[Last year, Musings paid homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to films we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutter’s Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Our first round of Produced and Abandoned essays included Angelica Jade Bastién on By the Sea, Mike D’Angelo on The Counselor, Judy Berman on Velvet Goldmine, and Keith Phipps on O.C. and Stiggs. Over the next four weeks, Musings will continue with another round of essays about tarnished gems, in the hope they’ll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. —Scott Tobias, editor.]
There are certain generally held expectations about the relationship between reality as we live it every day and films set in a dystopian future. No one who has watched even a few minutes of cable news in the last decade or so could doubt that contemporary American life, in some ineffable and undeniable way, currently exists within one or more Paul Verhoeven films. But while the broad strokes generally rhyme, some crucial details don’t quite match up. The hearty tonal psychosis, relentless soul-deadening violence, and amorphously horny militarism are very much in place, but contemporary life still lags behind the Verhoevenverse in terms of extremely ambitious lapels on men’s suits, routine space travel, and robotic cop technology. Natural as it is to envy the efficient transit system of Cohaagen’s Mars or even just wish for a little more Renee Soutendijk in the monitors, this is generally good news.
There is one notable exception to the usual reality-to-dystopia ratio, though, that is both humbler and infinitely more unsettling. On September 11, 2006, Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was the most ambitious and expansive of the independent horror auteur’s career, and a long time in the making. Fessenden started writing the film in November of 2001; producer Jeff Levy-Hinte began shopping the script, on which Fessenden collaborated with the writer Robert Leaver, in 2003. It was a horror movie, but more specifically it was a Larry Fessenden Horror Movie, which is to say a doomy character-driven mood piece, with the dominant mood being Choking Dread. Also, it was about climate change, and set at a remote oil company outpost in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve where debates about the ethics of natural resource exploitation give way to something darker. It was not going to be an easy sale, in other words, and it did not sell. Levy-Hinte struck out with the larger independent studios.
“Every one of them said the movie would be a ‘tweeny,’” Fessenden told Indiewire in 2007, “in between genres—not horror, not drama—and passed.” The film was eventually financed with a grab-bag of private funding; after scouting locations in Alaska and Canada, Fessenden wound up shooting most of the film in Iceland, with the Icelandic Film Commission coming on as a co-producer. The production started in March of 2005, and the conditions during the three-week shoot mirrored the chaos in the film—“in subzero temperatures, or in un-seasonal rain, or winds of 40 knots, or blizzards, or a blistering sun,” Fessenden wrote in August of 2006. “Iceland is experiencing acutely the radical temperature shifts from global warming even today, and many of the outlandish scenarios in the script were actually occurring.” Fessenden immediately re-cut the film after its TIFF premiere; months later, IFC beat out a few competitors for the rights to it. “There was no bidding war,” Fessenden told Indiewire.
The Last Winter opened in a limited theatrical/streaming release in late September of 2007 and grossed less than a hundred thousand dollars worldwide. It’s perhaps the fullest realization to date of That Larry Fessenden Feeling, which connects an astute and engaged social consciousness with a certain freewheeling reverence for horror’s foundational myths. But, more to the point, The Last Winter holds a bleak record for dystopian films given how quickly its central conceit went from disturbing speculative fiction—literally the stuff of a horror film, albeit a low-key and dread-intensive independent one—to an observable, scientifically quantified fact. The Last Winter posited the melting of the Alaskan permafrost as an opening onto the end of everything else when it opened in six theaters in September of 2007. It was a little less than a decade before reality caught all the way up—to the first part, at least.
Molly stares into the camera, a woman undone, with bleary eyes close to the color of the red REC icon tucked away in the top right of the screen. She shivers and shakes, ready to make her confession. “Whatever happened,” she says in a quivering voice, “it wasn’t me.” She produces a knife from off camera, pressing the blade up tight to her throat before pulling it away. “He won’t let me,” she exhales.
This confessional start to 2011’s Lovely Molly will seem familiar. It’s the same sort of tearful, emotional, one-on-one-with-the-camera breakdown made famous in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, where documentarian Heather apologizes for dragging her cohorts into certain doom. That familiarity isn’t an accident—both Lovely Molly and Blair Witch came from the same filmmaker, Eduardo Sánchez. Yet while The Blair Witch Project has entered the horror pantheon, Lovely Molly has slipped through the cracks. This film did not benefit from the same “is it real?” hype that lifted Blair Witch and it takes a different approach to fear, using its slow, cerebral sense of dread to explore mental illness. But its blurred line between supernatural horror and mental illness is equally compelling. Unlike Blair Witch, Lovely Molly is not purely a “found footage” film but a commingling of traditional narrative style and the mysterious, voyeuristic footage that Molly films with her mini-DV camera. The film traffics in a queasy, unentertaining dread that even Blair Witch didn’t approach. The plot is similar to the wildly popular first Paranormal Activity film but found none of the same renown. Perhaps this is because instead of being filled with harmless jumps and loud bangs that fade from your mind the minute you exit the theater, Lovely Molly is more visceral, more unrelenting. It’s an unpleasant film, riddled with open, still-bleeding wounds of trauma. It is, at heart, a horror film about abuse, and the ghosts that linger long after the abuse has ceased.
