sci-fi horror that he likes to watch, he must eventually face up, with a new kind of sobriety, to his own unwilling, if not altogether unwitting, part in what has unfolded. 

The resulting trial is an unnerving trip through a man’s addled mind, as he keeps constructing ever crazier cover stories for his own irresponsible actions and inactions, only to find that the transgression he is trying to repress keeps returning in more abominable manifestations. Les’ journey, reminiscent of the long dark night of the soul in the near-naturalistic stop-motion puppetry of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (2015), takes him to places where truth cannot simply be denied and buried forever.

“I can’t believe people can turn into monsters overnight,” Chelsea says of the apocalyptic arena that America has suddenly become – but they can, and Les must undergo harrowing Herculean labours to confront his own monstrousness if something like humanity is to be regained. And so Abruptio, named after the word for a sudden breaking off, involves not just the violent severance of bodies, but the splitting of its protagonist’s psyche. It is a schizophrenic skedaddle from reality, reflected even in the heavily stylised medium that Marlowe has adopted, and ending with one hell of a hangover. The ensuing cavalcade of unease and wrong disturbs and repels, both in equal measure, and in the best possible way.

strap: Evan Marlowe’s animated nightmare exploits its own uncanny valley to deliver Kafka-esque alienation and Lynchian fugue 

© Anton Bitel