Lamb is a foggy creepshow about a farming couple in the Icelandic foothills who happen upon a ‘gift’ from nature in the form of a child. Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason star as Maria and Ingvar, the childless couple, and their routine has them miserably plodding along with the farm chores in this treeless and rocky land. As dull as this might sound, it’s actually a quietly fascinating start to the film, which may be down to the oft-mentioned ‘otherworldly’ landscape. Icelandic folk must be tired of everyone going on about their topography.
The opening is a slow tracking shot through a snow-swept exterior, via a herd of tiny horses. We end up in a barn full of frightened sheep with the hint of something off screen – the eyes of the sheep are a clever way to suggest this. Later, as Maria and Ingvar are birthing lambs, an ‘arrival’ (unseen by the viewer) clearly provokes shock, then decisiveness. For a good further 15 minutes or so, whatever they delivered is kept out of shot until, finally we see the child. Now, surely the writers (Sjón and director Valdimar Jóhannsson) didn’t plan for there to be titters and snorts, but unfortunately, at the reveal of the child, Ada, that’s the default setting.
The ‘family’ are content, except for the annoyance of the birth mother – A SHEEP – constantly bleating outside Ada’s window. Maria sorts out this problem and things are going well until the visit of Ingvar’s brother, Pétur, played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson. Pétur is pretty much every member of the audience when he asks, “What the fuck is going on here?” Ingvar’s reply of “Happiness” doesn’t quite scan with Pétur, but after his initial shock, he reluctantly accepts this situation.
There’s a lot of food for thought on the intentions of the filmmakers here. Lamb seems to have its roots in Nordic folk tales, but it could be read as an anti-disablist statement or a pro-nature tract. Maria’s insistence that “Ada is a gift” is no doubt magnified by the loss of her children (we see her tending to a small plot of graves at one point – one of which has the name Ada on the cross), but nature takes an alternate view on her understanding of this. A curiously simplistic, almost minimalistic, style is used to present this complex tale. Suffice to say, Lamb is an odd, captivating film that will stay with you days after watching.
Catholic horror cinema has seen something of a resurgence over the last near-decade off the back of the Conjuring series (although it may be on its way out, if The Devil Made Me Do It is any indication). But, much like with the prevalence of Catholic doctrine in the Western world, its persistence in modern cinema can give the impression that this is the only way that the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. It grips the spotlight, while its myriad of offshoots around the world, linger in the shadows. Offshoots like Brujeria, a Mexican witchcraft practice that owes as much to the traditions of the indigenous population as it does to those brought over by colonisers.
It is Brujeria which forms the core of this film, a very different look at the standard exorcist horror flick.
As shown through the psychological lens of main character Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales), the way her reactions and Marcos Gabriel’s writing establish the scepticism of the story is quite effective. First shown bound by the wrists and with a sack over her head, the audience is put in the same position as her, fearing the circumstances that led to this. And throughout, there’s a continual Flanagan-ian tinge, where questions are asked about how much of what is shown is actually happening.
But as the narrative progresses, and more of Cristina’s own history is made evident, the question of how much is real fades away and is replaced by another, potentially even scarier question: Is she still meant to be here?
While framed with Brujeria tradition and an emphasis on demons made corporeal, the film’s structure is closer to the cold turkey scene in Trainspotting than it is to any recent films involving exorcism.
Cristina’s own figurative demons of addiction and childhood trauma are refracted to depict rehabilitation and demonic possession in a similar light: You’ll lie all you need to to get out of being helped, but it’s only with confrontation that the healing can begin.
It adds interesting textures to the larger story, which is made up of two-thirds psychological detail and one-third proper buckwild horror cred. And as captured by Canales’ amazing performance, ramping up the on-screen charisma to match the raw watchability of the film around her, it makes for an invigorating character arc with relatable chuckles and even a genuine moment of fist-pumping badassitude.
The Old Ways is a refreshing change of pace for one of horror cinema’s favourite cliches, imbuing it with equal parts gripping character work, chewy thematic subtext, and a cultural aesthetic that deserves more shine than it usually gets in this part of the cinematic world. It’s a story of personal triumph that, both in-story and on our side of the screen, serves as an example of persevering not just for one’s own sake, but so that others can be helped to overcome their own demons.
