Faceless After Dark had its world première on Fri 25th Aug at FrightFest
Faceless After Dark opens with a picture of trauma. A woman (Jenna Kanell) sits, staring straight into the camera, her face anguished, with blood visible in her hairline. She is strobe-lit (in striking bisexual colours), and her distressing image is further disrupted and diffracted by jarring, glitchy freezes, even as the very frame of the picture shrinks in on her. We do not yet – and will not until we have reached the film’s bitter end – know the context of this sequence, but there are two clear intertexts at work here: first, her short hair, androgynous appearance and direct, defiant gaze all evoke Cécile de France’s (anti)heroine Marie from Alexandre Aja’s Switchblade Romance (Haute Tension, 2003), so that anyone familiar with that film will be primed to expect a subversive, psychologised rôle reversal of slasher conventions; and second, the image of a colourfully lit woman in agonised ecstasy under an intense strobe effect inevitably conjures the climactic sequence of Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna (2019), which, like Raymond Wood’s feature, is a metacinematic film set in the world of filmmaking, with the (mis)treatment of women at its heart.
The woman in the opening scene is actress Bowie Davidson, caught in what her friend Ryan (Danny Kang) calls “a lull period”. Her last rôle was as the kickass final girl in a sadistic low-budget slasher with a cult following whose clownish villain has proven more iconic and marketable than she is. Ever since, she has been stuck with a dumb catchphrase that she cannot stand, and a legion of creepy male fans who – despite the death of her onscreen persecutor – seem determined to keep his flame alive by endlessly hassling her at low-rent film conventions and online. Meanwhile, Bowie sees her girlfriend Jessica Jennings (Danielle Lyn) becoming an international movie star, and Ryan getting his film greenlit for production just so long as it stars a ‘name’, which is to say someone better known than Bowie. Of course, with its killer clown, Bowie’s breakout film is obviously like Terrifier (2016) – and Kanell, who both stars as Bowie and co-wrote Faceless After Dark with Todd Jacobs, was indeed the final girl in Damien Leone’s notoriously misogynistic throwback slasher. So when Ryan suggests to Bowie, “Why don’t you just make your own shit?… write what you know,” there is the strong impression that this is precisely what Kanell herself is doing here, as she turns her post-Terrifier experience into a film of her own.
Left alone in Jessica’s beautiful LA home while Jessica herself is on a shoot in London, smart, sensitive vegan millennial Bowie feels beleaguered not only by negative thoughts about the state of the world, but by constant unwanted, often aggressive male intrusions into her DMs, texts and phone requests. Then one night as she sits at her computer to start writing a screenplay, she writes only “Int. house – night” (and correcting “int” to “ext”, in a sign that we may be seeing her interiority become externalised) before distracting herself with smoking, drinking, half-hearted paid video message recording and solo karaoke, and finally crashing. Yet as though we are seeing the inner working of her writing come to life, or the nightmare of her drunken unconscious, a stranger in a clown mask (Max Calder) breaks in from outside, seemingly determined to recreate the circumstances of Bowie’s last film – and this home invasion will cause Bowie herself to start putting together her own reimagining, with the tables very much turned on all of her oppressors.
Faceless After Dark is a story of feminist revenge, where the final girl is the ultimate maniac, and where one woman’s sense of frustration, helplessness and rage in a man’s world finds its violent cathartic release. As such it turns its chosen subgenre inside out, inverting the normal gendered dynamics of victim and villain, and granting Bowie a way to act, film, direct and edit without any outside interference – and the result of her labours is something like the film that we are watching. Which is to say that this is a sophisticated, self-reflexive work that tracks its own making as the fulfilment of a dark, unhinged fantasy, while co-opting Bowie’s fanbase into rôles as objectifying as the one that they try to impose on her.
Like David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005) or Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist (De Kuthoer, 2019) transplanted to Hollywood, Wood’s film allows us to entertain a different kind of horror scenario, whether played out on its protagonist’s blank page, or in her unraveling mind, or on the brutalised bodies of her enemies. Yet even in her ascendant assault on regressive patriarchal values, Bowie is herself very much part of the problem, while her transgressive actions remain open to the same sort of exploitation by others which triggered her in the first place. In other words, she is as trapped in the end as she was in the beginning. Yet Bowie’s tragedy is Kanell’s triumph, as she moulds for herself (and for us) a complex, mercurial rôle in a genre that normally prefers reductive simplicity. This is a great new horror protagonist, and an astonishing performance.
strap: Send in the clowns: Raymond Wood’s revenge slasher smartly subverts the gendered norms of Hollywood horror
© Anton Bitel