TIFF '12 draws to a close with some Wicker Man-esque thrills and a surreal horror gem from one of the genre's unsung heroes.
Director Don Coscarelli is considered one of the great unsung horror directors for his almost indescribably odd Phantasm series and 2002's instant cult Bubba Ho-Tep. Unfortunately, because his unique sensibility lends itself to uncommercial adjectives like surreal, self-conscious, and campy, he sadly doesn’t make many movies. Aside from an episode of Masters of Horror, John Dies at the End is the first time Coscarelli has stepped behind the camera in a decade.
It’s easy to see why Coscarelli took so long out between films, such is the uncompromising manner in which he works. This is easily one of the strangest horror movies to emerge in years, a wild combination of hallucinations, cross-dimensional travel, sentient drugs, monsters made of meat, penis doorknobs, and Paul Giamatti. It’s also worth noting all of that material comes in the first 15-20 minutes and things only get weirder from there.
Based on a cult novel initially published online by David Wong, the film is a series of digressions and anecdotes that somehow come together to form a horror/sci-fi/comedy/adventure of sorts. The framing device sees confused and terrified protagonist David Wong (Chase Williams) explaining his story to Paul Giamatti’s dependably scruffy reporter. It seems that Wong partakes in a little drug known as Soy Sauce that is actually a living creature and gives the user a variety of supernatural powers. Wong and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) suffer the substance's side effects extraordinarily well and soon they are battling psychotic cops, crossing time/dimensions, and saving the world from an inter-dimensional invasion. The whole thing is about as hard to follow as it sounds, but much like Coscarelli’s Phantasm series that’s never really a problem.
The tone is pitched somewhere between Ghostbusters and HP Lovecraft, with a little hallucinatory William S Burroughs thrown in for good measure. The images are often ripped from horrific nightmares and drug trips, while the characters cynically and sarcastically dismiss it all to hilarious effect. Chances are you’ll frequently be confused, but that’s just what Coscarelli wants. This film is more about the journey, confusion and mystery all part of the fun and the director serves up enough giddily cracked ideas and images to ensure you’ll never be bored.
The performances are all knowingly eccentric with special points awarded to Clancy Brown for going nuts and Paul Giamatti for showing up in something so oddball (and even attaching himself as producer just to get it made). In the end the film’s great strength is also its major weakness. There are too many inspired ideas here for a single film and at times it can be overwhelming. Still, given how dreary studio horror movies have gotten lately, a horror flick too many ideas is certainly preferable to not having enough.
The latest feature from former documentary filmmakers Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth is difficult to fully describe and impossible to turn away from. Playing almost like a perversely tragic myth in modern times, it falls into the Werner Herzog sub-catgory of men being punished by nature. The closest comparison is The Wicker Man and while Brosens/Woodworth's film is distinctly its own, The Fifth Season offers a far more satisfying reworking of that cult classic than Robin Hardy’s official follow up, The Wicker Tree.
The Fifth Season takes place in a small Belgian village populated by locals completely divorced from the outside world. After the filmmakers peek into the community’s varying eccentric lives, the movie settles into focus with an annual ritual. With winter coming to a close, the town gathers to set fire to an effigy of Uncle Winter as a means of guaranteeing a satisfying harvest. Unfortunately the giant wood symbol won’t catch fire and it’s a harsh omen.
Winter never leaves the village the following year and even worse the honey bees disappear, seeds don't sprout, cows stop producing milk, and the military takes away the remaining livestock out of fear of contamination. The self-sustaining village suddenly collapses. Everyone's lives fall apart and by the summer birds are even falling from the sky. As winter approaches again, the villagers start to discuss a solution they hoped to never be forced into. Another sacrifice will happen, this time human.
The story is told with very little dialogue. Scenes play out in long single shots with seemingly incidental moments of human interaction turning into dramatic situations without warning. The early scenes present the community warmly with a hint of deadpan humor. As things get worse, the movie transforms into a sort of horror film. There’s little in the way of onscreen violence. The film transforms purely through imagery and mood.
The result is devastating and while some viewers will inevitably find the approach frustratingly enigmatic, giving yourself over to the unique experience offers a deeply affecting ride. Darkly poetic with sparse, unforgettable imagery and a deeply unsettling emotional impact, The Fifth Season is a difficult film to shake off and hopefully one destined to receive the international attention it deserves.