Sunday 21 September 2014

Necromentia (2009)

Director: Pearry Teo
Stars: Chad Grimes, Layton Matthews, Santiago Craig, Zelieann Rivera, Zach Cumer and Cole Braxton

Here's a feature that I've been aching to rewatch because, I have to confess, I slept through much of it at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2009. I've fought sleep often at film festivals, where I'm in front of a screen for fifteen hours a day and talking outside for much of the rest, but this is the only time I really succumbed and, finally watching Necromentia afresh, I understand why. This is not a boring movie, by any means, and the sheer freakiness of it has stayed with me; even walking out of the theatre, I knew that this was a film I wanted to watch properly. Yet it's a hallucinatory dream of a picture that unfolds out of order and refuses to let us engage with it directly, preferring us to sit back and let it infiltrate all of our senses at once. Maybe I wasn't asleep, I was in a trance state. Even watching awake, it's tough to grasp everything that's going on until the end credits roll and then it's worth a discussion afterwards to make sure we got it all. I'm still unsure of a few details, but it won't be a hardship to revisit it once more.

Clearly, Pearry Teo wanted to deluge us with nightmarish hallucinations, a more consistent vision of what Clive Barker's work could have been in Hellraiser, if eventually a safer one too. He begins immediately, as the opening credits unfold in a gothic font to the accompaniment of enticing and often forbidden imagery and agreeably layered sound. As the film proper begins, we see much of the same with further montages blistered at us with editing that's so fast that it comes close to shifting into subliminals. Merely blink and you'll miss things you won't see again. The visuals are notably edited in synchronisation with the music, emphasising the experience of it all over the detail. We're shown a monster immediately, flashing in and out so we can't quite take everything in at once, just some conglomeration of muscles, chains and bulk. A man wakes up in an industrial setting, his back covered in bloody symbols, to be harangued by a weird monochrome figure in a gas mask and vaguely medical antique cagework.

We aren't introduced to this strange figure, but the man is Hagen, initially called to by a whispering girl's voice but then harangued in a barrage of words which echo the visual montages, spoken like a demonic throat singer in tones that are both deep and high pitched, as if they're being issued from more than one mouth. 'Elizabeth is dead,' he's informed. 'You were given a choice.' 'Tormented for all eternity.' 'Instead you chose Hell.' By the time we reach, 'You will be punished,' we're shown only blackness. Then we back up to see some of why he's here. Hagen is a strange one too, talking soothingly to a corpse in a bathtub. His glasses are cracked and taped; she has a rictus grin and her hair is starting to fall out. He bathes her anyway and waits patiently for her to return to him. She promised to come back from death, apparently, so only time sits between them now and with it, a routine of 'daily maintenance' to ensure that when she does return, it's as comfortably as possible. Oh yeah, he's more than a few cards short of a full deck.
Now, if this scene wasn't freaky enough, there's a lot going on here to emphasise to us how freaky it's all supposed to be. For a start, it unfolds with a curious colour palette, more yellow and green than it should but with that gangrenous feel somehow appropriate. The metal framework in which he encases her could easily be a home made torture device as much as an amalgam of medical equipment. The camera is an ever-moving thing, rarely staying still even when it's static, as if there's something alive in the air around them. Playing in the background, a little deeper than we expect, is Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but it sounds more like a music box than a piano and perhaps not entirely at the right speed. Even Hagen, the only active character on screen, squints continually through the attachments that hide his full face and talks his crazy talk in a really quiet, clearly obsessive, voice. The set design here is magnificent and the choices on the technical side are no less, everything tilting us just away from the familiar.

You'll notice that I haven't said anything about the story yet and that's for a very good reason. We really don't have much idea what the story is until at least two thirds of the way into the movie. For now, Teo is content with drenching us in weirdness until the freaky tone that pervades the film is firmly established, enough that we occasionally wonder if it's about to escape it into reality. It's by far the greatest success of the film, because it's notably woven out of each of the elements that might contribute: the sound and the score (which here are often indistinguishable); the camerawork, framing and colour palette; the sets and the props that fill them; the way that everything normal in the script is translated instead into fetish or deviant equivalents; and the effects work, which feels entirely practical and analogue, right down to body painting as minimalist costuming. Everything is designed very carefully so that we recognise each detail that then grows into something else, something outlandish and surreal. We can bathe in it.