Non-horror fans, and genre snobs in general, will tend to look at movies like The Stall (2013) or I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday (2017) and opine “a real sicko must have made that” or perhaps ask “who the hell is that movie for?” For director/special effects creator Mike Lombardo – one of the main subjects of agreeable documentary The Brilliant Terror – this is par for the course. In fact, Mike fairly regularly gets death threats for making movies that assorted online wingnuts don’t care for and feel their dissatisfaction is best expressed through promises of graphic violence. Lombardo tries to shrug this off with dogged affability. Hey, it’s a living.
The Brilliant Terror focuses on the creative efforts of the so-called “grassroots horror” movement. These are films made so cheaply that a “shoestring budget” would be a considerable step up. Frank Henenlotter’s conjoined camp classic Basket Case (1982) looks like The Lord of the Rings trilogy compared to most of these flicks. And yet, the creators themselves are almost uniformly thoughtful, passionate and genuine types who simply express themselves through a rather niche form of creative expression. After all, who else but someone truly committed to their craft is going to lie in an ocean of (fake) blood on a toilet floor in the wee hours, shooting a short about a Lovecraftian incursion into a toilet stall? You don’t see Paul Thomas Anderson getting up to that kind of gear!
It’s not that the movies in The Brilliant Terror look particularly good, mind you, but that’s beside the point. This is a documentary in line with the likes of American Movie (1999), with some wry observations and hilarious anecdotes. There’s stuff about Gitchy (2009), a short about a morbidly obese clown who tickles people to death. “It’s huge in the tickle fetish community” director Thomas Norman assures us. There’s a nice cameo from horror author Brian Keene, getting slathered in blood and gore for Fast Zombies Suck (2015) and the welcome revelation that instant coffee makes for “good coagulated blood!”
The Brilliant Terror is a niche proposition. Well, perhaps a niche inside of another niche is a more apt description. However, it’s an appealing enough portrait of people who love horror enough to express it no matter what constraints – budgetary, personal, professional – stand in their way and that kind of passion always makes for an enjoyable watch.
There’s a common discourse around self-diagnosing, and how it’s inherently a terrible idea. You wake up with a sore ankle and two minutes on Web MD later, you’ve convinced yourself that you have seconds to live. Having access to everything all of the time is probably not conducive towards rational thinking. That’s certainly the case in Masking Threshold, from Austrian director Johannes Grenzfurthner (Glossary of Broken Dreams).
The film’s unnamed protagonist (played by Grenzfurthner and voiced by Ethan Haslam) is an IT worker with a complex diagnosis of tinnitus. Well, complex to him at least. Through his narration, we learn that the protagonist has spoken to many a doctor about his tinnitus, only to be told that there’s not much that can be done. Despite what the experts have advised – including several suggestions of therapy – the IT worker refuses to believe that there isn’t something unique about his condition.
Over the next 90 minutes, the protagonist takes us through numerous experiments and papers he’s read online that, to him at least, point to something much bigger going on in his ears. In minute detail, he tries to convince us that his tinnitus changes when there are certain objects in a room: plants, bananas, super glue and so on. Shut away in his tiny basement with his makeshift lab, he just knows that he’ll get to bottom of it all. There is, after all, a meaning behind everything.
Masking Threshold’s worst horrors come in the final act, when the protagonist makes a monumental leap of faith about his condition that pretty much cracks his sanity in two. And bear in mind this is a man we’ve seen boil his own urine.
Before then, this is almost a powder dry film, as we watch the protagonist become obsessed with minor things that would ordinarily go over the heads of others. A brief visit from his neighbour doesn’t seem to persuade him that his time might be better spent outside. When he uploads his ‘findings’ to YouTube, the derisive comments from the public only seem to fuel him further.
The languid pacing is a deliberate play by Grenzfurthner, which lets you marinate in his character’s worldview, before he finally turns up the heat. When the protagonist starts experimenting on ants and slugs, it’s clear to see where this is all going, but it’s still shocking.
Grenzfurthner’s use of extreme closeups adds to the increasing uncomfortableness of the protagonist’s ‘research’. The director makes the audience a part of these unconscionable deeds even when we try to look away. Yes, at times, the heavy use of medical terms and theories becomes impenetrable, and this will be off putting to some. However, it serves the purpose of showing how everything in Masking Threshold is this man’s world now. He is so entrenched in his work that he ignores his mother and his boss’ calls, just so he can take the next step towards self-actualisation. His conclusion is that he gets ‘it’, he knows what’s happening in the world, and he’s just waiting for everyone else to catchup. Sound familiar?
Masking Threshold is a stressful and grimy look at obsession. Its one-of-a-kind presentation will make you squirm and get under your skin long after the film is over.