Wednesday, 9 October 2019
Bugs ‘N’ Kisses
Directed by Babak Anvari 2019 UK
London Film Festival 2019 screening Saturday 5th October
For my third film of this year’s London Film Festival, I saw Wounds, which is the second feature length film by the Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari, known for his previous movie Under The Shadow (which I kinda raved about here). The film is written by the director and based on the novella The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud. It’s also, like his first feature, a horror movie. In the question and answer session after this screening, Anvari said that it was purely an accident that he returned to this genre as he wanted to demonstrate some kind of proficiency with various different kinds of movie genres before returning to horror but, after he was fed a copy of the novella on which this is based, he realised he was so in tune with it and the author (unknown to him at the time but now a good friend) that he had to do this one.
And... I have to say that, although it lands in the same genre as the last one, it really isn’t that much like his debut feature. Similarities would include things like some lovely shot compositions and, as his first film, the sound design plays an important role (yeah, I’ll get to my embarrassment about the sound design later). At a stretch, I’d say another common feature is that it’s starts off as a slow burn before the director ratchets up the intensity... although, in a way, that could be said of a lot of movies.
One main difference, though, apart from this not being a ghost story but more a ‘demonic possession/body horror’ tale, is that he has some real 'A list' Hollywood talent. The film stars Armie Hammer as main protagonist Will, who shows just how intense and edgy he can play here... along with Dakota Johnson as his girlfriend Carrie and the wonderful Zazie Beetz (who I loved in Deadpool 2, reviewed here) as former girlfriend Alicia. All the cast are particular good in this but a new level of respect to these three for being brave enough to see this one through.
Will is a college drop out and one of the main, much loved bartenders at his local pub in New Orleans and the majority of the action of film, with a few notable exceptions, is set either in the bar or in the apartment he shares with Carrie. It was the director’s intent, as he made clear in the Q&A after the film had finished, that he was trying to make a film which started off and looked like one of those 80s relationship movies like Reality Bites, to suck the viewer in before going full horror. He also mentioned, among many influences name checked, his love of the films of David Cronenberg... so you can see exactly how someone like him can arrive at what is a fairly intense and somewhat technologically aware adaptation like this.
I say technologically aware because the peculiar brand of demonic witchcraft gone wrong, if that’s what it is, is passed on by means of a mobile phone left in the bar by some college kids who leave when a fight breaks out. When Will forgets he put the phone in his pocket and takes it home, he starts seeing some strange messages pop up. Using some not too hard to figure out detective work to quickly crack the password in the space of about thirty seconds, he then starts answering some of the texts and it’s not too long before some nasty images start to appear along with all manner of things which threaten the fabric of his and his girlfriends reality... there’s a lovely scene where he comes home and finds her staring into a slow moving portal displayed on her laptop and it takes him putting her into a bath to wake her from her bizarre coma (and that’s not all that happens in that scene but I won’t tell you what happens when he puts her in the bath).
One of the things the director does nicely... and I think it’s this more than anything else in the movie that could be said to be a partial homage to the modus operandi of Cronenberg, is to blur the lines for the audience about the sanity of their main protagonist (that being said, there's a possible armpit growth happening too... flashes of Rabid, reviewed here). He uses little flashes of things like the severed heads of Will’s friends, which Will obviously sees as well as the audience, to start planting doubt in the viewers mind. The director referenced Nicholas Roeg in relation to these moments when he talked to the audience after the movie but in some ways they’re a slightly different kind of association... although, to be fair, since we don’t know how the character of Will progresses after ‘the incident’ which is the final shot of the movie (yeah, like I’m going to tell you what that is here), they could be very much in keeping with Roeg’s flash forward/flash back visions of the history of his characters so, yeah, maybe that was this director’s intent with those almost subliminal moments all along.
Asides from having a good script and some great actors in it, I mentioned the shot designs earlier. This guy likes his verticals and he hasn’t abandoned them here. I’d really need to watch this again to unravel what I was seeing but one of the things I really liked was a shot fairly late in the movie where Will is breaking into his girlfriend’s computer and there is one of those classic fans on the desk. There’s a cool moment where we see Will’s head, with the fan taking up the visual space in front of half his head but, because the blades are moving so fast, we don’t see them at all, just Will’s face. I’m guessing that must have been a hard thing to capture what with film speeds and not getting some kind of motion clash but it made for a nice shot and one wonders if it was some kind of metaphor for the way the character is, quite possibly, becoming immersed in something... evil.
There are also a lot of bugs.
Cockroaches, in fact. These are definitely both a metaphor and an indication in the movie that something bad is coming... they seem to have a homing instinct and are drawn to things which have become ‘demonically touched’ and, according to the director, they were a real pain to work with. There’s a beautiful rendered moment when Will first presses ‘play’ on a video which arrives on the phone which involves the cockroaches attracted to a severed head/skull and, the end moment of this video, where the film takes the first real turn into giving you a sense of the supernatural at work, is a really nicely executed shock idea. I’m sure it’s been done before but not necessarily in this medium and it’s certainly effective here. Again, though, I’m trying to keep this review spoiler free so... go see it yourself, I understand it’s getting a release in a couple of weeks though, sadly, only on the internet and not in a proper cinema or home video release (as yet... what is wrong with this country?).
The other thing in this is the sound design and the... ahem... score. Like his first feature, Anvari uses a powerful blend of soundscapes that help the film along. There’s a nice moment, for instance, where Will is slowly swiping through the phone and, each time he swipes, it’s echoed within the sound design. As I was watching this I found myself desperately hoping for a CD release of the score so I could hear the lovely atonalism of the music better. Imagine my surprise then when, in the Q&A, the director said something along the lines of... “obviously, there was no musical score in the movie, just sound design we created...” So, yeah, I guess nothing was actually ‘composed’ for the movie and that just shows how I’ve become used to modern horror movie music, which a lot of the time tends to sound like this stuff anyway. Oh well. I say this owning an old vinyl copy of the non-musical ‘soundtrack’ of Eraserhead so, yeah, I don’t have that special kind of tunnel vision which says music has to include melody, rhythm and harmony like a lot of people do, I guess.
Still, despite the lack of music, Wounds works a treat and the ending is nicely done. Alas, I wish this was getting a cinematic or Blu Ray release so I could take another look at it but, either way, this film is another strong recommendation from me and something I think will appeal to most fans of horror films. Like The Antenna, which I saw at the London Film Festival the night before (my review of that one is here), this would have done really well at FrightFest this year, although the audience would probably have been a little smaller, I would imagine. Definitely one to watch out for.