(This review was originally published on November 5, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
In the midst of celebrating the blood and gore at this year’s Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival in Washington, DC, two relatively introverted head scratchers emerged that ended up in my top picks, “Pig” and “Skew” (see also my reviews of “The Watermen”, “The Millennium Bug” and “The Dead” from last week). As two films in which horror is a by-product of anticipation rather than blunt force trauma (though one exception comes to mind), these selections were integral in rounding out the diversity of the festival.
Imagine trying todescribe a series of overlapping dreams as they slowly drift from your memory. This is the sense that I got from Henry Barrial’s “Pig”, a film that has undoubtably been seen through an interpretive kaleidoscope during its time on the festival circuit. Best Feature Winner at the London Sci-Fi Film Festival this year, “Pig” is a meditation wrapped in perpetual syncope, challenging our fundamental self-awareness; i.e., if we were to lose our memory, would we really lose our identity? Is life a product of karma, regardless of what we can remember? In the service of existential sci-fi brain chowder like “Gattaca” and “Another Earth”, “Pig” creates more questions than answers, though the process of exploring its off-kilter structure is definitely more fascinating than its gloomy-sounding premise might suggest. As a thriller, it evokes the anxiety of “Memento” if by way of “The Truman Show” and is geared for an intellectual, if not open-minded, audience.
That said, not much can be divulged about this foray into obscurity without undermining the film’s effectiveness as a cerebral twister. Rudolf Martin (“NCIS”, “Swordfish”) plays a man who awakens in the desert, hands bound with a hood over his head. Taken in by a woman named Isabel (Heather Ankeny) and her son, it’s abundantly clear that he has severe amnesia, though the piece of paper found in his pocket reading “Manny Elder” seems a logical starting point for some answers. It’s curious why Isabel has a picture of The Man in a lock box, and so is the history behind the mysterious husband that she talks about. Before long, he ventures into Los Angeles where Manny (Keith Diamond) greets him with fond familiarity and several questions of his own. But The Man’s instincts are telling him that something isn’t right, as he navigates a series of clues that often contradict the stories being told to him by his supposed acquaintances.
“Pig” becomes as much about The Man’s soul as it does his past, and his quest for answers become his purpose as well as his new identity (that is not a spoiler, merely an observation). While it’s necessary for us to see things that he doesn’t, we still seem to know as little about the people in his surreal world as we do about him. Whether spiritual metamorphosis or something less profound, I expect that will be up to the audience. But one thing is for certain: “Pig” will echo in your mind for a while.
A single camera road movie, “Skew” offers a layered perspective not commonly associated with the proliferation of ‘found footage’ horror pieces that have emerged since the “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999. Unquestionably inspired by this phenomenon, writer/director Sevé Schelenz (who began production on “Skew” in 2005) took a subtly different approach to crafting this uncomfortable and creepy reinvention of an often squandered style of filmmaking.
“Skew” begins like most documentary-style pieces, but Schelenz makes us pay attention – in more ways than one – to its very simple concept. We are introduced to three friends on their way out the door for a road trip. From the beginning we are wary of impending conflict (in part because we’re already aware that this is a horror film), though at first it seems like mundane padding for the film’s 83 minute running time. Consistently absent from plain view is one of our three main characters, Simon (Rob Scattergood), whose obsession with his camcorder is at first perceived as a benevolent fixation. As he documents his closest friends Eva (Amber Lewis) and Richard (Richard Olak), we begin to recognize underlying issues amongst the group. And the real question remains unanswered: what were Simon and his girlfriend arguing about that morning that made her decide not to join them on the trip?
And then Simon’s eyes start playing tricks on him as he begins to see strangers’ faces rendered through the video camera in abstract blurs (some reminiscent of the minions in “Jacob’s Ladder”). At first they are random people at gas stations and bus stops, and we are not sure whether to question his eyes or the objects in the lens. But when the people who Simon has videotaped begin to turn up dead in various ways, the groups real-life issues and Simon’s mysterious claims seem to converge.
Uncertainty and dread are a product of Sevé Schelenz’s ability to sneak in some double-take moments that hit the audience at the same time as the characters, and he makes us second guess what we’re seeing through the lens – not to mention the unsettling intensity of some ‘unattended’ camera footage that quietly amps up the film’s level of apprehension. There’s a fine line between minimalism and boredom in this style of filmmaking, as best exemplified by the “Paranormal Activity” films, and there’s something different at work in “Skew” that makes it so effective. With the logic of its eerie progression, this is one of the most chill-inducing ‘single cam’ pics I’ve seen in a while. And if you watch backfires like “Diary of the Dead” or “Apollo 18”, you’ll see that not even seasoned veterans can just pick up a camcorder and make a scary movie.