Lovely Molly evolved organically. On the director’s commentary for the Blu-ray release, Sánchez says the film was originally going to be more “Blair Witch-y,” implying a rougher, jerkier experience, until cinematographer John W. Rutland turned it into something “more polished.” The house the film was using for production was owned by an equestrian, and consequently filled with horse images and memorabilia. As a result, Sánchez layered a surprisingly ominous undertone involving horses: heavy sounds of hooves clattering in dark hallways; the wet, thick sound of horses exhaling; hints of the demon Orobas, a horse-headed creature dubbed in demonology as “Great Prince of Hell.” The horse element is never fully explained, though, which makes it all the more eerie and unnerving.
Picture a film director at work. Once upon a time, the popular image would have been of a man wearing jodhpurs and an oversized hat, sitting in a canvas chair with a megaphone in his hand. Action! Nowadays, the generic look runs to backwards baseball caps and gigantic headphones slung around the neck, and our director (still mostly men, sadly) is more likely to be peering intently at a monitor than shouting instructions. In both cases, though, what springs to mind is the classical shooting process: assemble cast and crew on set or location; decide where to put the camera initially and whether or not to move it from that position during the shot; guide the actors through as many takes as necessary; that’s a wrap.
As anyone who’s ever worked on a movie knows, the above is only a tiny (albeit crucial) aspect of the director’s job, which begins well before principal photography starts and continues long after it ends. “Director” is just a less pompous-sounding synonym for “Orchestrator,” which would really be more accurate. Even a tiny, low-budget film requires hundreds of creative and practical decisions to be made, and while many of those tasks can be delegated, one person (theoretically) is the final arbiter, weighing in on everything from costumes and props to script notes and camera lenses. Consequently, much of what a director does is essentially invisible. At the very least, it’s difficult to ascertain just by watching the film.
The recent horror movie Unfriended makes that more starkly clear than any movie I’ve seen in ages. My gut feeling is that the film is brilliantly directed, by a Georgian-Russian filmmaker named Levan Gabriadze. But it’s hard to say for sure, because few of the usual associations we make with movie directors at work apply in this particular context. Even after watching and reading multiple interviews with Gabriadze (and with the film’s screenwriter, Nelson Greaves), it’s not clear to me how much of Unfriended was shot and how much was more or less created in post-production. Nor am I sure that the distinction matters.
Unfolding in real time, the film takes place entirely (save for the last five seconds) on the screen of a laptop belonging to a young woman named Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig). Early on, Blaire accepts a Skype call from her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), and she eventually winds up simultaneously Skyping with four other friends—as well as the vengeful ghost of a classmate, Laura Barns, who committed suicide after being bullied. The plot is silly, but the technique is astounding. If it were just a bunch of kids yammering at each other in Skype windows (and it becomes that in the second half, unfortunately), it would stilll be pretty impressive, given all the opportunities for things to go wrong. But Unfriended goes much further than that. It’s a movie in which the protagonist, for all intents and purposes, is a cursor.
Right from the beginning, Gabriadze and Greaves (and notice that here, already, I feel compelled to credit both of them, because I’m not at all confident about stating who did what) are remarkably willing to risk alienating viewers. Blaire—or, rather, Blaire’s Cursor—opens multiple applications throughout that hide her friends from view…though one face is often partially visible at the edge of the screen, just to keep us alert and paranoid. The Skype windows are consistently obscured, for about 10 minutes straight at one point, in a film that’s barely 80 minutes long. She pulls up Facebook, YouTube, iMessage, Spotify, Gmail, her Chrome history, various websites. And she uses all of those apps exactly the way people use them in real life. When she wants to hear music, we watch as she goes through her playlists (“June playlist,” “lovey shit,” “partayzzzz”), selects one called “rando,” and then clicks on a particular song, which is thankfully not Imagine Dragons’ “Every Night,” clearly visible. But the truth is I’ve never heard that song, so I just now switched over to Safari and pulled up the song’s video on YouTube, and while listening to make sure it’s bad enough for that joke to play, I made a different joke on Twitter (using a dedicated app called Janetter) and quickly checked my email, which for some reason I still do via a UNIX shell, and then I realized that my iMac screen for the last couple of minutes looks exactly like Unfriended. Minus the friends.
(Also Jesus Christ that song is terrible. May I never hear that again.)
Obviously, this would get tedious in a hurry were it not expertly paced, and Gabriadze keeps things moving briskly. Or maybe he just instructed whoever’s handling Blaire’s MacBook to keep things moving briskly—again, I’m not sure how much of this is post-production wizardry. Plus, most of what Blaire’s Cursor does is at least tangentially related to the narrative—she’s messaging privately with Mitch about the dead girl, or looking up creepy posts on unexplainedforums.net (not an actual site). But the verisimilitude, especially for Mac users, is off the charts. At one point, Blaire tries to stop whoever’s harassing them—using the dead girl’s Facebook account—by informing Facebook that the account’s owner is deceased, and we watch in real time as she goes through what appear to be all of the actual steps involved in memorializing a Facebook account, including providing a link to an online obituary. By multiplex standards, that’s almost avant-garde (the whole sequence is silent, except for clicking), and it’s topped later by a ticking-clock horror scenario in which Blaire needs to trash a file but temporarily can’t empty her trash because she keeps getting a pop-up alert that says “The operation can’t be completed because the item ‘sample-saturday.night.live.s39e02.miley.cyrus.hdtv.x264-2hd2.mp4’ is in use.”
I’ll say that again: This is a horror movie that wrings suspense from the question of whether a person using a MacBook Pro will figure out, in the nick of time, which application is using a downloaded torrent of a “Saturday Night Live” episode hosted by Miley Cyrus. And it’s not even the actual episode! It’s a sample!
If you want a sense of what Unfriended looks like, it looks like this: