Come out to play: nine of the best Cult titles at the BFI London Film Festival 2017

Are you sitting uncomfortably? From medieval witches to prison fights, Hitchcock’s gruesome visions to a UFO death cult, the transgressive, marginal and sometimes deeply odd films in this year’s Cult programme are full of surprises.

Anton Bitel
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Let the Corpses Tan, the latest from Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Let the Corpses Tan, the latest from Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Of all the strands that make up the London Film Festival, programmer Michael Blyth’s Cult section is perhaps the hardest to define. For it offers refuge to precisely those titles that defy categorisation, transgress boundaries and sit uncomfortably with the viewer. It is where the weird, the wonderful and the perverse come out to play, and where the monstrous and the marginal find their centre. These nine recommendations from the strand exemplify Cult’s omnivorous, if odd, tastes.

 

Thelma

Joachim Trier, Denmark/France/Norway/Sweden

“Jesus Satan!” giggles Thelma (Eili Harboe) nervously, spurred on by her new friend Anja (Kaya Wilkins) to utter the most blasphemous expression she can. Raised a strict Christian by overprotective parents, Thelma is doing what might be expected of any young person who has flown the coop: trying new things, testing her boundaries, falling in love. Her parents still keep her on a short leash, insisting she phone them every evening without fail – but she does not tell them about the seizures that she has been experiencing, or about her feelings for Anja.

Having internalised much of her parents’ instruction, Thelma is uncertain about who she is and what she wants, but her desires – desires that she has always been taught are wrong – keep sneaking up on her. This conflict deep inside Thelma makes her the embodiment of the Jesus/Satan dichotomy. She might be either – or both.

Nobody could have expected Joachim Trier, the Norwegian director and co-writer of Reprise (2006), Oslo, August 31 (2011) and Louder than Bombs (2015), to turn his hand to a reimagining of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) – and yet that, and more, is what he has done with Thelma’s slow-burn coming of (r)age, presented all at once as a repressed young woman’s psychotic fugue of fantasised empowerment, a provocative Second Coming and an unnerving supernatural horror. In a film where being trapped under water or ice is a recurrent motif, Thelma dives deep before eventually coming out – and the result is an involving apocalypse of adolescence.

 

The Endless

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, USA

The Endless (2017)

“I wanna go back,” says Aaron to his sceptical older brother Justin. Aaron is sick of the urban rut in which they have become stuck – a seemingly endless cycle of temp jobs, poverty, bad food and sex-free alienation – and longs, nostalgically, to return to Arcadia, the country commune which they left ten years ago.

Justin’s recollections of the ‘UFO death cult’ are less rosy, and when he reluctantly joins Aaron on this trip down memory lane and finds a different kind of cyclical rut out there, defying all rational articulation, he starts to wonder if they can ever truly move on.

Significantly playing the two leads themselves, polyhyphenate filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Resolution, 2012; Spring – reviewed in our 2014 Cult round-up) are also going back, revisiting key themes (the finite versus the infinite, freedom versus control) and even locations and personae from their past filmography, on a reflexive quest for a ‘fresh start’ (the name of the cleaning company for which the brothers work) in literal cult moviemaking.

The looping twilight zone that they have created is, paradoxically, both a familiar retread of previous work and a springboard for something genuinely, unnervingly original, as their cinema becomes not only a reeling trap for its characters, but also a space abstract enough to liberate them forever.

 

Rift

(Rökkur) Erlingur Thoroddsen, Iceland

“It feels like something is missing,” declares Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) of Rökkur (literally ‘twilight’), the remote Icelandic holiday home where he is staying. He is there to check that his ex-boyfriend Einar (Sigurður þór Óskarsson) has not gone over the edge – but the fissure in a nearby lava field which comes to represent the rift in their relationship also conceals a different sort of absence, in this gay ghost story from Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen (2016’s Child Eater).

As a mysterious presence stalks Gunnar and Einar, they exchange stories of invisible childhood friends and abusive first loves – and in his attempts to solve the mystery of a region that he describes paradoxically as being both hot and cold, Gunnar cannot help rushing, Oedipally, into danger foretold. What emerges is an ambiguous, creepy study of conflicting desires and haunting pasts – as well as a literally glacial take on Don’t Look Now (1973).

 

Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse

Lukas Feigelfeld, Germany/Austria

“You should be burned down, you witches,” shout three grotesquely costumed male figures outside a snowbound hut, “We’ll get you!”

Lukas Feigelfeld’s feature debut is set before the Age of Reason (in the Austrian hinterlands of the 15th century, to be precise). It deals in paranoia and superstition on the outer edge of civilisation. It features a black goat. Even its title foregrounds an Old High German word for ‘witch’. Which is to say that comparisons with Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2016) are as inevitable as they are fair.

Yet in many ways this tale of a single mother (Aleksandra Cwen), herself the child of a single mother (Claudia Martini), subsisting in a hut by the deep, dark Alpine woods, plays out like a medieval, feminised Eraserhead (1976), as trauma, abuse, oppression, isolation, anxiety and delusion – not to mention mushroom-induced hallucination – reduce Albrun to a horrific, desperate act against her own blood. Feigelfeld uses amplified sound design and MMMD’s intense bowed-bass drones to conjure an otherworldly presence from the starkly beautiful natural settings. This is a sensual, slow-burning tragedy filled wth ominous awe.

 

78/52

Alexandre O. Philippe, USA

78/52 (2017)

Few film sequences have proven so influential, iconic and iconoclastic as Marion Crane’s violent death in a motel-room shower from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Named for this sequence’s 78 pieces of film and 52 cuts, Alexandre Philippe’s documentary exhaustively contextualises, analyses and deconstructs the sequence which Hitchcock made the centrepiece of his violent assault on cinematic mores and audience expectations, unprecedentedly devoting seven days to shooting (from Saul Bass’ meticulous storyboards) what would end up as a mere 45 seconds of screen time.

This is a thorough anatomisation of the sequence, carving it up into framing, lighting, makeup, editing, Bernard Herrmann’s extraordinary score and the melon-and-meat foley work, all of which add up to a shocking, dispiritingly cynical moment from which cinema has never recovered. An impressive gallery of filmmakers, film historians, critics and Psycho scions (Hitchcock’s granddaughter Tere O’Connell Carrubba, Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Leigh Curtis, Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood) is on hand to provide the commentary – and even viewers who think they know the sequence backwards will find plenty of incisive new insight here.

 

The Cured

David Freyne, Ireland

The Cured (2017)

The Maze Virus causes animalistic rages and cannibalistic urges, in a pattern familiar from any other number of disease-driven variants on the classic zombie film – yet what distinguishes David Freyne’s feature debut is that it is not set mid- or post-apocalypse, but rather in a period of recovery, as a cure has been found for the infected. Returning to his widowed sister-in-law (Ellen Page), Senan (Sam Keeley) must come to terms with prejudice, persecution and the guilt for what he has done during four years of rampaging illness, even as his manipulative fellow patient Connor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) sees the opportunity for a Machiavellian power-grab in the new dispensation.

This rehabilitation of walking-dead tropes comes with unusual resonances. The cured stand in for traumatised refugees struggling to be assimilated and accepted, or more particularly for home-grown jihadists returned (with blood on their hands) from the Middle East. The Dublin setting recalls the divisiveness of the not-so-distant Troubles, while the virus’ very name echoes the Maze Prison once used to house paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. It is proof once more that there is life yet, wherever there is also intelligence, in this otherwise moribund subgenre.

 

Brawl in Cell Block 99

S. Craig Zahler, USA

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Ex-boxer, ex-addict, ex-dealer Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is always burdened by his past, and always trying to turn things around. Downsized and at a nadir in his marriage ever since his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) miscarried, Bradley decides to go back to dealing, and to try for another baby. Eighteen months later, Bradley and pregnant Lauren are living the American dream of high profit and luxurious nest-building – when a pickup gone wrong sends Bradley to jail, and into a situation where once more he must fight for his family’s future.

Writer-director Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) switches deftly from social realism to pulpy schlock (with the appearance of exploitation legend Udo Kier signalling the shift) – yet Bradley’s struggle to crawl his way up from rock-bottom remains essentially the same whether he is a working man in an urban milieu, or a bone-crushing Jesus in a hyperbolic genre setting. Either way, he is caught in a systemic socioeconomic trap that it is well-nigh impossible to escape. Ultimately, whether the ultraviolent horror that we have witnessed is real or merely a prison-cell reverie, it remains the American nightmare.

 

My Friend Dahmer

Marc Meyers, USA

Drawn from John ‘Derf’ Backderf’s 2012 homonymous graphic novel about his real-life high-school acquaintance with a future serial killer and cannibal, Marc Meyers’ film is a dark-edged coming-of-age story. In 1978, shuffling, oddball loner Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch), with his family legacy of mental illness and his fetishistic interest in “what’s inside” roadkill, already seems a psychopath in the making, when he is unexpectedly adopted by aspiring artist Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends, who form a ‘Dahmer Fan Club’, exploiting and imitating Dahmer’s misfit weirdness to ‘disrupt’ the school and act out their own adolescent rebelliousness.

While some memoirs are designed to show their author in the best light, My Friend Dahmer is different. If at first Dahmer seems to flourish under all Derf’s attention and ironic lionisation, Derf fails him utterly as a friend, encouraging and enabling his most antisocial impulses. We already know the monster that Dahmer will become, but Meyers also focuses on the better person that he might have been, and the toxic formative experiences (Derf, ubiquitous homophobia, a troubled home life) that prevent this and mould his tragic trajectory, pushing him into living up to his own cult image.

 

Let the Corpses Tan (2017)

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Belgium/France

Let the Corpses Tan (2017)

The searing sun. A shot is heard. A bullet shell falls. Extreme close-ups on three faces. A gun is aimed. A man says, “I never miss, is this what you want?” A woman replies, “Do it, fire at will.”

Shot tight and cut up impressionistically, this opening suggests a Mexican standoff in a spaghetti western – but the bullets, it transpires, are being fired into a paint-splattered canvas. The artist is Luce (Elina Löwensohn), a decadent bohemian living in an abandoned hamlet on the Mediterranean coast and happy to accommodate rough, tough Rhino (Stéphane Ferrara) and his equally hypermasculine friends just so long as they keep her interest aroused.

In fact these man plan to use the village as a hideout after violently stealing a crate of gold bullion. When two leather-clad motorcycle cops (Hervé Sogne, Dominique Troyes) show up, the shooting starts in earnest. Luce, a sensualist who harbours sadomasochistic fantasies about more than one kind of golden shower, will play off all sides against one another to see who is the last (wo)man standing – like the re-gendered antihero of an oater from Sergio Corbucci or Giulio Questi.

Also turning gunplay to high art are filmmaking couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears), as they deploy canted angles, violent jump cuts, Bava-esque colour schemes, fetishistic dream sequences, recycled scores and mannerist in-camera trickery to disorient the viewer and to revitalise their source material (Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid’s 1971 novel Laisser bronzer les cadavres). Under Luce’s (and Cattet’s) errant gaze, men with guns are eroticised, much as the typically masculine cinematic forms that they inhabit (the western, Euro-crime) are uniquely feminised. With these orgasmic shootouts putting the fuck into clusterfuck, perverse desires transmute low genre into pure gold, yielding my favourite film from a very strong Cult strand.

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