Director: Babak Anvari .
Starring. Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, Zazie Beetz. USA. 1h 34m.
This strange and dutifully tragic movie owes a lot to Cronenberg and H.P Lovecraft despite opening with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that ends with “it echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core”. It’s hard to recognise the significance at this early stage of the movie but recalling back to the character it’s now easy to see how the main characters overall weakness as a human being made him so vulnerable for the nightmare that is about to unfold before his eyes.
For the most part this is a drama based on the many friendships and relationships of a dry New Orleans barman, Will (Hammer), a strange character who doesn’t display the most trustworthy of qualities, but while the relationship drama is played out gradually the horror takes over, but a subtle blend of Cronenberg/Lovecraft is easily accessible as a trick of the eye or an overactive imagination it soon becomes all too real. Anvari tries to pull off these two storylines which both meltdown along with the main characters grip on reality but somewhere along the line, something is lost in translation and there appears to be a directorial struggle.
While at home in his run down looking townie bar, a place where he has the most control over his life, Will finds a discarded phone left behind by some frightened students after his regulars decide to bust up the bar and each other’s faces with broken bottles. While filming the incident the kids seems to have left behind their shiny cell phone which will take possession of in hopes they will return but then the strangeness beings when he seems to have an inert ability to unlock the phone and this action seems to unlock some kind of dark otherworldly hellride.
Disturbing text messages and creepy videos and pictures begin to come through, he slowly works out that the curious kids did their own macabre ritual while messing around with ancient occult books and have found a way to use wounds to open portals into other dimensions. Yep you can utilise a disgusting gaping wound as aportal to let supernatural powers enter our world, it’s gross and really wonderful.
I couldn’t relate to the characters in the movie at first, then I realised that Anvari, has purposely gone to the extreme to develop a character that no one could like, his moral compass is forever spinning and he mistakes rudeness for character and charm. He’s the kinda jerk who would mock a disabled Muslim then offer them a whisky to make up for it. Relying on his position in the bar and “good” looks to keep him employed and popular. His topple from the top dog spot is almost enjoyable.
So many opportunities were missed with this potentially gory plot, when a wound can become a portal you’d expect to see a lot more puss and gore. In one scene, Will discovers a rash in his armpit but that’s it, nothing else! It would have been an interesting starting point for his bio breakdown into a Brundlefly styled creature falling apart mentally and physically but instead the film uses CGI cockroaches to describe where the worst of the infected wounds are as these insects seem attracted to the darkness.
The concept is indeed enjoyable and I think it’s a huge new frontier of horror, that could carry on in other formats but with a slightly infuriating ending and not enough to grasp on what exactly is coming through and why, it’s only bound to upset the Hulu crowd who has this presented as the Halloween package this year. The open interpretation is possibly a key to future projects but with Anvari’s previous film Under the Shadow () being such a sharp piece of cinema, it’s a bit disappointing that the follow up should fall so short.