As to the story, it's almost impossible to detail any of it without venturing into spoiler territory, because it revolves around four different people, possibly five, who are connected in ways that we don't initially see, but whose connections are eventually revealed. For the most part, the story unfolds backwards, so that if I tell you the basics, which is doable in as few as a couple of lines, it will bypass that process of discovery and affect how you're supposed to experience it. Let me introduce the characters as you'll meet them, so you can attempt to figure it out anyway. Hagen is one, of course, as is the corpse which he's preserving in such a creepily loving manner. We have no idea what he does, but he might be the janitor for a barber's shop. We have no idea what she does either, but she's the Elizabeth we were told about in the first scene with the grey painted gas masked throat singer dude. The other two key players are Morbius and Travis, with the fifth being Travis's little brother, Thomas, who may or may not be even more important still.
We meet Travis early in the film, so there's no spoiler there. He comes to see Hagen, who he shaves with a straight razor forcefully. He's been watching him and what he does with the corpse, so has a proposition for him, one that could bring Elizabeth back to him. He has maps to the borders of the other side; he can find the doors, but he needs a key to get through them and that's where Hagen comes in. As Travis, Chad Grimes is tasked with grounding the acting side of the film. We may have met Hagen first, but he's more of a pawn than a first rank piece; while Hagen is best when he's under someone else's thumb, the actor playing him, Santiago Craig, is best when he isn't, because he can believably veer away from reality into his own freaky mindset. Travis is a more interesting character, because he's dominant over some but the plaything of others. Grimes does well in both aspects, carving people up for a living, caring for his little brother or being talked into things within hallucinations while high on ketamine.

I won't say what part Morbius has to play, but Layton Matthews puts on a magnetic show in this film, both in costume and out of it. If Grimes often resembles Chuck Norris, partly through his facial hair and partly through his demeanour, Matthews more obviously channels Alexander Skarsgård, if you can imagine him as an angel. All the actors deliver here, except Zelieann Rivera, who looks and moves great, but whose delivery is terrible. Fortunately she has the smallest part to play of the key characters, so it's not hard to look past that. Zach Cumer has the toughest role to play as Thomas, a mentally retarded young man who is confined to a wheelchair and contemplates suicide with the assistance of The Mr Skinny Show, which I assume isn't on the weird television that can't tune in visuals but is conjured up instead out of his broken brain. Whichever, the half giant pig, half sumo wrestler who's wrapped in barbed wire and plays carnival music is a genius creation, a notch up the freaky scale from the rest of the freakiness in this movie.

I'm tempted to say that the story is a downside, not because it's bad but because it's given a much lower level of importance than the feel. I adored the feel, but wanted the story to have a little more substance and a little less obscurity. The picture could still function as a dark hallucinatory experience even with an underlying story that makes complete sense or reveals more of itself earlier in the running time. I did like the way that some of the freakiest settings weren't really explained, such as Travis's day job. I've no idea how he'd detail his job description, but it's edgy enough to fit the story and the aesthetic both. When he brings in a babysitter to keep Thomas from finding a way to commit suicide while he's working, he finds another freak who just wants to read his Abasiophilia magazine. Given that abasiophilia is a fascination, often a sexual one, for people with physical disablities, and that the issue of the magazine the babysitter brings is the wheelchair fetish issue, he's hardly a great choice. I like that this is left in the background.
What I would say is a downside is the lack of follow through. Writer Stephanie Joyce fleshes out a story by Teo with panache, presumably responsible for the majority of the agreeable deviancy that populates this picture. However, while Teo conjures up an aesthetic to match that deviancy, with the able assistance of Timothy Andrew Edwards (music), Darin Meyer (cinematography), Damian Drago (editing), Clifton Dance (production design) and Catherine Joyce (art direction), among others, he doesn't seem willing to follow through and show it. For a picture so relentlessly outré, we see a lot less of it than we might think, much of it conjured up through suggestion and clever filmmaking rather than through actually putting it on the screen. The abasiophilia is kept just a freaky background detail just as Hagen's necrophilia is restricted to dialogue, The gorgeous cenobite-inspired monster does little and the gore effects aren't used remotely as often as our minds might remember.

And I wonder why. If Joyce and Teo wanted to be this edgy, why would they stay this polite about it? That to me is the biggest mistake of the film. If they'd have shown everything that they raise, this ought to be a notable cult hit, potentially a thing of legend in underground cinema. Certainly I've never seen a movie with such a consistently out there aesthetic. Hellraiser gets there at points, such as the design of the box and the cenobites (and the soundtrack by Coil that Barker wanted but wasn't used), but it isn't remotely as consistent with its look and feel. It talks about a journey to Hell, while Necromentia firmly suggests we were there all along. In the end, one of its strongest points turns out to also be one of its weakest, that it remains a true horror movie, unwilling to pander to any potential audience and telling precisely the story it wants to tell. This is the one film I wish had lost its restraint and pulled out all the stops. With restraint, it's a powerful immersion into nightmare; without it, it could have been a milestone.

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